Women riders buck tradition at the rodeo

Associated Press

Brushing aside a few wisps of hair flying from her blond ponytail, Vanessa Hodgson prepares for battle against 1,700 pounds of snorting, raging bull.

If she can ride the beast for six seconds, she has a shot at a $500 prize. Six seconds is a long time, especially when a bull is hell-bent on tossing his rider on her rump and tormenting her in any way he can before a rodeo clown drives him to distraction.

But the money is not what drives Hodgson, a 22-year-old former barrel racer who has been competing on bulls and bareback broncos for three years. She grew up on a Michigan farm and in 2003 was named rookie of the year by the Women's Professional Rodeo Assn.

"I was hanging around bull riders and they dared me to ride," Hodgson said. "Now I ride because it's fun."

A few brave women are making inroads into what may be the last bastion of all-male sports. Year after year, they crisscross the country in search of competition, showcasing their mix of athleticism and femininity in the dirt of the rodeo arena.

The rules in all-female competition are slightly different from those of men's events, where eight-second rides are mandatory. But the danger is real for both men and women who ride slobbering, wild-eyed beasts that can gore them in an instant. Riders often compete with broken ribs or arms.

"You have to have mental and physical toughness to be a bull rider," said Michael Gaffney, who holds the 1997 Professional Bull Riders World Title. "It is such a mental game."

On a dry evening when the mercury in the small south-central Oklahoma town hits 104 degrees, a crowd of 200 is packed into the bleachers for the competition sponsored by the Women's Bull Riding organization. Men and women have come dressed in their cowboy best: hats, boots, buttoned-up long-sleeved Western shirts and skin-tight jeans. As they settle down, the salty-sweet aroma of hot dogs and popcorn slices through the thick air.

Behind the arena, the atmosphere is calm. The bulls stand shoulder-to-shoulder in two 20-foot enclosures and seem as docile as Elsie the cow, waiting passively for their few seconds in the spotlight.

Hodgson, 5 feet tall with a slight build, is wearing a rodeo championship belt buckle the size of a small dinner plate. As she waits, she swaps riding tips with DeeDee Crawford, her sometimes traveling partner and a fellow rider from Ben Wheeler, Texas.

In the final 60 minutes before her first ride, Hodgson rubs rosin onto the rope strung behind the bull's front legs and around its belly, ending in a braided portion she will wrap around her gloved right hand. The rosin will give her a good grip on the rope and help her hang on when the bull begins bucking.

Only a handful of women compete regularly in bull-riding events, and the payoffs are paltry compared with the men's tour. This year, 700 men from the Professional Bull Riders Assn. will split more than $10 million in prize money.

Verne Smith and his wife, Kathy, started the WBR group in March in hopes of providing more opportunities for women to make a living at the sport. Six women signed up to participate in WBR events, but after three competitions, the organization folded for lack of support.

Crawford, 25, the 2005 WPRA individual champion in bull riding and bareback bronco riding, made $10,000 to $15,000 last year.

"A guy can make that much in a weekend," she said. "Hopefully in the future it will be better."

Danesa Ramsey, a petite 25-year-old mother of two girls, has been riding bulls for 10 years and met her husband, Rusty, at a rodeo. "I rode my first bull ... on a bet. Now I ride because I love it," she said at a competition in Chickasha, Okla.

The seven-member WPRA holds an average of 15 to 20 events each year. There are few women bull riders because there are few places for them to train as youngsters, spokesman Tim Gentry said.

"There are also some prevailing attitudes within the rodeo community that it is too dangerous for women to compete in bull riding, but that has diminished in recent years," Gentry said. "The young women today are trailblazers in changing that attitude."

Whereas the bulls on the men's tour have names like Twister or Little Yellow Jacket, the announcer identifies the bulls at this competition only by number.

He calls for Hodgson and her bull. With her ponytail dangling beneath a white helmet, she squeezes her legs around the bull's back and wraps the rope around her right hand. Then she signals with her free hand and the gate swings open.

The bull pitches out of the narrow chute, jumping and spinning like a whirling dervish, and setting off the metal cowbell that dangles from the rope under his stomach. The clanging bell enrages the animal, which snorts and slobbers as it spins.

Less than three seconds later -- less time than it takes to read this sentence -- Hodgson is thrown to the ground. She scrambles up and races toward the fence to avoid being stomped or gored by the horns -- dangerous even though the sharp tips have been ground off.

Every ride comes with its share of pain.

"I've messed my knee up, had broken ribs and broken arms," Hodgson said. "But it's something I don't think about."

Crawford has broken her ankle and her arm and dislocated her shoulder, all for the love of the game.

"It's still the greatest sport in the world for me," she said.

Scoring is divided into two categories: a maximum 50 points for how well the bull performs jumping and twisting, and a maximum 50 points for the rider's form.

On this night, each woman rides three bulls. But none is able to stay on for the required six seconds, so no one scores any points. This night belongs to the bulls. The only compensation the women receive is a generous round of applause.

As the women pack their gear into duffel bags, the bulls are herded quietly onto a stock trailer to be trucked back to their pasture.

In 24 hours, they will meet their nemeses for another round.

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