Opportunities are growing for female rodeo athletes as the women’s breakaway roping event takes a national stage at the close of 2020.
The month of December is special to rodeo fans and enthusiasts as it signals the time for the National Finals Rodeo; a ten-day championship competition held annually that has been referred to as the “superbowl” of rodeo.
In late September, the 2020 finals promised to be historic as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association unveiled plans to host the first ever National Finals of Breakaway Roping in conjunction with the NFR.
“I think it’s great,” said Erika Thigpen, a Southern Utah University senior rodeo team member who competes in the breakaway roping event. “Such a neat thing for breakaway to get its own finals.”
Fifteen women were chosen to ride their horses into the historic first-ever event slated to take place in Arlington, Texas on Dec. 8-10. These women represent the best in breakaway as they each claimed the highest total earnings won at breakaway competitions throughout the year.
Breakaway roping is an all-female rodeo event where cowgirls have the goal of roping a calf released from a metal chute with the fastest time. The run starts as the roper nods her head and ends once the calf breaks the string that connects the rope to her saddle horn.
Women’s rodeo events have been limited in both large payouts and competitive opportunities with barrel racing being the only WPRA event welcomed to many PRCA-sanctioned rodeos until the last several years.
“Everything this year has already brought light to breakaway with it being at a lot of the big rodeos like the American,” Thigpen said referring to an annual March rodeo that draws large crowds as athletes compete for one of the largest rodeo payouts during the event.
Though not a PRCA-sanctioned event, the American Rodeo is regarded as a high-caliber competition that made history in 2019 as the first major rodeo to add breakaway roping to its list of events.
Since this time, the fast-paced women’s roping competition has been featured at other notable rodeos including the Days of ‘47 Rodeo in Salt Lake City and the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo in Wyoming.
For Thigpen, the fast growth of the breakaway roping event represents a wealth of opportunities.
“It makes me really excited to be able to have a next level to step up once I graduate,” Thigpen said. “It opens a lot of opportunities and paths for me to take and I am fortunate I can rodeo after college.”
Thigpen began competing in breakaway roping seven years ago as a high school freshman involved with the Nevada High School Rodeo Association. After graduation she continued roping as a collegiate competitor.
In 2019, she claimed the championship title for breakaway ropers in the Rocky Mountain Region as a member of the SUU rodeo team. She bested a field of ropers from the 12 colleges in the region to solidify a spot at the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, WY.
Thigpen notes that “some event opportunities end or are limited after high school or college,” making the CNFR the highest level of competition many breakaway ropers had to aspire to until the NFBR announcement.
With breakaway offering a growing number of avenues for female rodeo competitors, Thigpen thinks that the NFBR event will help breakaway roping find a home at more rodeos and that it will grow the sport “contestant wise.”
The addition of breakaway roping to rodeo events also opens up avenues for women in all-around competition. An all-around title is awarded to a rodeo competitor with the most money won by placing in two or more rodeo events over the course of a competition.
Cowgirls have historically been limited in the events that they could participate in at professional rodeo events due to sanctioning standards, making it nearly impossible for them to be in contention for an all-around award.
With the addition of breakaway, the playing field has leveled out a little more and in 2019 WPRA barrel racer and breakaway roper Nellie Miller became the first cowgirl to claim an all-around title at the Red Bluff Round-Up Rodeo in Red Bluff, California.
“I think breakaway is good for the sport of rodeo,” Thigpen said. “It helps bring in another women’s event to a lot of pro rodeos which will make rodeo even bigger.”
As the sport continues to evolve, all eyes will be on the 15 women in Arlington prepared to make history.
“I hope all the girls make it a good first finals,” Thigpen expressed, noting her excitement to watch the competition and her personal favorites both from Stephenville, Texas, WPRA roping vetran, Jackie Crawford and WPRA rookie, Shelby Boisjoli.
Story by: Mikyla Bagley
Photos Courtesy of Erika Thigpen