The Ladies Busted Broncs

Montana cowboys say that rodeos weren’t born; “they just growed” out of custom and necessity. Montana has bred some of the best cowboys and meanest mounts as well as some of the West’s most famous women riders. Four bucked their way to renown. Fannie Sperry Steele, Marie Gibson, and Alice and Marge Greenough were world-class champions, tough to top. Each wore her laurels with a grace and dignity that belied her chosen path.

Fannie Sperry Steele on Dismal Dick at Windham, Montana, Roundup, August 20-21, 1920. Photographer unidentified. MHS Catalog #952-169.

Fannie Sperry Steele on Dismal Dick at the Windham, Montana, Roundup, August 20-21, 1920. Photographer unidentified. MHS 952-169.

Fannie Sperry was born in the Prickly Pear Valley in 1887. Her mother taught her to ride almost before she could walk. Sperry cast aside Victorian decorum and rode astride in a divided skirt, rounding up wild horses. Local ranch kids gathered on Sunday afternoons for neighborly competitions. In 1903, sixteen-year-old Sperry awed spectators with such a ride on a bucking white stallion that onlookers passed the hat.

Fannie Sperry earned a reputation for courage, skill, grit, and sticking power on the backs of the wildest broncos, and in 1907, Sperry began to ride in women’s bucking horse competitions. At the Calgary Stampede in 1912, her ride on the killer bronc, Red Wing, earned her the title “Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World.” She earned the title again in 1913.

Unlike most other bronc-busting women of the time, Fannie Sperry rode “slick.” Most female contestants rode hobbled, their stirrups tied together beneath the horse’s belly for greater stability in the saddle. But hobbling was dangerous in the event of a tumble because the rider could not kick free. Slick riding demanded precision, balance, courage, and unusual strength. Sperry was the only woman rider among her contemporaries to ride her entire career slick, just like her male counterparts.

Sperry married bronc rider and rodeo clown Bill Steele in 1913, and she rode exhibition broncs until she was in her fifties. Widowed in 1940, she ran the couple’s Helmville ranch alone for another twenty-five years. She was the first woman in Montana to receive a packer’s license, and with her string of pintos, she guided hunters on trips into the mountains.

Other courageous Montana women made for stiff competition during in the 1910s and 1920s. Paris Williams of Billings, Violet and Margaret Brander of Avon, Peggy Warren of Victor, Princess Red Bird of Arlee, and Marie Gibson of Havre all rode wild, unbroken broncos with remarkable courage. Any ride could end badly, as Havre legend Marie Gibson’s story illustrates.

Gibson, born Marie Massoz in 1894, first married at sixteen but left her husband to join her parents in Havre in 1914. Marie began trick riding for prize money to support her children. Her professional debut came in 1917 at Havre’s Great Stampede. Two years later, divorced from her first husband, she married rodeo veteran Tom Gibson. Her husband retired to the homestead, and Gibson went on to travel widely, busting broncs overseas and back east. Her many titles included World Champion Cowgirl Bronc Rider in 1924 and 1927.

Gibson had just made a successful ride on a wild bronc in Idaho in 1933. The horse was still bucking as the pickup man approached to take her off. When the two horses collided, Gibson’s horse lost his balance and fell on her, fatally fracturing her skull. Her hobbled stirrups prevented her from kicking free.

After World War I, rodeo became its own genre. Fannie Sperry Steele and Marie Gibson were the first generation of professional Montana cowgirls. They witnessed the transition as rodeo matured into a profession, and communities established their own rodeo events.

Alice Greenough traveled the world as a trick rider and rodeo star. Photo courtesy of MHS # 942-480.

Alice Greenough traveled the world as a trick rider and rodeo star. Photo courtesy of MHS # 942-480.

As the first national professional rodeo organization—the Rodeo Association of America (RAA)—formed in 1929 with men and women members, Marge and Alice Greenough of Red Lodge bridged the transition, ushering in modern rodeo. Their father, “Packsaddle Ben” Greenough, was a local character who guided sportsmen into the Beartooth Mountains. The Greenoughs kept horses by the hundreds, and a rock-littered corral served as a playground. Ben expected his children to gentle the wildest horses. They learned their craft out of necessity. “Nobody,” Marge reflected, “could get bucked off in those rocks and live.”

Alice was seventeen when she rode her first bronc in public at the Forsyth Rodeo in 1919. Marge, five years younger, won a fifteen-dollar purse for the half-mile cowgirl race at the Red Lodge rodeo in 1924. Marge jockeyed and later rode bareback broncs and steers while Alice did exceptional trick riding. Both sisters eventually rode bucking broncos and bulls and won many championships across the United States. Alice traveled worldwide, demonstrating her skills.

The Greenough sisters were refined, well-spoken, and dressed like ladies when they were not riding. They carried their sewing machine on the road and made their own clothes. They endured the same struggles as their male counterparts, suffered the same injuries, and rode the same horses.

034WHM 53-X1952 01 20-Lady Buckaroo

Montana artist Charlie Russell memorialized women rodeo riders in “Lady Buckeroo.” Watercolor and ink ca. 1920-1925. MHS Museum, Mackay Collection, X1952.01.20.

These four spirited, independent women are all members of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Among the 266 members, thirty-three are women and only twelve rode broncs. Fannie Sperry Steele was honored in 1975, Alice and Marge Greenough in 1983, and Marie Gibson posthumously in 2006. These quintessential Montana women take their places among the best of the best.

Women rarely ride broncs anymore. Today’s horses are bred to be larger and more powerful and it takes a large frame to ride them. Women do have the opportunity, but most choose to focus on other skills. All-girl rodeos offer roping and riding events for women, but the only women’s event currently sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) is barrel racing. Credit goes to Alice Greenough for forming her own rodeo company in order to feature the first women’s barrel racing competitions. EB

Sources

Baumler, Ellen. “The Ladies Busted Broncs.” Distinctly Montana, Summer 2007. Accessed November 25, 2013.

Blake, Tona. “Fannie Sperry-Steele: Montana’s Champion Bronc Rider.” Montana The Magazine of Western History 32, no. 2 (Spring 1982): 44-57.

Flood, Elizabeth Clair. Cowgirls: Women of the Wild West. Santa Fe, N.M.: Zon International Publishing, 2000.

“Greenough, Marge and Alice.” Vertical files, Montana Historical Society Research Center, Helena.

Marie Gibson.” National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.  Accessed November 25, 2013.