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The Cowgirl Way

These boots are made for trick riding.

By September 2015Comments

Photograph by Chris Plavidal

Tad Lucas was the youngest of 24 children, and because she was a fast crawler as a baby, her family nicknamed her Tadpole, or Tad for short. She was born Barbara Inez Barnes in Cody, Nebraska, in 1902, though she later settled in Fort Worth and considered herself a Texan. In the twenties and thirties, she was one of the most famous rodeo cowgirls in the world, earning prize money for bronc riding, trick riding, relay racing, and best all-around cowgirl at every major rodeo in America. The two decades in which Lucas achieved her fame are remembered as the golden age of rodeo.

Rodeo has its origins in ranch work and in the cowboy contests that were held in Western towns in the 1880’s, usually as part of larger celebrations, such as the Fourth of July or old settlers’ reunions. Buffalo Bill Cody helped popularize the rodeo with his Wild West show, which included an act called Cowboy Fun, featuring real cowboys roping steers, riding broncs, and performing tricks on horseback. Cody later added female riders to his show, and he may very well have been the person who invented the word “cowgirl” to describe them. His performances spawned at least fifty other touring Wild West shows, most of which included cowgirls.

These same women entered rodeos as contestants. By 1915 the California Rodeo, in Salinas; Frontier Days, in Cheyenne, Wyoming; the Calgary Stampede, in Alberta, Canada; and the Pendleton Round-Up, in Oregon, had emerged as the principal rodeos in the West. All four had riding and roping events for cowgirls that required the same stamina and skill that the male events did.

In the twenties, professional rodeo producers such as Guy Weadick and Tex Austin moved rodeo east, and the Boston Garden Rodeo; the Madison Square Garden Rodeo, in New York City; and the World Championship Rodeo, in Chicago, became annual events, featuring both contests for prize money and contract specialty acts. Cowgirl bronc riders, trick riders, relay racers, and fancy ropers were a major draw at all three rodeos.

Tad Lucas was a cowgirl’s cowgirl. She left Nebraska at the age of sixteen and joined “California” Frank Hafley’s Wild West Show, where she was befriended by a family of Cossack trick riders, who helped train her. She first appeared on the Western rodeo circuit in 1922, winning prizes at Belle Fourche, South Dakota; Pittsburg, Kansas; and Fort Worth. The next year she was one of the stars of Tex Austin’s Madison Square Garden Rodeo, where she took second prize in bronc riding and third in the best-dressed cowgirl competition. In 1924, after marrying rodeo cowboy Buck Lucas and moving with him to Fort Worth, she went to London to participate in Austin’s British Empire Exposition rodeo, where she showed off the riding tricks that would become the staple of her performances. She went on to win first prize for trick riding at Madison Square Garden in 1925, 1926, and 1928 through 1932, as well as the all-around cowgirl title there in 1926 and 1928 through 1932, and she retired the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer $10,000 silver trophy, the most prestigious award in her day, by winning it three times running.

Lucas would vault into the saddle from a standing position, urge her horse into a gallop, and then hang upside down from the saddle in a series of drags—the Cossack Drag, the Back Drag, the Fender Drag—trailing the fingers of one or both hands in the dust of the arena, before performing her famous Under the Belly Crawl. Her finale was the Hippodrome Stand, in which she galloped out of the arena while standing on her saddle, her back arched and her arms extended upward.

The structure of the professional rodeo world underwent significant changes in the early forties, which brought about the end of cowgirl participation in the major rodeos. According to University of Texas sports historian Mary Lou LeCompte, who researched the careers of more than six hundred former cowgirls for her book, Cowgirls of the Rodeo, the primary cause of this was the domination of professional rodeo by Gene Autry, who took over both the Boston Garden and Madison Square Garden rodeos in 1942 and also produced rodeos in Houston, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Shreveport, Louisiana. Autry’s rodeos had no place for cowgirl contestants; they were pageants in which he was the star and women played peripheral roles in parades, horseback square dances, and beauty contests.

Lucas continued to perform as an exhibition trick rider long after cowgirl events were dropped from the big rodeos, and in 1948 she became one of the charter members of the Girls Rodeo Association, which produced all-female rodeos in the fifties. After appearing at the 1958 World’s Fair, in Brussels, she retired from exhibition riding but continued to serve as the secretary for major rodeos for the next two decades. She died in Fort Worth in 1990. Dan Fox, writing in the rodeo trade paper Hoofs and Horns, said of her, “Tad has always been admired by everyone who had the good fortune to meet her. . . . She is considered the world’s greatest woman rider.”

In her publicity photographs, Lucas always wore elaborately tooled cowboy boots, but when performing riding tricks, she used a pair of red leather flat-soled lace-up boots with rubber vamps, or uppers. The boots were probably made around 1920, while Lucas was touring Mexico with Hafley’s Wild West Show. They were modeled on those worn by her Cossack friends. The flat heels provided the grip required to stand in the saddle, and the rubber vamps were more flexible than leather ones. The boots are now in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, in Fort Worth, on loan from Lucas’s daughter, Mitzi Lucas Riley, who wore them in her own performances.

National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, 1720 Gendy, Fort Worth (817-336-4475). Open Tue–Sat 10–5, Sun noon–5.

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