You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!

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Opening Image: Breakaway Roping pioneer Jackie Crawford celebrates after her $600,000 winning run at The 2023 American Rodeo at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. The American Rodeo Photo by Michael Clark. 

Breakaway roping has experienced unprecedented growth over the last few years and today’s cowgirls are getting opportunities that once only seemed like a distant dream.  While these accomplishments are exciting for competitors and fans, they stand for something so much bigger than a sport.  This success serves as a reminder of how far women have come in the Western industry and are now able to stand in the same spotlight as the cowboys who have dominated the scene for so long.

It wasn’t easy getting to the point we’re at today.  Opportunities for women in rodeo were severely hindered after the death of Bonnie McCarroll at the Pendleton Roundup in 1929 as the result of a bronc riding accident.  Despite the fact that the sport of rodeo was for decades called too dangerous for women, Bonnie’s passing has served as the catalyst to start eliminating female competitors in the sport.

In response to the lack of rodeo opportunities for women, 38 female competitors formed the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) in 1948, which would later become the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) that we have today.  Since its inception, it has grown tremendously and now cowgirls can, with sheer grit and determination, actually make a living breakaway roping on the biggest stages the sport has to offer.  

The slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” was developed by the cigarette brand Virginia Slims in the ‘60s and marketed exclusively to women – a new phenomenon in advertising at the time.  It spoke directly about the progress women all over America were fighting for.  While its origin may have been controversial, the phrase has lasted into modern times and serves as a symbol of women’s empowerment.

March 11, 2023, will forever be in the rodeo history books. Jackie Crawford became the first breakaway roper in history to split the prestigious $1 million purse at The American Rodeo with calf roper, Ty Harris. Her $600,000 win is the single largest payday ever for a female roper, and is a tremendous accomplishment to have been able to witness. 

In today’s age, nothing is more empowering than being a breakaway roper and getting to witness the monumental steps the sport has taken over the last few years and even the last few months. There is no better way to emphasize the impact of this “dream come true” more than the ladies who are smack-dab in the middle of the action. 

Legendary breakaway roper Lari Dee Guy is, and has always been, a trailblazing force for women in the world of roping while also remaining one of its fiercest competitors.  She believes breakaway’s exponential growth is a huge opportunity for the sport of rodeo.  “It adds another women’s event to ProRodeo, and to me that brings value to rodeo—bigger fan base, increase of the price of horses, and many other things.  It allows women ropers to showcase their talents for the world to see.” 

Photo by Rebecca Cornelius.

The seasoned veteran continues to see more talent in ropers and horses as it’s become a mainstream event that is now being taken seriously.  “I hope to continuously see growth and hope that girls don’t settle.  I want us to keep fighting for it to become an equal event and be part of the NFR.”

Coming from a roping and competitive family, no one has dreamed of breakaway roping being this popular more than 17-time World Champion JJ Hampton.  She is amazed by the equal pay opportunities breakaway ropers are experiencing, as well as the outstanding horsepower being put on display.

PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Dan Lesovsky.

She praises, “I am so excited about the growth of Breakaway Roping.  It has come such a long way since I started, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.  All these ladies are working so hard.  Cowgirls are going to be able to make a living Breakaway Roping and that is phenomenal.” 

2022 World Champion Breakaway Roper Martha Angelone has experienced a lot of “firsts” since joining the WPRA in 2018.  She was the inaugural event winner at the first National Finals Breakaway Roping in 2020, and the first WPRA breakaway roper to be officially recognized on the World Champions stage following the 10th round of the NFR at the Thomas and Mack in Las Vegas in 2022.

PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Dan Lesovsky.

“I feel like the breakaway is just growing and will continue to grow and expand,” she says.  “I feel like it’s becoming the biggest-entered rodeo event that they have and will become the biggest event in rodeo.  I hope the bigger jackpots and rodeos just keep growing for us and getting better.  It’s crazy to think you can have a life career in rodeo in the breakaway now.”

As the 2022 Resistol Rookie Breakaway Roper of the Year, Josie Conner has been able to grow with the sport.  “The first time breakaway was added to The American Rodeo, I was 16 years old.  Now, I’m 19 years old and can rodeo professionally all year.  There are great opportunities for us ladies now.  This is huge and I only see it getting bigger.” 

Like the other talented female athletes she competes against, Josie embraces every opportunity ropers have been given.  “The fact that many committees are choosing to add breakaway roping to their rodeos is awesome.  We are getting to compete on big stages and in front of sold-out crowds.  It has made competing so much fun and it gives us a chance to shine!” 

She continues, “I don’t see breakaway roping going away any time soon because it is a fast-paced, fan friendly event that brings a ton of value to a rodeo.  Just like with anything, you hope to see continual growth.  Obviously, I feel like the endgame would be for breakaway ropers to be able to compete alongside the other competitors for equal payout in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.”

With three world titles under her belt, Erin Johnson has solidified her position amongst the best ropers going down the road.  After a 20+ year career as a breakaway roper, she is still just as passionate, if not more, about the opportunities women ropers have been given.  “It feels like we were on a giant uphill climb for literally decades.  It took a lot of stubborn dedication from quite a few breakaway ropers in different parts of the country to get us where we are now.  I couldn’t be more excited about the recognition and opportunities the breakaway event has been given.”

PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Joe Duty.

“There are more girls/women continuing to focus and work at the breakaway event past college now also since there are so many good opportunities at the professional level.  The level of competition continues to rise as well as the value of and marketability of breakaway horses and prospects.  Breakaway has no doubt been a huge benefit to the equine industry.”

Not only does Erin also dream of breakaway roping being added to the Thomas and Mack lineup, she wants the event to be accessible every female Western athlete, and potential competitor across the country.  “I want breakaway at every circuit rodeo and circuit finals.  I want to see moms, college girls, and grandmas competing in breakaway even when their goal isn’t to make the NFR,” she explains, “Someday, I want it to be possible for me and other women to rodeo professionally as a breakaway roper and still be able to enjoy being home with my kids and family during the week.  When breakaway is fully integrated in Professional Rodeo, that’s when professional breakaway ropers will have more options and ways to make a living doing what they love.”

20-time World Champion Jackie Crawford has also played a key role in the explosive growth of the event.  “I think that the breakaway has been the largest boom to come on the rodeo scene ever.  Breakaway has always been there, the women who rope have always been there, it’s just that somebody finally gave us the opportunity to showcase that on a bigger level,” she explains.  “It has just opened the floodgates to what breakaway can do in the Western industry and the value that it can bring to the Western industry.” 

Jackie is still amazed at all the new opportunities female ropers have been given.  “I remember winning two back-to-back ropings and it was like the biggest thing ever.  That was in 2002, and it was unheard of for a girl to win $6,000 in the breakaway.  As it’s grown, then being the first girl to win $50,000 at a major showcase, it’s unbelievable.”

During her emotional post-run interview at The American, Jackie expressed, “This is crazy. What are the odds? I can’t believe this. I can’t believe the opportunity we’re getting right here just to be a part of it. I have no idea why I’m the one who gets to sit up here and do this, but all I can say is I hope God is looking at me and saying, ‘You are doing exactly what I put you here to do.’”

No one has been working harder on the equal opportunity initiative behind-the-scenes than Jimmie Munroe, President of the WPRA. A past competitor and World Champion herself, she decided to run again for the position in 2021 after she felt the need to give something back to the association and the sport of professional rodeo. Her main objective? Working on breakaway being featured at the NFR. 

Photo by Kirstie Marie.

“The growth in the breakaway has been phenomenal.  Back in 2019, I think there were about 50 breakaway ropings in professional rodeos.  Then the first year they had the Wrangler National Finals Breakaway Roping was in 2020, and that year I think we had 100 breakaway ropings at PRCA rodeos.  Then they went to 200 in 2021, and last year there were 370.  The popularity of it is really similar to the course that the barrel racing took, only it’s happening much faster.” 

She continues, “We’re going to hold the Wrangler National Finals Breakaway again at the South Point.  They’re very excited about it and we’re going to work very hard with them to get our attendance where it needs to be.  That’s something that we’re going to work on this year, and of course our ultimate goal is to hold it in the Thomas and Mack and have it been part of the National Finals.   I think that that’s something in the next year or two we’re going to be working very hard on and hopefully we can make that move.”

Jimmie praises the female breakaway ropers today who have done such a tremendous job “selling” their event through their remarkable talent and horsemanship.  “I really give the credit for this growth and everything to the women because they have done such a good job in everything.  Like I said, that’s much like the barrel racing was.  Those women were the ones in the early years who sold that event.  They were good, had good horses, were talented.  It’s an event that’s easy to understand and the crowd likes it.  It’s quick and it’s fast, and that’s the way the breakaway is.  The WPRA has two of the most popular events in ProRodeo, which is really something.”

Breakaway’s success is a testament to the decade’s long commitment and passion these cowgirls have for their craft.  You’ve come a long way, baby, but you’re just getting started.  

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