ost people have a limit to the amount of bull they’ll take. Tammy Kelly will take eight seconds and no more. If you get her started, stand back: She’s serious. She’ll put on a facemask. She’ll put on gloves. And she’ll get out a rope.

       But this petite woman isn’t upset. She’s getting ready for eight seconds with Snappy Tom, one of her practice bulls.

       Kelly, 41, is a five-time world champion PWRA (Professional Women's Rodeo Association) bull rider who lives near Queen Creek. And although her husband calls her an “itty bitty thing,” she is known in the rodeo world as one of the toughest female bull riders around. “Most women are not raised to do any kind of rough sport, especially riding bulls,” she said, “but I believe this is what I was raised to be.”

       A fifth-generation Arizonan from a longstanding ranching family in Payson, Kelly began rodeo at age 5. Her main event was barrel racing. In her late 20s, she became a field engineer and started a family after getting married. She has two daughters, ages 11 and 18, and a 2-year-old son.

       It wasn’t until 1993 that she began riding bulls. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but didn’t have the opportunity until I met Frank,” she said.

       Her husband, Frank Kelly, was a professional bull rider more than10 years ago but now runs a bull riding school at their home. He didn’t want her to ride at first, “but now he’s my biggest supporter,” she said.

       In 1994, she won her first world championship. She went on to win it the next four years in a row and probably would have continued her winning streak if her son had not come along. “I took time off when I had Hunter, who is 2 now,” she said. “And I started back last year and became reserve champion.”

       Most of the women she competes against are younger than she is. Female riders always compete against other women, but their rules are the same as those of the male bull riders. The average age ranges from the early 20s to the late 30s or early 40s.

       “I’m not sure how old most of them are,” she said, laughing. “All I know is that I’m in the upper part of that range!”

       Kelly’s age is unique in her sport. “Most of the women my age have come and gone. They’ve either been hurt or they’ve quit.” But Kelly said that being a little older than the rest is definitely not a disadvantage. “I have more confidence in what I can do, and a lot of times I think the younger girls I compete against are not as confident because they haven’t had as much experience.”

       She’s much more focused than she would have been had she started riding earlier in life. “My age benefits me a lot. When I make up my mind to do something now, I’m much more committed. When I was younger, I might have been distracted by other things.”

       Kelly knows her limits and her abilities, but many of the younger women are just learning. “Sometimes I think they doubt themselves,” she said.



Tammy Kelly relaxes before bull-riding practice at her ranch in Queen Creek, Arizona. Photo by Molly Petrovich


Cowgirls have been around as far back as 1880, performing in Wild West shows and county fairs all over the country. In 1885, Annie Oakley and other women became the first females to change the face of rodeo by bringing athleticism along with femininity to the traveling shows. Women’s success in rodeo grew until the Depression, when livestock was scarce and used only for men’s rodeo. By 1946, only about 12 women were still competing. In 1947, two women in Amarillo, Texas, organized the All-Girl Rodeo, which later became the Professional Women’s Rodeo Association.

    Today, women in rodeo receive the same recognition and respect as their male counterparts do. In fact, world champion barrel racer Sherry Cervi has made the most prize money in one year than any other man or woman to this day: $245,369.  




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ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication.