Learning to “Cowgirl Up”

Ready to Ride

If that’s a “YeeeeeHaw!echoing down the corridors of your Fortune 500 company, or the distinctive click of boot heels tapping across polished granite toward the exit, there’s no question what’s happening. It’s Rodeo time in Houston.

Founded in 1931, the Houston Fat Stock Show & Exposition eventually became the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, but for most Houstonians, it’s just the Rodeo: a mélange of trail rides, barbeque, bronc riding, , baby animals, wine tastings, quilt exhibits, livestock auctions, concerts, and calf scrambles that truly has something for everyone.

With the Rodeo in town, everyone’s a cowboy or cowgirl. Even the slickest, most citified sort turns up wearing boots and overblown belt buckles. People who generally equate beef with the ribeye on their plate begin discussing the finer points of Longhorn breeding. Local broadcasters trail  behind trailriders, sopping up stories like so much sausage gravy, while dance studios cope with a surge of people demanding classes in Western Swing and the Texas Two-Step.

It’s Rodeo Fever, and even a Yankee can catch it. After moving to Houston, I discovered I had no immunity. After all, as a child, I didn’t long to be a princess, a ballerina, or a nurse. I wanted to be a cowgirl.

I didn’t want to jump ropes, I wanted to twirl them. I didn’t want to eat my carrots, I wanted to feed them to a horse. I tuned in to the noon market reports not because I cared about corn futures, but because I wanted to sing along with the Sons of the Pioneers. Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds was my favorite, and the most famous member of the group, Roy Rogers, was my hero. If Roy liked Dale Evans? I could learn to like her, too.

I watched them on television, and collected their comic books. I carried my school-day sandwich in a Roy Rogers lunch box, and my milk in a Dale Evans thermos. Eventually, incessant whining wore down my parents, and I received a passionately longed-for black-and-white cowgirl outfit: minus the boots, but with a lovely pair of six-shooters and a beautiful, faux tooled-leather holster. What the Smothers Brothers sang as parody in their Streets of Laredo,  I believed to be true:

I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,
I see by your outfit you are a cowboy, too.
We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys,
If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.

I had my outfit, and loved it so much that I outgrew it before I stopped wearing it. Still, despite the outfit, I was no cowgirl. It took a new life in Texas to move me beyond childhood fantasy to a deeper appreciation of what being a cowgirl might entail.

Long before I became friends with some real Texas cowgirls, I began to hear stories of the famous ones. In the Coastal Bend,  Louise O’Connor, a fifth-generation member of a family that’s been ranching near Victoria since 1834, published a first book, Cryin’ for Daylight. The title came from a statement made by Will King, an itinerant cowhand: “We loved to work cattle so much we’d just be sittin’ around, crying for daylight to come.”

Connie Douglas Reeves taught generations of girls to ride at Camp Waldemar in Hunt, Texas, before being tossed from her horse and dying at the age of 101. She taught far more than riding. Her most insistent bit of advice – always saddle your own horse – became the unofficial motto of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and a touchstone for thousands of women who’d never touched a real horse. When I found her words painted on a cedar board that had been washed or purposely wedged into a pile of rocks along a deserted stretch of the Sabinal River, I smiled, knowing she would have been pleased.

And then there was Hallie Stillwell, who continued to ranch in Texas’s unforgiving Big Bend country for years after her husband’s death. Through a combination of classic sharp-shooting, political skill, quite ordinary town jobs, and the syndication of a newspaper column, she managed to become one of the largest of the larger-than-life ranch women who populate the American West.

My favorite image of Hallie, produced by artist Debbie Little-Wilson and called “Hallie’s Moon,” still can be spotted on Texas streets, since it was imprinted on tee-shirts for the Texas State Arts & Crafts Festival in Kerrville,


It’s true that, as author Kenneth B. Ragsdale wrote in his book Big Bend Country, “People throughout Texas either knew, claimed they knew, or wanted to know Hallie Stillwell.”  But one of first women ranchers I knew personally had known Hallie and, as she put it, “Hallie really knew what it meant to cowgirl up.”

At the time, I had no idea what she meant by the phrase. Later, I was told that it’s a variant of an old rodeo warning call from the chute — “cowboy up” — meaning that the rider was seated up on the back of a bronco or bull and was ready for the gate to open.

Over time, the expression took on a broader meaning, suggesting someone was ready and able to tackle the next challenge: physically and mentally prepared for difficult or dangerous tasks. Used as an exhortation, “cowboy up!” means, “Get with it. Don’t shirk your responsibility. Give it your best.”

One of the most vivid examples of a woman who understood what it meant to “cowgirl up” was Helen Bonham, a rodeo cowgirl who also served as Miss Wyoming. During the year of her reign, she traveled the country, delighting crowds with her considerable riding skills.

In 1920, she arrived in New York City to invite Mayor John Francis Hylan back to Wyoming for Frontier Days. During her visit, the NY Times reported she would entertain 15,000 Girl Scouts during their annual Field Day by roping and riding her way through the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

Travel can be frustrating, lonely and tiring, of course, even when undertaken in pursuit of a dream. From all accounts, Helen Bonham helped to balance the challenges of her life by staying in touch with those she’d left behind. With no email, Twitter, Facebook, or Skype to help her out, she coped in the same way that previous generations of travelers had coped. She wrote letters.

This famous postcard, showing Helen using her saddle as a desk, was used by Debbie Little-Wilson as the basis for her print, St. Helen Bonham, Protector of Email.  When I saw Debbie’s Cowgirl Saints series, there was no question that St. Helen, along with Debbie’s interpretation of her importance, would have to come home with me.

While rodeo cowgirl Helen Bonham corresponded religiously back home,
she would never have imagined that one day letters would travel at the blink of an eye.
She would have ridden cyberspace with the same daring as she did her horse.
Saint Helen protects the sending and receiving of email
and the mystery of it all.

Today, St. Helen’s artfully enhanced image hangs above my computer desk, next to the postcard which inspired it, watching over my wisdom and my foolishness alike. Helen Bonham never had a computer, and I never got my horse and saddle, but we both benefited from traditions still living in the far reaches of an unfenced country: traditions of self-reliance, adaptability, resourcefulness, and flat hard work so necessary for life in a real world.

It may even be that roping calves and wrangling words have more in common than we imagine. Certainly, the solitude of riding the range and the solitude of writing are related, and the fact that so many cowgirls, ranch hands, and vaqueros also are accomplished songwriters, historians, and poets stands as evidence.

In any event, the Smothers Brothers’ humorous parody makes the point obliquely: an “outfit” is neither necessary nor sufficient for successfully riding the range. As generations of ranch women have made clear, all that is needed for success is a good horse, a clear eye, a steady hand, and a ready willingness to “cowgirl up”.

Comments always are welcome.

Cowgirl Up!

If that’s a YeeHAW! you hear echoing down the corridors of your Fortune 500 company, or the distinctive click of boot heels on polished granite, there’s little question what’s happening. It’s Rodeo time in Houston.

Founded in 1931 as the Houston Fat Stock Show & Exposition, the name of the event’s been changed to Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, but for most Houstonians, it’s just The Rodeo – a melange of bronc riding, parades, baby animals, wine tastings, quilt exhibits, barbeque, trailrides, livestock auctions, concerts and calf scrambles that truly has something for everyone. Continue reading