Riding High on Feminism: A Steer, A Girl, and Appalachian Grit

Discover Sabrina's captivating account at the Madison County Rodeo, where an eleven-year-old's bull riding ambition embodies the spirit of feminism amidst Appalachian traditions. Witness a community's evolution through the lens of a photographer dedicated to celebrating the fearless women of the Appalachians. Join us for a story of courage, heritage, and the echoes of progress in the Southern mountains.
A cowgirl in a denim jacket and helmet is riding a bucking bull in a rodeo arena, with her arm triumphantly raised, as spectators watch in the background under an American flag.
A cowgirl in a denim jacket and helmet is riding a bucking bull in a rodeo arena, with her arm triumphantly raised, as spectators watch in the background under an American flag.

The scene unfolded on a lively Friday evening at Rocky’s home—a hub for our friendly gatherings—when he said, “I’m not going to lie, I’m scared to death. But she’s my daughter after all, and she’s got her head set on this.” I remember shaking my head, a chuckle escaping me, even as a part of me silently protested the idea of a young girl taking on a junior bull.

A black and white close-up photo of a bull rider helping a cowgirl put on spurs, preparing for her first steer ride, with focus on their hands and the riding gear.

Sabrina said she isn’t going to be able to breathe,” JJ relayed to Megan, his tone light with mock concern while I was at the back of my Jeep, swapping out camera lenses. Casting a glance back, I caught Megan’s head nod and her smile affirming the jest.

 

“I couldn’t even begin to imagine doing it, let alone watch my daughter try,” I replied, my hands betraying a subtle shake as I dialed in my camera settings to accommodate the fading evening light. The subject of our discussion was Blainlee, one of my best friend’s daughter, who at the tender age of eleven, had decided that last night was the moment she would mount a steer, a not-so-gentle creature in its teenage years.

David, family friend, helping Blainlee put on spurs for her debut bull ride at the Madison County Rodeo.

Yet in that instant, the feminist within me surged to life, her voice loud and proud in my mind, chanting, “YES, GIRL, YES!” I pushed the thought aside until I realized just yesterday how determined Blainlee was to join the ranks of her brother Gandon and her father, who had been bull riding professionally, even with the PBR, for over two decades.

Pre-Rodeo Preparations

So, there we were, alone for a moment in the parking lot before the Madison County Rodeo, and I asked Blainlee why she wanted to take on the steer. “I want to try something new and face my fears,” she asserted.

 

“Are you scared?” I questioned.

 

“No! Well, kind of,” she confessed.

 

“Do you plan to continue riding?” I inquired.

 

“Yes,” she beamed.

 

All I could respond with was an enthusiastic, “Right on!” And I grabbed some hair ties out of my Jeep and braided her hair for her so it wouldn’t get caught in the protective helmet she had to wear.

A pre-event scene of the Madison County, NC monthly rodeo, showing a crowd of expectant spectators of various ages and styles, seated on bleachers in an indoor arena, some interacting with each other and others on their phones, all awaiting the start of the rodeo.

Feminism and Rodeo: A Reflection

That night, my thoughts lingered on the essence of feminism. Feminism is about equality, advocating for women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men, aiming for a society where gender does not limit one’s capabilities or freedoms.

 

So, if a young girl wants to ride a steer and her parents agree, I should support that choice if I truly embrace feminism, right?

A young cowgirl, clad in denim and sporting a straw cowboy hat, stands thoughtfully outside an indoor rodeo arena, with trees and the fading evening light in the background.
Adjusting the buttons on her shirt before the start of the rodeo.

Interestingly, this rodeo was happening just 12 minutes from Mars Hill University, where my women’s studies journey began—an ironic twist, considering the setting amidst a cowboy culture often labeled as hyper-masculine.

A focused cowgirl in a patterned shirt and jeans leads a harnessed dog through a rodeo arena, passing by seated spectators in cowboy hats, captured in a black and white photograph.
Bandit being led along the arena by Blainlee.

The Heart of the Rodeo

A blue heeler dog with a distinctive black, white, and tan coat sits attentively on a gravel surface, with vehicles parked in the blurred background, suggesting a rural or outdoor setting.
Bandit patiently waiting outside for his little humans to come back.

I decided to document Blainlee’s evening to capture the essence of the event while remaining as unobtrusive as possible. Behind the scenes, in the camaraderie of the cowboys, I found Blainlee absorbed in the pre-ride rituals with her brother and Ty. Ty, Megan’s son and the season’s champ generously showed her his chaps and vest while Gandon busied himself with rosin on his rope, each step a sacred prelude to the ride. Blainlee, trying her hand at the rope, finally noticed me and shot me a grin, still donning her new rodeo shirt with one lingering sticker—a purchase from our stop at Jacksons Western Store.

"A young boy in a cowboy hat and plaid shirt proudly displays a bull riding vest to an attentive cowgirl, who is off-camera, as she prepares for her first steer ride in a rodeo arena with red barriers in the background.
Ty, Megan's son, showing Blainlee his rodeo vest and chaps.
A close-up black and white image focusing on the back of a denim jacket with a "RELAXED FIT" label, with a blurred side view of a woman's hair in the foreground
Blainlee accidentally left her sticker on her new rodeo shirt.
A young boy in a pink shirt and a straw cowboy hat is intently preparing his gear for a steer ride inside a rodeo arena, surrounded by red metal barriers.
Gandon, Blainlee's brother, prepping his gear before the start of the rodeo.

As the rodeo commenced to the tunes of the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” the bleachers were surprisingly crowded. I squeezed next to Megan, joking about the possibility of being kin to half the attendees, given my familial roots in Madison County—my mother from Hot Springs and my father from Spring Creek.

The announcer’s voice cut through the buzz, calling us to honor the flag. “That flag,” he said, “represents our history, hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Let’s stand for our national anthem.” Josh Turner‘s rendition of the anthem played, and the arena fell silent, a collective homage in the air.

A rodeo emcee in a black cowboy hat and striped shirt sits atop a fence, microphone in hand, looking out over the crowd, ready to announce the events at the Madison County, NC monthly rodeo.
Two focused individuals in cowboy hats, one adjusting their straw hat and the other looking down, stand by red metal barriers, possibly preparing for their turn at the Madison County, NC rodeo event.
Ty's older brothers preparing their gear for the evening.
A black and white photograph with a blurred foreground of a young girl's profile, focusing on a steer in the background, calmly looking at the camera from behind metal railings of a pen.

The vibrant mosaic of faces around me, some of whom might share my academic lineage at Mars Hill University, was a live illustration of the teachings that molded my viewpoint. Here, a new generation was melding tradition with change right before my eyes.

SAW: Resurrecting Women's Stories

This amalgamation of old and new is precisely what I strive to encapsulate through my initiative with Southern Appalachian Women (SAW). Our mission is to resurrect and honor the rich narratives, reflections, and histories of the women from this region, inspiring others and igniting a passion for our heritage. Our collective goal is to safeguard and celebrate these stories, fostering awareness and appreciation for the trailblazing women who carved paths for us to tread upon freely today.

A group of young rodeo participants standing in line against a metal fence inside an arena. The line-up includes one cowgirl and several cowboys, all dressed in western attire with cowboy hats, and various expressions of readiness and excitement for the event.
Ty, Gandon, and Blainlee lined up after being introduced for the night's event.

Without the bold steps taken by women in the past, the scene of Blainlee confidently mounting a steer amid an encouraging audience would have been inconceivable. Similarly, my university education and entrepreneurship journey would have been a mere dream. It’s a testament to their courage that we now embrace such possibilities, and it’s my, our, duty to ensure their legacies continue to empower and enlighten.

A cowgirl in a pink shirt and black vest is in mid-ride on a bucking steer at the indoor Madison County, NC rodeo, with focused rodeo hands and onlookers in the background behind red gates.
Gadon, Blainlee's brother, riding his draw.
A young rider in a blue helmet and protective vest maintains balance on a steer in motion at the Madison County, NC rodeo, with one hand waving high and the metal walls of the arena in the background.
Ty going for a wild ride on his steer.

Legacy and Empowerment

I often muse over what the pioneering women who influenced my life would think of such moments. As Blainlee burst from the gate, the audience’s roar was overwhelming, with countless women rising to their feet, their applause thunderous. Amidst the cacophony, I too found myself shouting encouragement, camera in hand, tracking Blainlee’s bold ride through my lens.

A cowgirl in a denim jacket rides a black and white steer out of the gate at the start of a rodeo event, with onlookers watching from behind the red barriers, and an American flag in the background, symbolizing the spirit of the rodeo.
Blainlee riding the steer she drew for the night while Dad looks on.

Blainlee's Moment of Triumph

The thrill was palpable when she nearly clinched the 8-second mark, missing it by mere fractions. The pride in her effort was mirrored on every beaming face as she basked in her moment of glory.

 

After her ride, as I wove through the crowd to meet her, Blainlee was a vision of flushed triumph, her breaths quick with exhilaration. A sea of admiring peers surrounded her, each taking a moment to commend her impressive debut.

A cowgirl in a denim jacket rides a black and white steer out of the gate at the start of a rodeo event, with onlookers watching from behind the red barriers, and an American flag in the background, symbolizing the spirit of the rodeo.
In an indoor rodeo arena, a cowgirl has fallen to the ground and is looking back at a steer that's just thrown her off, while a rodeo clown in blue with a red cape quickly approaches to distract the animal, and spectators watch from behind the safety of red barriers.

Reflections and Reverence

Making my way back to Megan, perched high on the bleachers, I paused, tilting my face to the heavens, pondering what my foremothers would think of the scene below. Would they marvel at the strides we’ve made? I imagine they would swell with pride, seeing the legacy of their courage live on.

A cowgirl in a helmet and protective vest stands confidently in a rodeo arena, with a steer in the background being led away by rodeo clowns. The American flag is displayed in the upper right, above the red barriers of the arena.
Blainlee getting up after her fall. She was a few tenths away from having been on to the buzzer.

As I stood there, I couldn’t help but yearn for their untold tales, wishing they could impart their wisdom and stoke the fires of inspiration for my work with SAW. What narratives of strength and perseverance could they share to fuel our mission? These are the stories I seek to uncover and share, bridging the gap between the generations of Appalachian women.

Carrying the Torch: Our Stories Unfold

Without the audacious steps taken by the pioneering women of Appalachia, the moment of Blainlee skillfully conquering a steer before an admiring throng would have remained unimaginable. Such acts of bravery and defiance against the odds are the very essence of what Southern Appalachian Women seeks to illuminate and honor. These women’s legacies are the bedrock upon which we build our mission, capturing and elevating their stories, ensuring they continue to inspire and enlighten not just our community, but all who believe in the power of our shared history. Will you join us on this path of rediscovery and homage to the indomitable spirit of Appalachian women?

 

Two young girls having fun and dancing in the dirt of a rodeo arena, with one wearing a denim jacket and the other in a black t-shirt, both in jeans and boots, with red rodeo chutes numbered 1 and 2 in the background.
Every rodeo night should end in a dance off, right?

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