In Arizona, Cowgirls Reclaim Their Right To Ride

An all-female rodeo in Arizona shines a spotlight on the historically overlooked women of the west. Zoey Goto meets America’s modern cowgirls

you ever wondered what the world would look like with women
at the helm? I often have, and it was this curiosity that enticed
me to a rural patch of Arizona – not much more than a corrugated metal
barn and a few dusty paddocks by the roadside, really. Because
here, a matriarchal microsystem has sprung forth from the desert,
and there’s a new sheriff in town.

She enters the floodlit stadium riding atop a handsome chestnut
horse, arm protectively cradling a grandkid who sits buoyantly up
front on her engraved leather saddle. Tammy Pate, founder of the
Art of the Cowgirl festival, is here to talk to the crowd lining
the creaky grandstand benches about running a thriving cattle ranch
while raising a family. You can bet your bottom dollar it’s the
first time this topic has been aired at a rodeo.

Despite a long legacy of tenacious cowgirl folk heroes,
including sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who stole the limelight at
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, sixtysomething bucking bronco
grandma Jan Youren, and the lesser-known Sue Pirtie Hayes, who was
still snapping up trophies as a competitive bareback bull rider
while eight months pregnant, women have more commonly been pushed
to the margins of the rodeo scene.

Modern cowgirl, Arizona, USA

Small wins were gained when the Women’s Professional Rodeo
Association formed in 1948, after cowgirl athletes grew tired of
being reduced to sparkly beauty pageant hopefuls, or vying for
trinket prizes such as cigarette cases in lieu of the hard cash
splashed on their male counterparts, but, overall, this most
American of sporting events remained cloaked under a veil of
machismo. Fast forward to the present day and the limited options
on the traditional rodeo circuit allow females to compete in just
two categories: breakaway roping, in which riders lasso a
stampeding calf, and barrel racing, a fast and furious,
heart-thumping display of equestrian skill.

Bucking this culture, the Art of the Cowgirl is one of just a
handful of championships taking place across the US where “women
can participate in anything”, Pate explains, joining me at the
clanking steel bars of the ringside, just as the loudspeaker
crackles abruptly to life, announcing the next event. A chaos of
bewildered-looking calves is let loose into the arena, then
shuffled neatly like a pack of playing cards into a pen by a couple
of tag-teaming cowgirls. The air is thick with whoops, hollers and
the earthy smell of barn animals, as the crowd, in wide-brimmed
hats, squeezes thigh-to-thigh onto spectator benches.

The west has always been filled with strong women, but they’re now getting their stories heard

Having toyed with the idea of creating an all-female rodeo for
over a decade, it took turning 50 to spur Pate into action. Raised
on horseback in Montana, with a grandmother who could break a horse
with the ease of baking a pie, Pate’s mission was to celebrate the
unsung women of the west, roping into the spotlight not only the
daredevil cowgirls but also the silversmiths, braiders, saddlers
and bootmakers who toil behind the scenes.

“I really wanted to give back and empower these women,” Pate
says, her soft voice barely audible above the muffled thunder of
hooves. Now in its fifth year, the Art of the Cowgirl is a five-day
affair held each January in the small town of Queen Creek, less
than an hour’s drive from the urban buzz of Phoenix or the polished
marble lobbies of Scottsdale’s ultra-luxe resorts.

The Art of the Cowgirl forms part of a broader focus on cowgirl
culture currently emerging in Arizona. Dude ranches including the
White Stallion and Tombstone Monument now offer female-focused
packages, while renowned horsewoman Lori Bridwell runs a cowgirl
college teaching participants the time-honoured skills of riding,
roping and rounding up cattle. Once a year, the
Smithsonian-affiliated Desert Caballeros Western Museum decks its
walls with artworks highlighting western women’s voices and
perspectives for their celebrated Cowgirl Up! exhibition. “The west
has always been filled with strong women, but they’re now getting
their stories heard,” Pate reflects.

Modern cowgirl, Arizona, USA
Modern cowgirl, Arizona, USA

Back at the sage-scented desert and rusty barns of the Art of
the Cowgirl, the rootsy line-up features not only rough-and-tumble
drill team displays and the breakneck cattle-branding finals, but
also demonstrations with a distinctively holistic flavour. On my
debut rodeo day, I stumble across an equine therapy workshop. In
the centre of the paddock, a cowgirl stands bathed in soul-warming
sunshine, eyes closed and hand on heart, in silent communion with
the horse standing amiably by her side.

I am relieved to be welcomed with tassel-fringed open arms at
the rodeo, having quietly wondered if the real-deal ranchers would
see straight through my hastily brought Stetson hat and Texas
boots, my English accent marking me out as a cultural trespasser.
It’s this inclusive vibe that her festival strives for, Pate says.
“When I was dreaming of a women’s rodeo, this is exactly what I
envisioned,” she enthuses, as, in a moment of pure Americana, a
dazzling cowgirl gallops into the arena to the soundtrack of The
Star-Spangled Banner, a bedsheet-sized flag fluttering in the
breeze. The audience rises to its feet in unison. Eyes filled with
tears, Pate pauses for a beat before continuing: “My wish was
always to create a place that felt safe and inspiring to uplift our

Another example of this rodeo’s nurturing ethos is the Art of
the Cowgirl mentoring scheme, where master horsewomen and
craftspeople pass the old west baton down to the next generation. I
head across the fair, passing the billowing smoke of a campfire
gathering, beef tips in gravy simmering in a cast iron pot like a
technicolour scene from frontier flick The Wild Bunch. A woman clad
in double denim, the fringe of her flamboyant leather chaps
shimmying in the wind, schools a teenager in the art of lassoing in
front of a faded Pepsi truck, while, nearby, someone strums the
melodic bars of an old country tune on a guitar.

Framed by stalls trading tufty Aztec rugs and handcrafted
leather boots selling for around £8,000 a pop, I find Audre
Etsitty, a Navajo cowgirl who was awarded a week-long Art of the
Cowgirl fellowship, apprenticing under a world champion breakaway
roper in Texas. “I grew up on a reservation in Rough Rock, Arizona,
raised in a household where my grandfather was a traditional healer
and a first-generation cowboy,” the mother of three explains, her
youngest child toddling nearby. At the tender age of nine, Etsitty
swung into the saddle of junior rodeo and now competes on the
Indian rodeo circuit. “It’s a pretty big deal and culminates in Las
Vegas with the Indian National Finals Rodeo, where all tribal
nations in the US congregate.”

Etsitty’s heritage provides her with a particular slant on the
role of women in rodeo, she feels. “My Native American community
honours the matriarchy, so I haven’t grown up with the view that
rodeo culture is necessarily male-dominated. I guess I’ve always
seen it as women calling the shots.” Readjusting her turquoise
satin necktie, she’s quick to add that gnarly danger is ever
present at the rodeo and shouldn’t be taken lightly. “There’s
always a risk of injury with horses. I was at a barrel racing
jackpot where a lady was crushed to death by a horse. The risks are
serious,” Etsitty warns, before scooping up her daughter and
heading off to take her seat on a panel discussion about sisterhood
and mentorship.

Glancing at the rolling horizon, I double-take with astonishment
as it appears that a girl standing on two horses is stampeding
towards me. On closer inspection, a girl standing on two horses is
stampeding towards me. Kicking up dirt, Piper Yule, a rising young
gun of America’s rodeo scene, eases the neighing mares to a halt to
say howdy before careering into the main arena for her grand finale
performance. “I’ve made top five in pro rodeo for the last few
years,” she says proudly when I ask where she ranks in the rodeo
hierarchy. “But the goal is to hone my act so it’s less about smoke
and mirrors, more about reflecting my spirit as a cowgirl and my
horsemanship,” she adds.

Just 12 years old, Yule is a fifth-generation cowgirl from the
hardscrabble land of Southern Alberta, Canada. Her death-defying
show has become the star act at big-ticket rodeos across the US,
where, sequin jumpsuit glittering like a twirling disco ball, she
vaults on and off her galloping steeds and hangs off the side of
the saddle at bewildering right angles, occasionally clutching a
blazing firework just to crank up the already palpable tension.
Yule is known as a trick rider, the show ponies of the rodeo who
combine acrobatic horseback stunts with the old-school spectacle of
a big top circus act.

Modern cowgirl, Arizona, USA

Today, she’s straddling the fine line between entertainment and
peril with a Roman riding show, muddy plimsolls planted on the
backs of a pair of galloping horses as they lap the sandy arena. At
one point, I find myself clenching my jaw, like an anxious parent
watching from the sidelines, as Yule precariously rides her
mustangs over a row of flaming torches. But, with the flick of a
long braid, they clear the roaring fires with flair, meeting me at
the backstage paddock where the horses, still snorting from the
adrenaline-fuelled display, will cool down.

“I feel the Art of the Cowgirl is helping me grow as a cowgirl,”
Yule says, once she’s caught her breath. “No matter your
background, you’re welcomed here and that makes it a really loving
rodeo,” she says, her championship belt buckle catching a ray of
golden sunset.

That evening, driving away from the rodeo through the stark
desert landscape, the soft glow of gas stations now seems to offer
an outpost of kindness. I’ve seen a glimpse of what life could be
and it is truly pioneering.

A colourful mural in Havana

Discover More
Walls of Freedom: Exploring Street Art in San Isidro, Havana