The experience of women in the Old West was markedly different from that of men. Although they worked as long and hard as men, they were still expected to dress and behave like “proper” gentlewomen. For example, a real lady rode a horse only on a side saddle. The sight of a woman riding astride a horse would cause quite a stir.
Although women were expected to spend their energy tending homes for their families, some did get a taste of cowboy life in the early trail days. Sometimes ranchers’ wives managed the family cattle business when their husbands were away, or after the men had died. Unmarried daughters sometimes became “cow women” and ranchers in their own right.
A few young women became cowhands or traveled as cowgirls with the Wild West shows. Others went on to become champion athletes in rodeos. As a result, they modified their attire. Cowgirl outfits began to take on a slightly different look. Skirts became shorter and more detailed. After all, these women were now in show biz.
There have been women bronc riders, bull riders, steer wrestlers and trick ropers and riders since the early 1900s. Women’s events, however, were and continue to be separated from the men’s competitions because women usually needed lighter animals than men.
One of the most popular events women participate in is barrel-riding. It takes a well-trained horse and a skilled rider to travel in a cloverleaf pattern around the barrels at top speed.
Other cowgirl events include riding a course slalom-style in the pole-bending race. There’s also a trail course, where riders complete a series of tasks, like opening a gate while on horseback. Or, there’s the goat-tying competition, where the contestant has to ride up to a goat, dismount and tie together three of its legs.
Unlike the early days, cowgirl clothing is very similar to cowboy clothing. Cowgirls wear pants, shirts, vests, boots and hats just as their counterparts do. And it’s not uncommon to see cute cowgirl skirts and dresses as well.