Penny Conway’s been roping calves on the run for 40 years now — and she allows some things have changed and other things haven’t.
Today, not so many women are just sitting on the top bar looking pretty and opening gates — they’ve got their own rodeo circuit now.
And there are not so many ranch women on the circuit — now that most of the gals grew up in suburbs and small towns practicing at the community arena. But then again — Penny’s still finishing in the money a decade after winning the world champion title. And sixth-generation ranch families still turn out fine horsewomen and Payson’s still a rodeo town come spring.
The Pro Rodeo Committee’s Spring Rodeo opened Thursday night with a whoop, a twirl of stiff rope and a dazzling show of horsemanship as 55 superb riders roped calves and ran the barrels in one of the roughly 200 national events that now constitute the circuit for the Professional Women’s Rodeo Association.
“That’s what’s really changed — the cowgirls,” said Conway, who started roping at the age of 6 on the family ranch, married a handsome cowboy from a sixth-generation Rim Country ranch family, taught school, rode the circuit and now runs an outfit that does anti-drug programs for 70,000 kids a year based on cowboy culture. “We got tired of opening chutes for our husbands and sitting in the stands.”
Roughly, 150 women ride the rodeo circuit nationally and the best of them bring in about $20,000 annually. That’s a fraction of what the men lasso on the national circuit. And only about 100 people climbed up into the aluminum stands at the Payson Event Center Thursday to watch some of the best riders in the country throw a rope at a dead run while controlling a 1,000-pound horse with their knees.
The competition started at twilight, as women with day jobs as hairdressers, teachers and bartenders turned their horses darn near inside out without losing contact with the saddle.
Between their runs, they sat easily on horseback laughing, chatting and trading gossip about horses and cowboys.
The hard-core riders compete in 50 to 100 events annually, accumulating points to take into the national gathering in Tulsa, which will determine this year’s world champion on the women’s circuit.
A stampede of Payson riders participated, including Conway, Teri James, Chancey Brown, Jamie Ewing, Sharley Hall, Jackie Dawes, Teri Haught, Candice Bullard and the irresistibly named Jessie James.
Footloose Payson cowboys take note: Rim Country ropers are wickedly good ropers. Conway and Ewing finished second in the team roping (9.6 seconds) and Hall and Ewing took third (10.9 seconds). Teri James placed third in the breakaway, although her 2.8-second performance was just two-tenths of a second behind the winner.
A bunch of out-of-towners took the top spots — with Jolee Lautaret and Toni Tyree placing first in team roping with a time of 7.4 seconds.
Tyree also won the breakaway, with a time of 2.6 seconds — and finished second in tie-down roping, with a time of 13.4 seconds. Kim Williamson won the tie-down roping with a time of 12.3 seconds, and placed second in breakaway with a time of 2.7 seconds. Caren Lamb won the barrel race in 17.93 seconds, with Lautaret less than a second behind.
In fact, the top six-barrel racers all finished within 1.5 seconds of one another.
The top payout for the night was $326, since the contestants all pooled the $30 entrance fee for the prize money.
The Pro Rodeo Committee hosted the event as the lead-in to the Spring Rodeo, charging just a can of food for charity as the admission price. Even so, the crowd never got much bigger than 100 — and the vendors looked forlorn.
So obviously, these women ain’t in it for the money or the glory.
It takes hundreds of hours to train a horse to compete, especially in barrel racing, which requires a horse to learn how to slide into a turn, coil his haunches underneath himself, then spring away into a sprint — all movements not necessarily natural.
So why spend all those nights on the road, when for many of the participants the prize money barely covers the cost of the horse?
“I just love it,” said Jamie Ewing, raised on a Rim Country ranch, who now makes a living as a hairdresser and hits the rodeo circuit whenever she can.
“We’re just born to do it, I guess,” said Sharley Hall, also a Payson ranch girl who now makes a living as a dispatcher for a security company in the Valley.
And then, there’s always the prize money. As the evening ended, Ewing neatly folded her $267 check for her second-place finish in the team roping and slipped it into the pocket of her turquoise cowgirl shirt, as the other local winners gathered around. “We were gonna have some chili,” she grinned, “now I guess it’s steak.”