This isn’t supposed to happen. For ten years, the All-American Cowgirl Chicks have wowed crowds with their formation riding, trick, stunts, and Roman riding. But tonight something is wrong. Blonde hair flying beneath her red, white, and blue felt, Sadie has entered the arena standing on three horses trotting side by side. A foot on each outside animal, her legs bob up and down like shock absorbers. Sadie holds the reins of the outside horses and clamps the center set in her teeth. She clucks her mounts into a lope, but the trio bobs around like pistons out of time. Two strides from the pole, they gather themselves to jump, but the center animal leaps before the others, which clip the pole and knock it onto the red sand. Sadie circles, looks up at the announcer, and raises her index finger. For the sake of the group’s reputation, for her own pride, she will try one more time.
In North Texas just south of the Oklahoma border, the thermometer at the Kuekelhan Ranch arena reads ninety-six degrees. The chirp of katydids rises and falls in waves. After fifty-nine years, the Kuekelhan has become the Mother Church of Family Rodeo. Tonight two-thirds of the five thousand seats constructed from old highway guardrails are filled. Veterans, seniors, parents, and children of all ages have come to see the All American Cowgirl Chicks: Trish, the mother and leader; daughter Sadie, 22; daughter Hattie, 15; and the newest member, Syke (“Syka”), 20.
The Chicks have performed in hundreds of rodeos in Texas and across the U.S. They have practiced their stunts, patterns, and jumps for months—for years, really—and they pride themselves on making fans jump up and down and exclaim, “Did you see that!”
Music is blaring, and the crowd is applauding. Some spectators stand for a better view. The horses go ‘round with Sadie standing astride as tall and willowy as limber pine, but two more times she fails to clear the jump.
Two horses are added but the group of five remains out of sync. Five times they knock down the rail, and Sadie rides out of the arena shaking her head. Eventually, every athlete and performer has a night like this.
After the calf roping, breakaway roping, and saddle bronc competitions, the Chicks ride in to perform tricks. Hattie, petite and agile as a spider monkey, performs a “Stroud layout.” She gallops one foot in the stirrup and one hooked over a trick riding saddle horn while she extends outward, her arms outstretched as if imitating a cross. Then she sits upright again and, part beauty queen, part conquering general, raises her hand. The crowd hoots and hollers, but the Chicks are still smoldering about the Roman riding.
After the rodeo when most spectators have headed for the pasture lot, a line of parents and children snakes back from the All-American Cowgirl Chicks’ booth where fans can purchase products also available online: Chicks caps and felt hats, belts (“Fight like a cowgirl!”), tack, handbags, seasonings and salsa, Chicks novels, t-shirts, bracelets (“Cowgirl up!”) and other jewelry, guitars, and horse feed. Small children, two-thirds of them girls, peer starry-eyed out from under their hats to catch a glimpse of the females they’ve grown to admire while watching their performances and RFD-TV show. When the Chicks talk and lean in for pictures, the girls beam and boys blush. Relieved moms and dads smile knowing their children could just as easily fawn over Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber. Every so often a child leans in for a hug. All the Chicks remain until the line is no more.
Back behind the arena three gooseneck trailers emblazoned with red, white, and blue and giant photos of the Chicks are parked next to temporary horse pens. Fourteen horses feed on hay. Trish, still thinking about the night’s performance, shakes her head. “That was shameful, embarrassing.” She seems more disappointed than angry. Why? “We take the name ‘All-American’ seriously. It’s a big name to live up to. It’s a display of patriotism, our way of honoring our military, of saying how grateful we are to live in this country. In everything we do, we try to live up to it.”
Early Friday morning, when the rough-stock riders and bullfighters are sleeping off the previous night, the bleachers sit empty and the All-American Cowgirl Chicks lead their horses into the arena to practice. Hattie is limping from being run over by three horses at a performance a few weeks earlier. Dark rings underline Sadie’s eyes.
These horses—all misfits or rejects of sorts—have become star performers because the Chicks take them in and refuse to give up on them. It’s not easy. After much training Syke’s bay mare is still jumpy. She prances and rears in place.
Over and again, the Chicks—including Trish—practice their formation riding. Another mare keeps running past the correct position. But the Chicks keep riding, and finally the formations are flawless. “That’s it,” Trish says. “Let’s end on a good note.”
When Sadie practices her Roman three-wide, her horses are in better sync, but still they do not clear the jump. During the five-wide formation the outside horse breaks loose and runs free like an escapee from North Texas State Hospital. Time and again the horses knock down the pole. Sadie grimaces. “My legs are killing me.” This admission sounds odd coming from a young woman who seldom complains, who has survived all manor of setbacks including a recurring form of breast cancer untreatable by radiation and chemotherapy. Sadie understands that her life depends on close monitoring and more surgery. She is the inspiration for “Fight like a cowgirl!” belts and “I Ride for the Cure.” t-shirts. But today her legs are having their own say. “Just give me five seconds,” she says, and she sinks onto the middle horse, rests for less than a minute, and then her face takes on her mom Trish’s resoluteness. “Okay, I’m ready.”
“We’re going to fix this,” Trish says.
For the sixth time, Sadie stands on her five horses and rides toward the jump, which they clear with ease. Sadie laughs the laugh of relief.
Trish nods. “Let’s quit on a good note.” But will success in practice translate to tonight’s performance, when the crowd will swell almost to capacity?
This is the way it has always been for the All-American Cowgirl Chicks: working hard and fighting to earn respect among rodeo entertainers in a male-dominated sport. When twenty years ago Trish, looking to evolve her local drill team, decided to expand into tricks and stunts, she encountered skepticism and resistance. Most people, including those close to her, said Trish and her girls would fail. When she approached legendary Weatherford, Texas trick rider J.W. Stoker, who performed until he was sixty-two year of age, and asked for his help, he, knowing how many persons over the years had not followed through on their interest, brushed them off. But they kept asking, kept showing up, kept demonstrating their commitment until Stoker, perhaps realizing these women might be a way to pass on his knowledge, turned full-tilt into their mentor.
From those early days the phrase “Never Quit,” a sentiment now emblazoned on their trucks, emerged as the group’s motto. From day one they’ve had to persevere through the difficulties of managing a revolving door of performers; the challenges of leading a team of young women; injuries to horse and rider; the enormous expense of stock, equipment, and travel; and Sadie’s cancer.
Friday afternoon before the evening rodeo, in full costume the All-American Cowgirl Chicks stride like Wonder Women into an assisted living facility in Bonham. The residents don’t know quite what to make of them, but who doesn’t like vibrant, confident young cowgirls who look like walking, talking American flags? A short visit extends through lunch while the Chicks play games, sing, and dine with residents who do not know them but instantly like them, these charismatic cowgirls who so unexpectedly interrupted what would have been another dull day.
Prior to the evening rodeo, the Chicks don’t talk much. They seem wound tight, determined. The trick riding goes well, especially the “full fender” where Hattie hangs off one side holding on with one foot, her hair dragging in the dirt like a mop. Then comes Sadie’s Roman riding. All three horses clear the jump; and the five, too. The crowd goes wild. But can they equal their performance the next evening, Saturday, the biggest night in rodeo?
Saturday night every seat is full. Spectators line the walkways, jam the aisles, and a few even hunker under the bleachers peering through hundreds of legs to see the greatest show in Texahoma. The air is electric. Let’s rodeo!
With a show business smile Sadie rides out standing on her three white horses, which lope around somewhat in sync but still do not clear the jump. She shakes her head but the smile remains. She looks up at the announcer, holds up a finger, and rides off again. The pole falls. Sadie motions for Syke, and each of the two Chicks sits bareback on the outermost horse, and lopes off. They clear the jump. Two more horses are added, and bareback Sadie and Syke clear the pole again. The roar is deafening.
The finale comes after the bull riding. Hattie leaps behind Sadie onto the horse’s croup and hooks her feet through two tail-drag straps attached to the cantle while Sadie, standing and holding a huge U.S. flag takes off at a run. Hattie hangs and flails behind, the horse’s hocks nearly thwacking her in the head. On their second pass huge plumes of sparks shoot out the top of the flagpole and from a canister Hattie is holding out behind the horse. The people stand, whistle, and scream, raise their hands as if the victory is theirs. There they go, triumphant, red-blooded all-American cowgirls clad in red, white, and blue raising Old Glory a-horseback, and spilling behind them a wake of sparks.