The Women Who Nod At Death And Say Let's Go

The Women Who Nod At Death And Say <i>Let's Go</i>
Illustration: Elena Scotti (GMG), Photo: Cheyenne Frontier Days, Getty
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BULVERDE, Texas — Bronc riders’ bodies are wreckage sites, but they are also evidence of lucky streaks on the roulette wheel of survival. Daryl McElroy’s body is like that. He has broken too many bones to remember. He has fractured more lumbar vertebrae than not and come perilously close to rupturing the tether to essential motor functions that is his spinal cord. He has blacked out in the dirt of the rodeo arena. He has broken ribs. He has smashed two of his thoracic vertebrae. Death has whispered in his ear, just the same way it waits outside the arena in the form of a biding ambulance. The way it sits on the shoulder of every bronc rider, and always has, however lightly, speaking its secret language, saying, go ahead, spin again, the house always wins.

One way or the other. Bronc riders bet that it’s the other. The other, eventual way of death, but first, the close call. The danger. The joyride. The tightening of the saddle cinch, fingers around the night latch, the grip of the hack rein, the nod: I’m ready. The horses come out of the gate like they have a demon on their backs, tossing their thousand-pound heft into air and snapping their flanks into contortions that seem to defy the basic principles of mammalian physiology. Often, they leave their riders in the soil, sometimes walking it off, sometimes facedown and then gritting up to wavering feet, sometimes awaiting the stretcher. Even if riders cover the eight seconds they have to stay on the horse from chute to dismount, they must find their way from the haunches of chaos back to solid ground.

In 2016, a bronc rider died. Another died in 2012. And in 2010. The sport doesn’t advertise its perils, and, anyway, the danger is no deterrent. Bronc riding in its various forms continues as a mainstay rodeo event. That is, for the men who ride. For women, circumstances have been different. Ever since 1929, when a 32-year-old bronc rider named Bonnie McCarroll was thrown from her horse during a rodeo in Oregon and died in the hospital eight days later, women’s saddle bronc riding has been more or less wiped from the rodeo event roster. Barrel racing, which is significantly less expensive for organizers and has a less violent reputation, became the only women’s event at the nation’s major rodeos. A few women have still ridden bucking horses here and there, and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association sanctioned some rough stock events, including bareback riding, for a few decades, but the force of McCarroll’s disaster cast a nearly century-long pall over the sport.

“When she got killed, people were like, ‘oooh, women shouldn’t be doing this—look now, we got her killed,’” McElroy told me. Spectators couldn’t stomach seeing a woman getting mauled in public; the world wasn’t prepared to see female pain out in the open.

Physics always wins, eventually.
Physics always wins, eventually.
Photo: Cheyenne Frontier Days

That remained true, more or less, until 2016, when McElroy, who is president of the Texas Bronc Riders Association (TBRA), added a ladies bronc riding event to a rodeo he helped organize. A few women came forward for the rodeo, and then a few more. There were in fact more women bronc riders than could have been expected, given the event’s absence from major rodeos for nearly a century, and cowgirls kept signing on. In 2017, McElroy and his wife Michelle set up a ladies bronc riding tour with 10 stops. Last year, the second of the tours, McElroy organized it so the finals were Cheyenne, Wyoming. The two winning riders went on to perform at Cheyenne Frontier Days, one of the nation’s premier rodeos. They became the first women to ride bucking horses out of the chutes there in 90 years.

Although there is still no women’s bronc riding event sanctioned by any of the largest rodeo organizations of the U.S., the tours that McElroy launched under the auspices of the TBRA established a circuit and brought together nearly two dozen women who regularly compete and who have become card-carrying members of his association. Six women signed contracts with RIDE TV, a television channel focused on horse culture, to become fixtures on a documentary show called Cowgirls. All of the women travel extensively to compete. They have been the subjects of dozens of profiles in ranching media. In January, more than a dozen women attended the first-ever ladies bronc riding school in Giddings, Texas. The persistence of the riders and the devotion of McElroy turned what might have been a fleeting conglomeration of would-be bronc riders into a fledgling force that may well turn out to be the first generation of a new era.

One of the things that people always want to know about bronc riders is why they do it. Why chase the grave. Rodeo is one of the most dangerous organized sports in the world—one study estimated that there are 16.6 injuries in every 1,000 rides—and its most lethal contest, bull riding, has the highest fatality rate of any athletic event. In February, I went to watch a women’s bronc riding event at a rodeo in Bulverde, outside of San Antonio, passing over ceaseless Texas roads through country that was so vast and uninterrupted that it looked like the earth and sky were straining against each other. Driving through towns of empty façade storefronts behind which stretched miles and miles of pasture the color of champagne, I started to develop a theory that their endemic cartoon-prodigious trucks and Dionysian portions expressed an effort to counter the possibility of all that space. That maybe people ride untamed beasts to taunt the endless horizon; to look at that creation of infinite reach and insist, however brashly, on having a place in it.

Overthinking is the nemesis of doing, and the bronc riders who gathered in Bulverde had the air of pragmatic people. “I don’t allow myself time to think about things so I don’t get scared—and that’s the way I’ve always operated with everything,” a cowgirl named Maddison Keeter Crisp told me after I arrived at the rodeo grounds. She was sitting at a picnic table with a big sun-faded black cowboy hat tilted back on her head. “You just nod and go.” Nodding in rodeo means open the gate, let’s ride, but Crisp also meant nodding as in saying yes to whatever the job entails, and getting on with it. There are the facts of life, and then there are fleeting chances for glory, which, usually, have to be chased.

When they aren’t trying to stay on bucking horses, the bronc riders are insurance adjusters, veterinarians, welders, safety supervisors for construction contractors. They sit for hours behind the wheels of their trucks to spend eight seconds, if they’re lucky and talented, on the back of a horse that doesn’t want them there. Answering yes or no to a question, they follow with ma’am or sir. Their car radios play Ray Price singing “She’s got to be a saint,” and then announce the December hog prices and milk futures. “Oh!” Jessica Sutton said to Dori Hertel, when, standing around in the mud outside the rodeo arena in Bulverde, she saw a signet ring on Hertel’s finger. “Is that an Aggie ring?”

It was a Texas A&M ring, Hertel said, but she was wearing it on the wrong finger because her ring finger had developed a blood blister from riding broncs and was swollen to at least half again its usual size. Hertel kind of laughed as she said this, grinning with a specific kind of embarrassed pride. This was her first rodeo, and she had told me earlier over the phone that I could hang out with her behind the chutes before her ride as long as I promised not to distract her. She was going to be all business until afterward, she expected, devoted to keeping her adrenaline-smoked brain focused on a set of specific, real things that would make the difference between a ride and a bust. Keeping her chin down. Looking at the horse’s neck. Lifting the bucking rein. Squeezing with her legs. “You have to do all this while you’re on top of an exploding animal that is going 10 times faster than you thought it would,” she told me, half-apologizing for not being able to talk too much.

Hertel drove to Bulverde from Kingwood, Texas, where she had worked all morning at an animal clinic, and arrived shortly before the rodeo began on Saturday afternoon. I had been there for a few hours already, having pulled up a potholed lane that morning and asked a ranch hand where to park. The man had gestured vaguely around him and said park wherever and asked if I was there for the rodeo and then stepped closer as if to impart a secret. “We’ve got women here riding broncos,” he told me.

They were a big hit with audiences, he added. Rodeos are still at heart a community event—a chance for the inhabitants of rural ranches and, now, suburbs, to come together and hotdog their privately honed skills in front of peers—and even the competition retains a character somewhere between sport and exhibition. The announcer makes jokes while riders fly over the arena dirt. Children compete for how long they can cling to the backs of sheep. There’s at least one clown. Women swanking big shiny belt buckles ride around waving American flags.

Duke Wimberly, in trademark pink.
Duke Wimberly, in trademark pink.
Photo: Cheyenne Frontier Days

McElroy understands as well as anyone these underlying traditions of rodeo, the substratum that has kept it relevant and interesting despite enjoying nearly none of the nationally broadcast fanfare afforded some of our other pastimes. He started riding bucking horses when he was 12 and fought bulls professionally—by keeping them distracted from going after the riders who were unseated from them—for 20 years. For McElroy and other, male, bronc riders there are practical as well as cultural reasons to ride animals that are raised to go berserk when you try. The four top-ranked PRCA saddle bronc riders of 2018 made more than a quarter million dollars each in earnings, and the riders following them didn’t make much less. Those earnings are trivial compared to the NFL, where the minimum annual salary for a football player is $480,000, but up against the take-home for ranch work they aren’t half-bad. Big rodeo names have sponsorship opportunities, and in some circles, they can earn enough respect to bolster side businesses.

In contrast, bronc riding is a very unpragmatic thing for cowgirls to do. During the first TBRA ladies bronc riding tour, winning riders walked away from individual rodeos with a couple of hundred dollars. The second year, McElroy put a rankings system in place and the winningest rider for the season made $8,222. McElroy says he barely breaks even organizing the circuit (ask him why he or anyone else does it, and his one-word answer is “love”). Aside from the riders whose expenses were covered by RIDE TV for their show, many of the women barely earn enough to cover the costs of traveling to rodeos hundreds of miles away from each other. Crisp told me those costs are the most significant limit on the growth of the sport, and that it will take more riders entering rodeos to raise the purses—a catch-22 that won’t likely resolve itself if the circuit doesn’t include some of the country’s biggest rodeos, like the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, considered the Super Bowl of the sport, which only hosts a women’s event in barrel racing.

Crisp, a rodeo veteran, attended college on a scholarship awarded for her proficiency at barrel racing. But she had outgrown that sport, which is how she found herself in Bulverde sitting at a picnic table in front of an empty arena fighting off a case of nerves. “I’m not scared,” she clarified, her eyes enormous and blue. “I’m more anxious than anything. I just hate the wait-up to it. Like, I wish we could load them and get on right now.” She showed me a video on her phone of another rider, who had become a breakout star on the previous year’s tour, getting bucked off her horse the week before at the bronc-riding school McElroy organized. It didn’t look outstandingly violent but had a stomach-turning quality, the rider just kind of canting off to one side and doubling over in an unnatural pose, and it produced a broken tibia and a busted fibula. Crisp told me she had been watching the video to see if there was something she could glean and apply to her own ride that night. Although, she admitted at a certain point, there was no use brooding over it. It would just get her too deep in her head.

While we talked, the chalky afternoon deepened to an ecchymotic purple, and the air was humid and electric like it was holding its breath. McElroy sent messages to the cowgirls about which horses they had drawn for their rides. Hertel, wearing green cowboy boots, drove up in her truck and started unloading. The rain, which had come down overnight, made the dirt gloppy and there were pools of glassy water speckled across the mud. Horses, bulls and sheep stood around in pens behind the rodeo ring, nosing each other and stamping the mire. They looked still; they looked like benevolent creatures, if fearsome in their physical greatness. They didn’t look like the explosive, unforgiving beasts they had been made out to be. They looked dignified. Crisp went to get herself a beer.

As with any sport that relies on an element of nature, riding broncs is a fleeting encounter wherein the rider hopes for something impressive, some true expression of the wildness of the horse, but also something straightforward, a ride none too anarchic. Horses were domesticated 6,000 years ago on the grasslands of the Eurasian steppes; some of the first evidence for humans riding horses has been found in what’s now northern Kazakhstan, and while archaeologists are fairly certain that people first mounted equids for the purpose of driving large herds, it’s not clear exactly how they did it. Wild horses travel in groups of mares accompanied by a single stallion; they are adapted to the demands of pasturing through cold winters and their response to predatorial suggestion is to run as fast as their famously powerful hindquarters allow, which is to say, faster than nearly any other living creature. Before humans and their interventions, a beast on the back would have meant, for a horse, that it was in the clutches of a predator and, so on the cusp of destruction.

Millennia of breeding have not quite erased that memory. Trainers have different ideas about what to do when a horse tries to throw its rider, but it was once canon in the American West that the best way to quell a recalcitrant animal was to stay on until it had no fight left. People started admiring each other’s wherewithal on especially rank horses and so, like steer roping, riding broncos became one of those elements of working life on ranches that was transformed to a rodeo performance. Once it became a sport, though, the volatile nature of relying on horse behavior was laid bare. Some horses buck like hell to rid themselves of a rider; others come charging out of the chute and race across the arena without once rearing up. Some horses buck in a straight line—there seems to be a universal gesture among riders for this sort of trip, a hand waggling in the air miming a sine wave—while others twist unpredictably while bucking, often in midair.

“I think that people focus too much on our injuries instead of what we’re actually accomplishing as women bronc riders,” Brittany Miller said.
“I think that people focus too much on our injuries instead of what we’re actually accomplishing as women bronc riders,” Brittany Miller said.
Photo: Cheyenne Frontier Days

If a bronc rider manages to stay on their horse for eight seconds, the ride qualifies for scoring, which is usually undertaken by two judges who stand in the arena, usually on either side of the chute, to render their evaluations. Half of the score is earned by the rider, for things like feet position and style, but the other half is earned by the horse, for the energy with which it tries to dislodge its inconvenient cargo. Observers have noted that bronc riding is like a fiercely uncooperative pairs sport. The upshot of the system is that if a rider draws a weak horse, the rider may stay on but their score won’t be very competitive.

There are a few different styles of bronc riding, the most prominent of which is saddle bronc riding, requiring the rider to keep one hand free and to lift and tuck both heels in a spurring movement. Ranch bronc riding, which is the kind practiced on the TBRA’s cowgirl circuit, uses a standard unmodified saddle and allows the rider to keep both hands occupied—one on the rein and the other on either the saddle horn or night latch. Proponents say this style is closer to actual ranch work, and, as result, a truer interpretation of Western heritage. Points are also awarded for spurring, which demonstrates a degree of control over the ride, but the practice has in all bronc riding events prompted accusations of animal cruelty.

For the most part, spurs used on bucking horses and bulls are regulated so as to not be sharp or too long. Rowels, the spiked wheels at the end of the spurs, cannot be locked. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), the largest U.S. rodeo organization that sanctions most of the biggest events, stipulates that if a spur draws blood, a rider is disqualified. Shortly before being released into the rodeo arena, bucking horses are outfitted with sheepskin- or neoprene-lined leather flank straps that girdle the belly and don’t, despite common misperception, agitate the genitals but instead trigger the same reflex as falling prey to a predator’s clutches and therefore encourage an extended kick of the back legs at the end of a buck. One former bull rider explained the concept to me by describing a zebra in the grasp of a lion.

Whatever the method of agitation or degree of cruelty, if a horse isn’t inclined to buck, it won’t do it. Horses that reliably bucked in the early days of rodeo became celebrities—famed bucking horses with names like Five Minutes To Midnight and Steamboat made their way into lore, with the latter, in some tellings, acting as the inspiration for Wyoming’s state logo. Steamboat, a black gelding with three white-stockinged fetlocks, performed from 1900 to 1914 and was said to be unrideable (one rider who managed to stay on the legendary horse for a record-breaking 10 seconds walked away with a concussion and a severe throat injury that made him whisper for weeks). But eventually, a horseman named Chandler Earl “Feek” Tooke decided that bucking horses could be bred. In 1936, Tooke bought a line of ornery Thoroughbred-Shire horses that were reared for riding but almost never cooperated. Later he acquired a sorrel stallion named King Larrygo from Iowa that sired a colt named Prince. The colt became one of the most prolific sires in rodeo history, and around 80 percent of the bucking horse that perform in the National Finals Rodeo are now thought to have descended from the bloodlines developed by Tooke.

The premier market for bucking horses is the annual sale in Miles City, Montana, which is billed as cowboy Mardi Gras. It began in 1950, organized in part by Tooke, and a 1955 article in Businessweek reported that the auction drew rodeo operators “looking to outbid each other for the meanest horses in Montana.” A bucking horse usually starts competing when it’s around five years old, and takes part in about a dozen rodeos per year until its retirement in its early 20s. The Bucking Horse Breeders Association keeps records on the pedigrees of bucking horses, just like the lineage dossiers kept on prized racing Thoroughbreds. In many ways the business has become organized and regimented, a fact that would rarely occur to the casual observer watching a horse transform into a tempest of dissent when the chute opens. Contractors who provide livestock to rodeos and breeders often say the top-performing horses are selected because they like bucking the most, but it would be easy to think that it’s because they like having a rider on their backs the least.

By the end of the first TBRA ladies bronc tour in 2017, the cowgirls had collectively fractured a spine, broken a wrist, dislocated a jaw, fractured a tailbone, chipped teeth, broken ribs, and had their faces smashed by horse’s hooves. When the six bronc riders featured on RIDE TV appeared on NBC’s Today Show, then-host Megyn Kelly asked the six women on set to raise their hand if they had suffered a concussion. Four women raised their hands; one of those didn’t had spent most of the season in a back brace.

After the Today filming, the bronc riders went to Rockefeller Plaza for lunch, and two of them, Brittany Miller and Duke Wimberly, started arguing about how best to represent women publicly in such a dangerous sport. Miller took the champion buckle the first year of the TBRA ladies bronc riding tour despite losing the last ride of the season, in Glen Rose, Texas, to Wimberly. When the tour started, both of the women already had experience riding rough stock, and they quickly became two of the main stars of the show. Wimberly was a dry-witted cowgirl with a pronounced drawl from northern Texas who took a two-year hiatus to have a child, favored hot pink rodeo attire and attributed her good rides to God. She wore her hair in a thick braid the length of a horse tail, and said things like, “quit is not in my dictionary, unfortunately,” and joked about spraying WD-40 into her joints. Miller was a serious, laconic rider from Montana who had a scholar’s knowledge of bronc riding history and women in the West, who took a humorless approach to competition and who, when her trademark ecru, wide-brimmed telescope crease hat was significantly muddied during a ride and she was visibly distressed by it, declined to acknowledge her reaction or take off the hat until she had total privacy.

Duke Wimberly, on a better ride.
Duke Wimberly, on a better ride.
Photo: Cheyenne Frontier Days

A clip of one of Wimberly’s rides—her worst of the season, where she got her foot caught in a stirrup and was dragged, bouncing like a ragdoll, through the dirt, with horse hooves thudding perilously close to her head—had started circulating on Facebook. Over lunch, Miller told Wimberly she thought the video would be used as ammunition by those who didn’t think women should take part in sports that posed such a consistent mortal risk. Some of the people who commented on the video worried that bronc riding would ruin women’s fertility; some said women shouldn’t ride broncs because they aren’t as strong as men, or because they could leave their children motherless. It annoyed Miller. “Oh, hey, this is why girls shouldn’t ride broncs, because we get dangled underneath a horse,” Miller said, mimicking the critics. “I’m fine with [that video] being shared; I’m not fine with it being shared over and over and over and over again.”

“Everybody likes that video but you,” Wimberly replied.

“There’s plenty of people who don’t like that video,” Miller shot back. “I’m not fine with it being shared 100 times a year because it looks bad. It looks really bad.”

Responding later on the RIDE TV cameras, in the confessional style of reality interviews, Miller expanded on her argument. “Sometimes I think that people focus too much on our injuries instead of what we’re actually accomplishing as women bronc riders,” Miller said. “What we do as bronc riders, getting on these horses and making good rides, winning money, competing year-round—it shows how tough and gritty we are. Not just walking away from a near-death experience. But if you make a good wreck that’s all they’re going to talk about, and that’s all they’re going to associate with your image, and your reputation, is we can’t ride broncs because look what happened.” In other words, women should ride despite the possibility for hurt. It was an academic perspective, born out of caution cured from knowing the cooling effect of decades of repression. Any woman bronc rider could become the next Bonnie McCarroll, and then who knew how many years it would be before they could start riding at rodeos again.

At the time McCarroll died, in 1929, women rode bucking horses at the biggest rodeos and competed for purses that were equal to those earned by men. Women had been an integral part of ranching life during the colonization of the West; one cowgirl, born in Colorado in 1878, said, “I cared not a whit for social customs, and could not understand a world designed especially for little boys to romp in.” Frontier cowgirls became a mainstay in rodeos, where they competed against men in steer roping and trick riding and against each other in bronc riding and cow pony races. They headlined rodeos at Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden. Rodeo cowgirl scholar Mary Lou Lecompte wrote that rodeo was, “the first, and perhaps the only, sport in which men and women truly competed as equals.”

But McCarroll’s death prompted the rodeo where she rode, the Pendleton Round-Up, to cancel women’s bronc riding, and other rodeos followed. The Rodeo Association of America formed the same year, and since there were no women rodeo producers, there were also no women in the organization. The RAA did not include women in its published standings, or print photos of women in the finalist shots in its magazine. In 1931, rodeos started hosting sponsor girls, who led parades and were judged on their attractiveness instead of their athleticism. A decade later, Gene Autry started a rodeo company and from then on, none of his rodeos hosted any competitions for cowgirls at all. Deciding that they had better do something or watch themselves be relegated to beauty pageants, women started their own organization, which put together some all-girl rodeos and managed to get barrel racing back on the roster at the larger rodeos.

Since then, women have competed publicly in nearly every sport, including ones that openly involve physical peril. The first woman climbed Mount Everest in 1975; the first woman bullfighter to become a full Matador de Toros in Spain did so in 1996; women’s boxing was included in the 2012 Olympics. It has become passé to fête the achievements of women athletes as though they were interesting only by virtue of their having been accomplished by women, but there is still something liberating about watching women conspicuously demonstrate that they are free to make use of their own bodies however they please, danger or no. In a sense, though, reviving women’s rodeo bronc riding is less of a trailblazing move than it is a throwback to a model of gender roles that prevailed during a certain American moment and that has been dimmed by the passage of time. Eight years before McCarroll was fatally thrown from her horse at the Pendleton Round-Up, an author named Charles Wellington Furlong wrote about the cowboys and cowgirls who rode there, noting that, “few queens have vouchsafed to occupy thrones less secure than that supreme one offered by the parliament of the Round-Up each year—the world championship saddle of the cowgirls’ bucking contest.” By less secure he didn’t mean at risk of being cancelled. He meant that bucking horses buck.

After the video of Wimberly’s bad ride starting circulating and the same old tropes that shut down women’s saddle bronc riding the first time starting appearing again, Wimberly thought, what the hell, flaunt the hurt. Being up front about the injuries and danger, and nevertheless still pursuing glory, would show everyone what women were capable of and what the sport was about. “The way I see it, it doesn’t show the weakness of women, it shows our strength,” Wimberly told the RIDE TV camera crew. There was no reason to hide the hurdles women faced—if anything, they were tougher for it. “When you can get dragged across the arena on your head, get a bad concussion, get your feet nearly jerked from your leg, and get up from that, and stand up, wave to the crowd, walk off—okay, I might have limped a little—to me, that’s impressive.”

Less than an hour before the rodeo in Bulverde, and Crisp is pacing around with a beer and a cigarette trying to stay calm. Behind the chutes prevail the hushed preparatory rituals of a ballet before the curtain rises: cowboys on the ground stretching their legs into creaking saddle stirrups, cans of Red Bull listing in the dirt, headphones pressed into ear canals and the faraway look of athletes willing their adrenaline to obey. Jane Revercomb, one of the six television cowgirls, arrives, chap fringes fluttering at her sides, and pulls on shin guards. Hertel makes sure she baby-powdered her boots. The horses of the flag bearers come thundering down the arena grounds, and the horses in paddocks flare their nostrils. Someone sings the national anthem and someone else thanks God for freedom over the loudspeakers and the announcer sighs, “no better way to start a rodeo than that right there, a little prayer and a little patri-oh-tism.”

The cowgirls are first to ride. Crisp bounces up and down on her toes, sways side to side, squats and peers through the chute rails, the brim of her hat just inches away from the ears of her ride, her horse, her immediate future. Cowboys are cramped onto the platform behind the chutes, offering help, peering down into the shadows that obscure the depths of the distance between them and the ground. The arena lights have come on and far away, very far away across a sea of dirt, there is a grandstand full of people, watching. McElroy is outside of the chute in the arena, shouting up at Crisp. “Let’s get some!” Revercomb calls. Crisp climbs on to the horse, grasps the saddle horn and rein, and nods her head. The chute swings open and her bronc, a dark bay named Easy Lover, comes sailing out, taking two long bounds before planting its front hooves into the arena floor and sending its hindquarters skyward, twisting hard to the left, and before there’s time to think, Crisp is off the horse, in midair, legs tucked, hair flying, and, with the laws of gravity prevailing upon her, on a swift trajectory toward the earth.

Rainey Gibbs about to get acquainted with the dirt.
Rainey Gibbs about to get acquainted with the dirt.
Photo: Cheyenne Frontier Days

Crisp gets up and walks off the dirt looking disgusted, climbs over the rails of the chute and hangs there for a moment looking back at the ring, and when she makes her way back behind the catwalk, her eyes are double their usual size and glassed over, like she’s still not quite sure what happened. The next rider up, Hertel, makes the first buck and then, when her horse performs a jump and kick maneuver, soars off the side. Jessi Wyatt, who joined for part of the second TBRA tour and drove down to Bulverde with her mom for the rodeo, draws a horse that doesn’t want to come out of the chute. After one false start, it snaps into motion, and Wyatt doesn’t recover from leaning forward on the saddle horn and over the horse’s neck. She comes off the right side, landing hard on her back and getting the wind knocked from her. She stays down as McElroy runs out, and struggles to her feet leaning on his arm and on one of the judge’s. The announcer asks the crowd to send encouragement in the form of applause, but the crowd is uncertain. Jessica Sutton, the Aggie fan, rides a big horse that has a small start out of the chute and then explodes, and Sutton never gets a seat, pitching off just a few seconds after the ride starts. The last out of the chutes is Revercomb, who has been riding broncs for two years already. She covers her eight seconds. After her ride, Hertel comes up and introduces herself.

“Jane, I’m Dori.”

“Nice to meet you, Dori,” Revercomb says, taking off her foam and leather protective vest.

“Nice to meet you. I’ve heard about ya,” Hertel says.

“I’ve been around. Last time I was here, I got on that paint horse,” Revercomb points to a horse, “and broke my rib. So coming back here I was like, ‘I’m not scared!’ I remember Daryl ran out to me, as I was getting up, and he was like, ‘speak to me! Speak to me!’ and I was like, ‘I can’t speak!’ It was awful.”

A cowboy in a blue shirt passes by. “Nice ride,” he tells Revercomb.

“Oh, thank you!” Turning back to Hertel, Revercomb compliments her for staying on her horse for as long as she had. “That horse was tough,” Revercomb says. They discuss gear. They talk about the best kind of socks that allow boots to slip off if they get caught up in a stirrup; where to get shin guards, neck guards, knee guards. Revercomb says people make fun of her for wearing so much protective gear. “But I’m like, ‘listen, I’m trying to stay on the road as long as I can.’”

McElroy comes over and they talk about the bronc riding school, about how to accumulate time on bucking horses. They talk about Revercomb’s ride; after two tours, she can’t remember how many times she’s nodded for a bronc. She’s been bucked off dozens of times; she’s had strings of bad rides when it just didn’t seem like she was ever going to make eight seconds again. Tonight, though, her ride is good. Tonight, she rides like a cowgirl who has been driving on long roads through the night, dog in the backseat, radio singing, for years, trying to figure out how to stay on a bronc. Tonight, she draws a white horse that comes leaping out of the chute and bucks and bucks. It’s not the rankest horse in the pen, though it is skittish in the corral; but the horse takes sylphlike leaps and reaches its hindlegs in long kicks behind it, Pegasus shorn of his wings. “Hell yeah, Jane!” someone shrieks. The crowd, distant, screams with delight. Revercomb stays on for 12 bucks before the buzzer goes off and the pickup men come galloping forward to help her dismount, and the horse keeps bucking, but the balance has shifted, its wildness has waned in the presence of her refusal to be unseated.

Jessica Camille Aguirre (@jessicacaguirre) is a freelance journalist currently based in Germany.