It's Rodeo Week in Payson. The competition is fierce, but there's fun to match -- and good works.
The women hit the arena at the Payson Event Center first with a Women's Rodeo on Thursday, Aug. 19. The competition includes barrel racing, team roping and tie-down roping. Entries begin at 5 p.m. and the contests start between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., according to Rodeo Boss Bill Armstrong.
"About 150 women and girls participate," he said. The contests continue until everyone has had their shot at glory. Both amateurs and professionals will be competing, Armstrong said.
Admission is free with a can of food, so residents and visitors can cheer on the contestants and help fill the shelves of food banks.
The women aren't just relegated to a Thursday night competition, Armstrong said there will be female competitors at the main event rodeo too, vying for more than $3,000 in prize money in Women's Professional Rodeo Association barrel racing.
The Women's Professional Rodeo Association started in 1948 -- a group of Texas ranch women wanted to add a little color and femininity to the rough-and-tumble sport of rodeo. It is now a computerized association with more than 2,000 members.
The group organized and called itself the Girl's Rodeo Association.
It began with 74 original members with 60 approved contests and total payout of $29,000. This has evolved into a million-dollar industry with women athletes riding well-conditioned race horses. In 1995, the WPRA had approved barrel races in 800 rodeos sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association with total barrel racing prize money of $3 million.
Another section of the WPRA, which is growing in popularity, is the Wrangler Divisional Tour. Approved barrel races are held throughout the country with the top four money-earners from each of the 12 circuits in the United States qualifying for the Divisional Tour Finals held at the same time as the PWRA Finals in Fort Worth, Texas.
Arizona's WPRA members are in the Turquoise Circuit. Currently, according to information on the WPRA website, there are three Arizona women ranked in top 30 world standings: Jolee Lautaret of Kingman; Rachael Sproul, Benson; and Sherry Cervi, Marana. Cervi is a two-time World Champion barrel racer.
Modern-day, professional rodeo first got its start in 1882 when Buffalo Bill Cody made the events part of his successful Wild West Show and July Fourth celebration in North Platte, Neb., according to the article, "Women in Rodeo," by Julie Wells. Cody was a dime store novel hero, buffalo hunter, and vaudeville star, and his wild west shows drew huge crowds and widespread media coverage.
Cody wanted to depict life in the "real west," so he hired cowboys, Indians, and Mexican ropers to act out war dances, buffalo hunts, Pony Express rides, and stagecoach robberies. Women didn't play pivotal roles in Cody's shows.
That changed in 1885, when Cody hired sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
Oakley was adored by the crowds because of her carefree spirit and wild antics -- though other historians report she was actually not the rough and rowdy character that has been depicted.
Recognizing the potential Oakley represented, Cody promptly hired 12 lady riders as stars of his wild west shows.
Wells writes the 1897 Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyo., had women competitors in the bronc riding, the cow pony event and trick riding. Women competitors often matched their skills against those of the men in early rodeos, she said.
Today the women test their skills against one another and put on shows just as exciting as any Buffalo Bill dreamed up. See for yourself Thursday night, Aug. 19 at the Payson Event Center.