Cowgirl up | SummitDaily.com

Cowgirl up

Leah Vann
Steamboat Pilot & Today

Eleven-year-old Grace George recounts the moments following her winning calf ride at the Routt County Fair on Aug. 16.

"I kind of did a side flip forward. I don't really know," Grace said. "I heard somebody yell, 'wave to the crowd,' and I heard the crowd yelling and whooping."

Grace wore a bruise on her right leg for a few weeks from being stepped on, but the paramedics that rushed to her side shortly after her ride were there mostly as a precaution. She was just in shock from the fall.

Maybe more shocking was the fact that she took first place after riding a calf for only the second time ever. What she does remember is the look on the boys' faces when she was awarded the belt buckle.

"They were all like, 'Did she really win this?'" Grace said.

The first time she rode a calf was during last year's Routt County Fair, and it took a little convincing.

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"I was just very surprised because Grace is a shy, timid girl," Grace's mother, Katherine George, said. "She's a little reserved. It was unexpected that she wanted to do something adventurous and dangerous."

Katherine believes in allowing her kids to take risks and find out what they enjoy. She said the Routt County Fair was the perfect setting for her daughter to try the sport.

Grace's father, Ruff, wasn't as willing.

"She's my little princess. It terrified me," Ruff said. "And the thought of her being injured terrified the life out of me."

Grace was given instructions just seconds before her first ride last year, and she got the same ones this year. She just held on longer.

"He just said, 'Look at the crown or the forehead, hold on like this, pinky is out, thumb is out, hold on with two fingers.'" Grace said, demonstrating with her hand how she held on.

She paused to think for a moment, "Or maybe it was like this," pointing her index finger out.

No, she had it right the first time. There's not much of a thought process going into an eight-second ride, other than holding on.

Grace admits she was scared last year, being the only girl with little instruction. She got stepped on then, too.

"She was thrilled despite the fact she got dumped literally right when she got out of the gate." Ruff said.

Katherine, although supportive of the decision, didn't expect Grace to enjoy it. She took Grace to the event this year, while Ruff stayed behind. But Ruff regretted missing the win, even though it would've been hard for him to watch.

Grace has tried to encourage other girlfriends of hers to get involved, but not all parents are open to the idea of their kids getting bucked off a calf.

"I don't think it's any more dangerous than the crazy skiing these kids do," Katherine said. "It seems scarier because it's with an animal."

Grace's family is comfortable around animals, having their own ranch with goats, chickens and geese. Grace raises the goats as a member of the Routt County 4-H Club.

Yet what makes Grace's choice to enter the calf-riding competition unique is her gender. Ruff said he wouldn't be as scared if Grace's brother Jack decided to participate. But Jack shows little interest in the rodeo events, while Grace has always been fascinated by the bull riding scene.

"I'm just proud of her for doing something no other girls are doing and that she's so brave," Katherine said. "Girls can do anything boys can do and sometimes better."

Women in bull riding

Grace's next step as a 12-year-old would be steer or bronc riding. She's already expressed more interest in bronc riding, since steers are much taller, and she'd like to grow a few more inches.

But in the two years that Grace has participated, she's been the only girl competing in those events in Routt County, even at the calf-riding level, which reflects where the sport is for women today in both the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Pro Bull Riders circuits.

"We only know of one [woman] that has competed in the PRCA-sanctioned bull riding events this year," PRCA social media and public relations coordinator Cassie Emerson said. "She won one rodeo, but I would not consider it a major event. It was a weekly rodeo."

On Aug. 8, Lauren Ehrlich became the first woman to ride a bull for eight seconds at the Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove, New Jersey.  Since it was a PRCA-sanctioned event, Ehrlich's performance counts toward her regional circuit placing and can determine whether or not she will make the finals this December in Las Vegas.

"In this area, there really aren't any other girls," Ehrlich said. "I got my best friend into it. She's on beginner stuff still, and a couple years ago there were a bunch of girls, but they were only getting on steers. It's fun to have other girls around."

But when she competes with her male counterparts, Ehrlich doesn't see herself as any different. She thinks of herself as a bull rider who happens to be a girl, but it took some time.

"When I first started, it was definitely intimidating," Ehrlich said. "And I wasn't welcome by anyone. Now people know me, and they know that I'm serious about it."

Bull riding is dangerous, for males and females, so Ehrlich doesn't try to convince anyone else to join her. But for kids like Grace, she has nothing but words of encouragement.

"You have to have your entire heart into it," Ehrlich said. "I'd like to help them as much as I can."

Ehrlich grew up riding horses and going to the Cowtown Rodeo, but that was her only background when she got on a bull for the first time at age 18.

"They (Cowtown Rodeo) were having practice, and they bring all their young bulls and invite the public to get on," Ehrlich said. "I got on and ended up riding six riding calves my first day."

But that's not the approach she'd recommend for up-and-coming bullriders.

"I think that there's a balance between pushing yourself to the next level and not pushing too hard," Ehrlich said. "You really have to start consistently getting better at lower level stuff before you move up. It's a lot about trying not to get hurt while also getting better."

The Pro Bull Riders circuit doesn't have any women currently competing. In January 2011, Kaylynn Pellam became the first woman to compete in a Touring Pro Division event and the second woman to compete in any PBR-sanctioned event at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Before her, Sarah Bradley competed in three Challenger Tour events in 2006 but never reached more than 4.5 seconds.

"They didn't have any measurable success," PBR public relations manager Heather Croze said. "I don't know what the reasoning is. It's not like we discourage women. They are certainly open to learn the sport. We do have open PBR academies in the summertime, and we have had young girls go through that. Why they have not continued in the sport, I couldn't tell you."

Emerson said the PRCA also hosts one-day camps that anyone older than 8 can attend, but there are no efforts to get more women involved in bull riding.

A missing history

Records tracing the history of women in bull riding are thin. There are no records of women competing in bull-riding events in Routt County, but that does not mean none have.

Ehrlich, Pellam and Maggie Parker, a 19-year old who became the first PRCA woman to win a check in a bull-riding competition in June 2012, are among the women breaking down barriers in the sport.

The Women's Pro Rodeo Association, which currently focuses on barrel racing, used to host women's-only bull riding competitions dating back to 1948. The last world champion in the WPRA bull-riding competition was Deedee Crawford in 2008, but the prize money wasn't there to continue.

"They quit," said Ann Bleiker, WPRA public relations manager. "There wasn't enough interest and weren't enough events and it didn't make economic sense to keep it going. All the energy now goes into roping and barrel racing."

Bleiker said she could not find records of how many women participated in the WPRA bull-riding competition in 2008 or any other year. She notes that the decline in women's bull riding may be because of the danger of the sport, much like football, which is showing decreased participation due to concern over concussions.

It's up to girls like Grace and women like Ehrlich to rewrite that history. Grace is hoping she can learn better technique in her future competitions.

"I'd really like to not get stepped on." Grace said.

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