Marana’s Erin Parsons is very familiar with rodeos.
She comes from a well-known Tucson-area rodeo family and began competing in junior events at age 6. Now 29, she is a professional barrel racer and participates in about 20 rodeos each year, including La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, better known as the Tucson Rodeo.
The Tucson Rodeo takes place once a year, in late February, and is one of the top 25 professional rodeos in North America. According to Gary Williams, the Tucson Rodeo’s General Manager, out of the 658 contestants who competed in the rodeo this year, only 80 of them were women and all participated in barrel racing.
Rodeos are a huge part of Arizona culture, and while there are women who compete in rodeos, they have somewhat of a limited role. In rodeos sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the only women’s event is barrel racing.
Despite being only one of seven events at the Tucson Rodeo, barrel racing is second in popularity with fans. It involves racing around three barrels in a zigzag-like pattern, competing for the quickest time. Only women can compete in the event.
Women technically could enter other Tucson Rodeo events, but they stick to barrel racing.
“At the pro rodeos, it’s because of the competition level,” Parsons said. “It’s harder to compete against men.”
The last time a woman competed in the Tucson Rodeo as a bareback rider was Tad Lucas in 1925, the event’s opening year, spokeswoman Joan Liess said.
“You have to be extremely strong to hang onto that horse,” Liess said. “It’s a whiplash effect. If you look at the cowboys, their forearms are huge. You’d have to be an incredibly strong woman to compete.”
Women do have options to compete in other events through the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.
Formed in 1948, the WPRA has more than 2,500 members today. It offers barrel racing, team roping, tie-down roping and breakaway roping. Each year, women compete at the WPRA World Finals in Waco, Texas.
Only women are invited to compete in the World Finals, giving them a competition all to themselves, and they can participate in any of the four events, WPRA staffer Kelsey Cox said.
When it comes down to it, women and men have different roles in the rodeo. Regardless, this male-dominated sport is full of women trying to make a name for themselves doing what they love and, luckily for them, they have the WPRA helping them with every step.
Lauren Ikenn is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.