Black Women in Rodeo: Bucking the Trend
In celebration of Martin Luther King Day, and to honor the slain Civil Rights leader, Mikala Nealy will be one of the many “cowgirls” participating in the MLK Jr. Rodeo of Champions on Jan. 15, at the Denver Coliseum. The MLK rodeo is a brain child of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR), which is billed as “The Greatest Show on Dirt”. The MLK Rodeo is part of the Western Stock Show and is a salute to African American and Native American Cowboys and Cowgirls.
The MLK Jr. Rodeo of Champions features champion Cowboys and Cowgirls from BPIR who tell the history of African-American’s role in settling the Wild West – a fact that has been notoriously ignored by Hollywood and a little-known aspect of Western history. With the rodeo entering its 34th year, Valeria Vason-Cunningham is now continuing the legacy,by its founder the late Lu Vason, as being the only African American touring rodeo in the world. She points out that rodeo is a male dominated sport but is using the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo as a catalyst to change that.
When asked about women in rodeo, Valeria says, “Like everything in life “you must evaluate the people and the team you have around you. With me being a woman, I had the opportunity to do just that and elevate women into prominent positions within the organization.”
Valeria is proud to recognize the Black Women in rodeo. She is joined by some legendary Black women who havelong entrenched history with rodeo such as Carolyn Carter, Stephanie Haynes, Acynthia Villery, Danielle Clark and Tiphanie Carter. Other women who play crucial roles within their respective rodeo markets and provide critical guidance to BPIR include Margo Wade-LaDrew, Miss Barbara “Kitty” Love, Sheri Vason and Ronni Frank. These women along with advisors, such as Nicole Scott and Peggy Wortham are totally committed to assist in elevating the BPIR organization. Team work and collaboration have been and will continue to be the foundation of the phenomenon of “Black Women in Rodeo” as it continues to develop.
“Credit must be given to the men who have taught and guided the women along the journey for creating “Black Women in Rodeo,” Valeria says. Those men include Lu Vason, Jessie “Slugger” Guillory, Sedgwick Haynes, Clarence LeBlanc, Deon Osborne, Alfred Ousley, John DeCluette, Clarence Gipson, Reggie Dorsey, Glenn Turman and Jeff Douval.
The cowboys and cowgirls work together as a very close-knit group,” Valeria says. One of the BPIR women’s barrel racing champions, Mikala Nealy, 26, has been riding horses since she was three days old.
Three days old?
Actually, that’s not quite true…Nealy’s father (Thurston Nealy) had placed her on a horse’s back when she was three days old.
“My dad was a tie-down roper (calf roping), and my mom barreled raced,” Nealy says. “So, I just grew up around it.”
Nealy has been barrel racing since she was 5- years old, and gained more riding experience during her early teens, when she started investing herself into the sport.
“When I turned 18, I got my women’s professional rodeo association permit,” Nealy says. “That was when I really got serious.”
Nealy, a Bill Pickett Rodeo veteran, owns seven horses, five are on her ranch in southern Colorado and two are in Oklahoma. She ran three of those horses, Doc, Gamblerand Goldie, during her championship season last year.
“They are quarter horses,” Nealy explains. “They go back to different bloodlines, some have quarter horse racing blood, and some have been specified as barrel horses.”
Nealy says the cool thing about the Bill Pickett Rodeo is everybody tries to help one another, and she doesn’t feel any gender discrimination among her male counterparts.
“The men are competitors,” she says, “but everybody wants to see everyone succeed and do well.”
Valeria echoes Nealy’s feelings, punctuating the fact that the men have taken the women under their wings and continue mentoring them about the events and teaching them about rodeo. “Without themen there would be no Black women in rodeo.
The rodeo travels all over the United States and has a huge following. BPIR prides itself on educating others about rodeo and featuring women in prominent roles with the rodeo. “The fan support is incredible; I get emails all the time from rodeo fans who are very excited about seeing women both leading and participating. They never thought that they would see women doing this.” Valeria says who is very passionate about the rodeo and what it contributes to society and the community. She says the BPIR is a very encompassing group that includes women, men, and children. “We try to include the entire community because it is a community and family affair,” she says.
Black is Beautiful
The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo attracts 30 to 50 women, such as Nealy, throughout the year to participate as it tours the United States. There are different women who participate in different markets and events. “You’ll see the faces of Black women throughout the rodeo,”
Valeria says. “It is always a beautiful picture when we see beautiful Black women coming out on those beautiful horses. It just gives you a good feeling to see how these women have mastered this sport, and have become professionals at it.”
“The Bill Pickett Rodeo circuit starts in Denver in January with the MLK Rodeo,” Valeria says.
“The next stop, Memphis, Tennessee in April and then we do our west coast tour in July, which includes Oakland and Los Angeles, California. After the West coast tour, we head to Atlanta, Georgia, and then end our year in Washington, D.C. in September, where we have our Rodeo Finals.”
The BPIR association, in addition to having a huge fan base and a group of loyal cowboy and cowgirls, Mikala Nealy happens to be one of those. Nealy is a mainstay and performs with every stop as the rodeo establishes a footprint across the United States.
“Last year in Denver,” Nealy says “I ran my good horse and because we had a ground issue, I ended up taking second, so that was kind of a good start.”
Nealy explains that a good beginning helps set up her championship year, as she kept placing and doing well in Memphis and California. She indicated that she kind of struggled during the Finals in the nation’s capital, but she changed horses and was able to win the barrel racing competition.
Different Walks of Life
Like their male counter parts, the cowgirls come from all walks of life, according to Valeria. Some hold executive positions in different companies. Some are RNs and managers from all different industries. Valeria says the cowgirl’s ages can range from five to 50 years old.
So, what do they ALL have in common?
“They love horses and they love rodeos,” Valeria says. “Some have ranches and some have horses. Some teach others how to ride and how to interact with horses. It’s a pretty diverse group. You have people who work their ranches with non-profit organizations, teaching young kids how to ride and how to treat horses. Some use it as a hobby.”
Valeria believes the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo has had a huge impact educating communities and introducing people to the roles of Black cowboys and cowgirls. “It has also had an impact on generations of people who wanted to get more involved with horses and learn how to ride,” she says.
The BPIR features such stars as Barrel Racing and Steer Undecorating champion Stephanie Haynes, who is one of the most decorated females.
“She has been in the rodeo all her life,” Valeria says. “Her daughter rodeos, her granddaughter rodeos, they have a ranch, and they make a business of rodeo. She has been inductedin the Walk of Fame and the Black American West Museum in downtown Denver. She has won the most Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo women’s championships in the history of BPIR.
Current Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo champion Mikala Nealy,smilesand laughs when asked if she is famous for her accomplishments. Actually, her work ethic won’t allow her to rest on any such laurels, as she rides anywhere from two to four horses a day out on her ranch near Elizabeth, Colorado.
“After Sept. 1, I give my horses a couple months break,” Nealy says. “They kind of justhang out. However, I started riding them again two weeks ago, getting them back into condition and shape for the MLK Rodeo in Denver. They had a nice little break, but now it’s back to work.”
Editor’s note: The MLK Jr. Rodeo of Champions will be held Jan. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Denver Coliseum, located at 4600 Humboldt. Tickets are $20-$40. Children under two are admitted free. For more information, call 303-373-1246 or visit www.billpickettrodeo.com.