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Rodeo Cowgirls Fight for Equality

Cowgirls Get Inequality Blues

By JOSEPH HANANIA | Published: September 29, 1996

KRISTEN DAVID, 24, was seated atop a black bronco in chute No. 6, a claustrophobic box barely wide enough for horse and rider. The bronco was bucking powerfully, threatening to throw and trample Ms. David, who only months before had to be taken by helicopter to a hospital after a spill in a bronco ride at another rodeo.

Ms. David's mother, Jan Youren, 52, a five-time women's bareback champion who lives in Boise, Idaho, yelled over the chest-high partition: ''Lift up your legs. Get out.''

''I can't!'' her daughter shouted, as the bronco crunched her right leg into the wall. ''My leg must be broke.''

Mrs. Youren and two others leaned over the partition, trying to lift Ms. David out. They failed. Seeming to sense their fear, the bronco kicked harder. Finally, the three lifted Ms. David over the partition.

Her leg had been broken before, but it was only bruised this time.

Welcome to Redding's third annual All Women's Professional Rodeo, one of only two dozen such events in the country, mostly west of the Mississippi River. It is also one of the biggest, with 11 formal contests, from roping to bull riding.

Women's rodeos are a growing scene, just as dangerous as the men's competitions. But the comparisons end there.

Mrs. Youren, for example, who is in the rodeo women's hall of fame for bareback riding, was the women's overall winnerlast year, taking in $3,900. The male overall winners amassed more than $100,000 each for the year. Except for one event, barrel racing, women are not allowed to compete in the men's rodeos.

And while the men are happy to help the women organize their own rodeos, Mrs. Youren said, ''Their noses would be out of joint if we competed directly against them.''

There are four times as many men's rodeos as women's. The number of women competing has doubled to 150 in four years. Women's rodeos attract smaller crowds, making the prize money, which is a percentage of the gate, substantially smaller.

Jim Davis, the organizer of the Redding rodeo, said that when he sponsors the men's competition at the 8,000-seat stadium, it is filled for two nights, with seats going for $8 to $12. The women's rodeo, however, which ran for one night, with seats at $6 to $10, filled only half the seats.

Trish Lane, a bareback rider and a regular on the television series ''Melrose Place,'' said women have a harder time finding corporate sponsors. Ms. Lane, 32, the No. 3 women's bareback rider, has won more than $1,500 this year.

To keep up, women have set up ranches for practice and moved the national headquarters of the Women's Professional Rodeo Association to Colorado Springs, where the men's Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has its headquarters. And some women are planning formal competition against men.

One of them, Tammy Kelly, lives with her husband, Frank, and their two children on a large ranch they own outside Phoenix. Ms. Kelly, 34, took up bull riding three years ago. She practices three times a week and has beaten male riders in unsanctioned local competitions. Ms. Kelly, who expects to win about $7,500 this year, said she wants the bigger earnings of the men's circuit. The top male bull riders are expected to win $150,000 this year.

''There are no rules against my joining,'' Ms. Kelly said of the cowboys' association, as she adjusted her boots and bandaged her hands to get ready to ride. ''But many men just don't feel I have the right to compete.''

Ms. Kelly said her success has caused her husband, who retired after 40 years of bull riding, to be shunned by close friends. Even his best friend, she said, ''stopped calling Frank after I started riding.''

But Cody Crow, 22, a bull rider who coaches his girlfriend and fellow rider, Stacey Megenity, 26, said: ''It's a rip that women don't make as much as men. Especially because they work harder than the guys and don't have the support the guys have.''

Lew Cryer, the commissioner of the cowboys' association, was noncommittal about Ms. Kelly's joining. The association sanctions only one contest for women, racing on horseback between barrels.

Mr. Cryer said he had no idea why women do not otherwise participate in men's rodeos. ''It's never been a topic,'' he said. ''It's never been discussed.''

Ms. Kelly recalled that when she was in the junior rodeo at 12, officials prevented her from riding bulls. ''I didn't challenge them,'' she said. ''I just walked away.'' Not any more.

The challenge has become personal. ''Once I became a bull rider, I had no desire to do anything else,'' she said. ''It's an adrenaline rush. The first 100 times, I couldn't remember anything when I got off.''

Mr. Kelly said he believes his wife has what it takes to compete against the men, and cited a 15- or 20-minute ovation she received at the Anaheim Coliseum in California last year, when she landed without a scratch after a bull tossed her 10 feet in the air.

''If you're afraid, you shouldn't be riding bulls,'' Ms. Kelly said. ''I've ridden over 600 bulls, and the only thing that makes me nervous is not performing well.''

And then she laughed.


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