Monday, March 24, 2014

Fannie Sperry Steele

On a homestead beneath the picturesque Sleeping Giant in the Prickly Pear Valley, Fannie Sperry’s mother taught her to ride almost before she could walk. As a teenager, Fannie rode the roughest horses with the best of the men. At a time when most women still rode sidesaddle, and riding astride was considered coarse and unladylike, Fannie earned a reputation for courage and sticking power on the backs of the wildest broncos wearing a scandalous divided skirt. In the summer of 1903, sixteen-year-old Fannie so awed spectators on a bucking white stallion that onlookers passed the hat. She made her first professional ride as a relay racer at the Montana State Fair in Lewis and Clark County in 1904. Inspired by Buffalo Bill’s “Pony Express Race,” the Montana relay featured only women riders who changed horses and saddles at top speed. Fannie and the popular Montana Girls—wearing bloomers that shocked the crowds—rode the very first relays at Helena, Butte and Anaconda and across the Midwest in 1905.

Relay racers in their shocking bloomers at the North Dakota State Fair in Bismarck, 1907.  L-R Anna Pauls, Christine Synness, Violet Keagle, Fannie Sperry. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives
Fannie rode in women’s bucking horse competitions and earned a gold medal in 1907 at Helena. At the Calgary Stampede in 1912, her ride on the killer bronc Red Wing went down in rodeo history earning her the title “Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World.” Artist C. M. Russell commemorated that event with a sketch of Fannie’s prowess.

Rodeo Cowgirl on a Bucking Bronc, Charles M. Russell
She earned the title again in 1913. Unlike most bronc-busting women of the time, Fannie Sperry rode “slick” instead of hobbled. Hobbling, tying the stirrups together beneath the horse’s belly for stability in the saddle, was a concession allowed women contestants. Slick riding, however, demanded precision, balance, courage, and unusual strength. Fannie was the only woman rider among her contemporaries to ride her entire career slick, just like her male counterparts.  She was one of the first women inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

P.S. Read more about Fannie here.

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