Inducted in 2007
Reminiscing about the early days of the Ellensburg Rodeo, the late rancher and bronc rider Ben Ferguson vividly remembered a trick riding performance by cowgirl Mabel Strickland. In a 1970s tape-recorded interview for the Ellensburg Public Library oral history project, Ferguson recalled that during the 1926 Ellensburg Rodeo Strickland actually jumped her horse over an automobile that had been driven with passengers into the arena for that purpose. There were “three or four men in the back seat” of the car, the old cowboy recalled. “Mabel backed off and went and jumped that car on that horse.” Fifty years later, Ferguson was still awed by Mabel Strickland’s equestrian skills.
Using skills they honed on the Western cattle ranches during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an elite group of cowgirls played an important role in the early history of North American rodeo. The decades before World War II have been described as the “golden age” of women’s rodeo, as more than 250 cowgirls rode the national rodeo circuit, competing in relay races and trick riding competitions as well as steer and calf roping, bulldogging, and bronc- and steer-riding events and exhibitions. Women like Fox Hastings, Ollie Osborn, Vera McGinnis, Ruth Roach, the Greenough sisters, and Ruth Parton competed for purses generous enough to make them a living from the sport. Mabel Delong Strickland belonged to this select group of rodeo cowgirl pioneers.
Mabel Delong was born in 1897 and grew up in Walla Walla, Washington. Her bootmaker father introduced her to the world of horses, cowboys, and rodeo, and Walla Walla Frontier Days Rodeo star Bill Donovan taught her the craft of trick riding. By age 16, Mabel was a prize-winning rodeo trick rider and horseback relay (“flat”) racer. After graduating from Walla Walla High School in 1916, she embarked on a rodeo and flat racing career, sponsored by local horse breeder George Drumheller.
At age 21, Mabel married Hugh Strickland, an Idaho bronc rider, bulldogger, and roper. For the next two decades, the two traveled the rodeo road together, competing in rodeos that ranged from the Calgary Stampede and Pendleton Roundup (where in 1927 she was selected Roundup Queen) to New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden Rodeo.
Respected early rodeo announcer “Foghorn” Clancy recalled that Strickland’s small stature—she stood 5 feet 4 inches and weighed 98 pounds–did not in any way hinder her athleticism: “[T]hat’s why roping steers, riding bucking broncos, and the other rough work of the arena at which she is one of the greatest experts, makes her so sensational.” Mabel accented her natural beauty with a flair for fashion that found expression in a score of stunning western outfits–split skirts of red velvet and fancy silk shirts with matching boots, hats, and scarves. She also wore colorful horse-jockey “silks.”
Like all cowgirls of her era, Strickland competed in the three major women’s events–flat racing, saddle bronc riding, and trick riding. To these, Mabel added bulldogging (steer wrestling), steer riding, and steer roping. Buster, her Arabian mare, served her in trick riding, roping, and bulldogging competitions, and also worked as Hugh’s roping horse.
In the 1920s and 30s, cowgirls competed against one another, not against the cowboys, and sometimes the women’s events were called “exhibitions.” While men in those days rode broncs for ten seconds with one rein and no stirrups, women rode for eight seconds (today’s norm) with two reins and stirrups.
The seeming difficulty for a 98-pound woman like Mabel to rope, throw, and tie large steers makes sense only if one knows that, unlike calf ropers, steer ropers upend their cattle with their ropes while still in the saddle (before dismounting to tie the steer). Mabel’s ability to wrestle steers, verified in period photography, was due to her canny use of balance and brains instead of brawn. Most rodeo historians agree that the stock used in women’s events was smaller and less “rank” than the men’s stock, though that point was debated heatedly then, as now.
Because of her Walla Walla home base, Strickland was immediately drawn to the new Ellensburg Rodeo (founded in 1923), where she competed and performed in 1926, 1928, 1929, and 1930. Ben Ferguson’s remarks above verify she was a standout, and the late Ellensburg Rodeo newspaperman John Ludtka wrote in his 1997 history of the Ellensburg Rodeo that the “famous cowgirl Mabel Strickland…performed to enthusiastic applause” and “tied her steer in 18 seconds” in the 1926 rodeo. Ludtka adds that in 1928 “Strickland, a glamorous addition to rodeo from the Palouse, trick rode and bulldogged a steer.” Records show Mabel also competed in Ellensburg’s bronc riding and track racing events. In 1930, she won the Ellensburg Rodeo’s women’s relay race.
Interestingly, Strickland went on to a brief 1930s Hollywood movie career. Mabel used her skills on horseback to work as a stunt woman and appear in several 1930s Westerns, including Bing Crosby’s Rhythm on the Range (1936). While in Hollywood she co-founded the Association of Film Equestriennes.
The advent of World War II proved to be a turning point for rodeo cowgirls in general and Mabel Strickland in particular. World War II marked the end of the “golden age” of rodeo cowgirls. The 1929 Pendleton Roundup arena death of bronc rider Bonnie McCarroll had combined with four other women’s bronc-riding deaths to raise questions about women’s rodeo competitions (that men had also died in the arena was apparently not as great a concern). When wartime fuel shortages led to the cancellation and reduction of many rodeo performances, women’s events were the first to go. Professional rodeo resumed after the war, but the women’s events were gone, leaving only rodeo royalty and female posse and grand entry riders in the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) sanctioned events.
Cowgirls reacted in 1948 by forming the Girls Rodeo Association (today’s Women’s Professional Rodeo Association–the WPRA), staging “All-Girl” rodeos where the cowgirls continued to ride broncs (and bulls), rope calves and steers and compete in a new event called barrel racing. Gradually, Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) rodeos began to add WPRA barrel-racing events to their programs (Pendleton was the last to do so in 1999) and cowgirls returned to PRCA rodeos as competitors. More recently, women’s break-away calf roping competitions have found their way into some PRCA rodeo programs (including Ellensburg), moving women back towards the status they enjoyed during the “golden age” of Mabel Strickland and her cowgirl cohorts.
During the 1940s, Mabel Strickland also experienced many changes. She separated from Hugh, who died in 1941 from a heart attack. Retired from rodeo, Mabel married Spokane cattleman Sam Woodward. In 1948, the family (including Mabel and Hugh’s daughter April) moved to Arizona to raise horses and cattle. Mabel became active in Appaloosa Quarter Horse Association of Arizona and the National Appaloosa Horse Club.
ERHOF’s induction of Mabel Strickland is the most recent in a long line of honors for the Walla Walla cowgirl. In 1972, she was inducted into the Pendleton Roundup Hall of Fame. Induction into the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo Hall of Fame, National Cowboy Hall of Fame, ProRodeo Hall of Fame, and National Cowgirl Hall of Fame followed, but those (and ERHOF’s) honors are posthumous: On January 3, 1976, champion cowgirl Mabel Delong Strickland Woodward died in Maryvale Hospital in Buckeye, Arizona. She was 79 years old.