Cowgirl Up!

A History of Rodeo Women

Non-Fiction - Historical
208 Pages
Reviewed on 05/16/2016
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Ray Simmons for Readers' Favorite

Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women by Heidi M. Thomas captures a small piece of American history that might otherwise be forgotten. I’m talking about the contribution of women to the world of rodeo. Cowgirl Up! specifically concentrates on the contribution of women from Montana during the golden age of rodeo in America. Montana became one of the states holding commercial rodeos in 1896, but rodeo derived from the working world of ranching. Long before the commercial rodeos sprang into being, there were informal local contests to see who was best at roping, riding, and bronco busting. Conditions were terrible sometimes and the pay was not good by today’s standards, but that didn't stop women from wanting to compete.

Cowgirl Up! takes this early history and weaves it into colorful legend. There are many famous names from American history here. Theodore Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Dale Evans, and Annie Oakley are the ones I knew. If you are a real rodeo fan, you will probably recognize names like Lucille Mulhall, Prairie Rose Henderson, and Fanny Sperry. The characters, both men and women, are colorful. The history is rich, and the anecdotes, facts, and biography are very well written. It is obvious that Heidi M. Thomas loves her subject and, if you are a fan of the American West and American history, you do not want to miss Cowgirl Up! It should be on the bookshelf in every school library across America, but especially in states where rodeo played an important part in their history. These women and this sport should not be forgotten.

Ann Marie Stamey (Marie G

Just finished reading Cowgirl Up! Started last evening and finished this morning. Heidi, your story narrative style of writing made this true book of cowgirls read as easily as a novel. You do so well at relating facts and stories that it makes the cowgirls come to life although many have passed on to greener pastures and bigger rodeos. I do not write myself but do extensive reading and I recognize good writing when I read it. Heidi, I think this is your best book yet.

Brenda Whiteside

I've read all three of Ms. Thomas's cowgirl series and thoroughly enjoyed them. I don't read too many non-fiction books but thought I'd give this one a try since I enjoyed her fiction. I wasn't disappointed. Not only did I learn something, but the true tales of fearless women of the west kept me turning the pages.

Marylou Thomas

Heidi M. Thomas has done an admirable job of bringing the cowgirls of old to life for us to know and appreciate. She has done a lot of research and it shows. These women were brave, courageous and impressive.
This is a good read and I recommend it.

John J. Rust

The best kind of history lesson; Informative and entertaining. Thomas does a great job of showing the lifestyles of these women in a very male dominated world, and how through hard work and determination they gained the respect of many people not only in the U.S., but throughout the world. You can't help but be impressed with the toughness of these women, who competed even with broken bones and other injuries. An eye-opening look at the world of rodeo, and the accomplishments of these women.

F. Jandrey

This book provides a glimpse into a world most of us know nothing about. It is filled with wonderful pictures of women rodeo stars of the first half of the 20th century and amazing tales of their skill and bravery.

Mary E. Trimble

Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women by Heidi M. Thomas provides an exciting insight into women’s role in one of America’s greatest passions, rodeo.

American rodeo started at small ranch gatherings when cowboys showed off their roping, bulldogging (steer wrestling), and riding prowess. In those days, it was pretty much a male sport.

Many ranch girls learned to rope and ride as they helped their fathers, brothers and later their husbands with ranch work. These girls learned to “cowgirl up,” which means to rise to the occasion without whining or complaining. As local competition became popular events, girls got into the spirit and began competing with the men. Girls’ involvement raised some eyebrows, but they persisted, often wearing cumbersome skirts to be less offensive and more ladylike. Even so, many people thought of rodeo cowgirls as “loose women.”

Cowgirl Up! is about these women of rodeo, many of whom started their careers as young as fourteen, competing against and often earning higher points than seasoned cowboys.

The 1920s were rodeo heydays for cowgirls, producing more champion female riders than any time since. These girls knew hardships, but persisted in their rodeo dreams.

Soon organized circuits formed and performers traveled from rodeo to rodeo, paying their own travel expenses and fees, often sleeping in tents. Many women brought their babies with them. It was a tough life for both men and women, but in addition to roping, riding bucking broncs, staying atop a writhing, twisting bull, these women made it their business to still appear feminine when not in the arena.

Two fatal injuries in1929 and 1933 among notable women competitors contributed to eliminating women from the Rodeo Association of America (RAA), later renamed Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), events.

Despite these setbacks, women persisted in rodeo competition, turning to smaller privately-produced rodeos. Many became national stars, sought after by such venues as Madison Square Garden in New York. New events geared toward women were added including trick riding, barrel racing and breakaway roping (where a calf is roped, but not thrown).

Cowgirl Up! is a riveting and personal account of individual Montana women who followed their dreams to hard-won fame. Tenacity is a common thread among their impressive achievements. One thing that surprised me was that despite broken bones, concussions, torn muscles and ligaments, many of these strong women have lived into their nineties.

Each chapter begins with a quote from a notable personality. My favorite is Oprah Winfrey’s “Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.” That quote perfectly sums up the cowgirls’ struggle for rodeo recognition.

Author Heidi M. Thomas grew up on a working Montana ranch and speaks with authority on rodeo history. Her grandmother rode bucking stock in the early days of rodeo and Thomas’ trilogy--Cowgirl Dreams, Follow the Dream, and Dare to Dream--are fictionalized accounts of her grandmother’s life. Her latest work, Cowgirl Up! is a well-researched history of individual women’s impressive role in rodeo.