“If there aren’t any horses in heaven, I don’t want to go,” World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Fanny Sperry Steele told a New York public relations consultant in 1980. Fanny’s love for horses began at the age of three when she tried to lasso a pinto with her mother’s scarf. By the time she was six years old she was riding across her family’s ranch in the Beartooth Mountains near Helena, Montana, on her first pony. Born on March 27, 1887, to Datus and Rachael Sperry, Fanny was one of five children, all of whom would become expert equestrians. The Sperry Ranch was a horse ranch. Wild horses filled the area and the Sperrys rounded up, corralled, broke the animals, and sold them to working cowboys. Fanny was helping to break horses at fifteen.
Riding in relay races at small rodeos seemed a natural progression for Fanny. She was fearless in the saddle and won several first-place medals. Fanny graduated from performing in local rodeos and fairs to riding in Wild West Shows throughout Montana, Iowa, and Wisconsin. In 1912, she traveled to Canada to participate in the Calgary Stampede. She entered the women’s bronc riding contest and after five days of competing in a rain-soaked arena, she won the Women’s World Title in bronc riding. She returned to the Sperry Ranch with $1,000 in prize money, a silver mounted saddle, and the championship gold belt buckle.
Not long after her amazing win in Calgary, Fanny met former rodeo performer turned rodeo producer and rancher Bill Steele. After a brief time together, Steele proposed. The two were married on April 30, 1913, in Helena, Montana. In August, the newlyweds traveled to Calgary so Fanny could again compete for top honors. Rodeo fans at the event were on their feet cheering when they learned she’d retained her bronc riding title. “Miss Steele is the only cowgirl who rides without hobbled stirrups and is clearly in a class by herself,” the August 18, 1913, edition of the Winnipeg Tribune read.
Fanny won numerous bronc riding and relay racing titles between 1913 and 1923, competing against accomplished women riders such as Vera McGinnis and Balance McGaughey. In addition to participating in rodeos from Oregon to New York, she and Bill rode in various Wild West shows including the Irwin Brothers, the Miller Brothers, and Buffalo Bill’s show. For a brief time, the Steeles had their own Wild West show. During the programs Fanny demonstrated her riding and trick shooting skills. In one of her routines, she shot the ashes off Bill’s cigar while it was still in his mouth. In another, she shot glass eggs Bill held between his fingers.
When they weren’t on the road, Fanny and Bill were enjoying their time on their dude ranch near Lincoln, Montana. The couple cared for a myriad of animals including a large herd of pinto horses. Fanny was the first woman with a guide’s license in the United States and routinely led fishing and hunting parties.
Bill Steele passed away in 1940 and Fanny was left to care for the ranch herself. It was a job she happily did until she was seventy-nine years old.
The Women’s Saddle Bronc World Champion was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1962. She died on February 11, 1983.