The holiday season in today’s rodeo world kind of kicks off with the end of the season and the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas – but it wasn’t always so. This Christmas break led me to reflect on the lives of the rodeo cowgirls I research, who competed in rodeo at the turn of the twentieth century. For many of these cowgirls, the off-season was a much needed rest, albeit in a loosely interpreted meaning of that word. Those who were married and owned ranches returned home to winterize the place, tend to their livestock, and complete the never-ending repair work that comes with ranching. But for those single cowgirls making a career in rodeo, the off-season was a scramble for a paycheck to make ends meet until the next rodeo.
Some of these cowgirls found work in other areas, as tailors or hair dressers, like Tillie Baldwin, and in office work. Others worked training horses, either for racing or for use in motion pictures. But a few wintered in California working as stunt doubles in Hollywood. Who could question how intelligent these cowgirls were when deciding to climb on a killer bronc (as I’m sure some did) when they were smart enough to winter in sunny southern California, and still make money doing what they loved? After this week’s winter storm, it seems like a brilliant plan!
Many rodeo cowgirls found off-season work in motion pictures; some were in silent films, and others worked for the industry in some capacity such as Alice Adams Holden, Bertha Kaepernik Blancett, and Mildred Douglas Chrisman, to name a few. Others like Vera McGinnis and Gene Creed who worked and lived part-time in the greater Los Angeles area, often trained horses for Hollywood production companies like Bison Motion Pictures and Universal Pictures. These women were well-known for their rodeo skills, from bronc and steer riding to roping and relay racing. In a time when stunt work was reserved for men, due to Victorian beliefs that women should not be sporty, these women used their athleticism to transform Hollywood, with many cowgirls working as stuntwomen and even becoming the main character and heroine.
Perhaps one of the more famous was Helen Gibson. She began her career with the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West show and proceeded into rodeo where she met and married Hoot Gibson. In Hollywood, what began as her off-season work became a solid career as a stuntwoman, actress, and producer. She is one of the few cowgirls who starred in a series that portrayed women as the hero. In Hazards of Helen, Gibson began as a double for Helen Holmes, then later starred in the same series, playing Helen for 63 episodes where in various scenarios she saves the day! Here she is in a great pose – rescuing herself in the film, The Capture of Red Stanley. 
Whether training horses, doubling for stars, or performing stunts, these women pursued their passion in a time when this type of work was atypical. Although women portrayed as heroines was not a sustained theme in the classic westerns, it does provide some history of real cowgirls who perpetuated their primary careers in rodeo by taking advantage of their popularity in Hollywood. Their talents were reflected during this brief period on the silver screen, leaving a legacy of inspiration for us all.
Here is an episode of Hazards of Helen starring Helen Gibson