Taylor Mason eases Spice into the roping box. The mare, light on her feet, muscles flexed, knows what’s coming. Taylor’s dad stands in the box with her as the barrier is set. Her mom, Shelly, readies her phone to video. An adrenaline rush takes over Taylor and she feels no pain—not even the heat from the blazing sun—only an overwhelming feeling that she’s right where she belongs. With the long loop in her hand and the excess under her arm, Taylor’s eyes dart from the calf to her dad for a mere second. Her confidence mounts with a reassuring look from the one who taught her everything she knows. All is still and quiet until Taylor’s hat finally tips. The chute flies open and Spice bursts out of the box. Taylor swings twice, ropes the calf and pitches the slack as Spice stops hard. It all happens in two and a half seconds, from the nod until the end of the rope breaks away from her saddle. Her younger sister, Haley, is next to take her turn in the breakaway roping, and the same scene replays.
Taylor, 20, and Haley, 13, both grew up around horses and cattle. Their dad, James, learned to rope as a young teenager in Anderson, Texas. He went on to enjoy success in tie-down calf roping, traveling to rodeos all over the country, his wife and eldest daughter, Taylor, in tow. After his youngest daughter, Haley was born, his focus shifted to teaching his girls everything he knew about cattle, horses, roping, and following dreams without any barriers.
James grew up close to extended family. In his neighborhood, all the boys wanted to rope.
“We used to line up in my auntie’s yard,” he says. “We had a rocking horse we put inside of a tire. Then we made the calf dummy legs out of another tire so we could tie them. We’d sit on a propane tank, rope the rocking horse head, jump down, and tie the three pieces of tire. That’s how I learned to rope.”
In those days, he didn’t have a horse or a saddle, but the idea of a life lived riding horses and roping calves got into his blood.
“My mom didn’t want me to rodeo. She wanted me to play basketball,” James says.
But he continued to rope with his cousins and neighborhood friends. He went along with his older cousins to rodeos, and eventually entered himself in the calf roping on a borrowed horse, riding a borrowed saddle.
“The worst thing about rodeo is when you win your first check. Then you’re addicted to it. You want that check again. I won money and I started being good at it,” James says.
His mom finally broke down and bought him a horse when he was 16 years old. Looking up to Fred Whitfield, a world champion African-American calf-roper, as his idol, James rode his horse to his cousin’s arena to practice roping every day after school.
PAVING THE WAY
From the turn of the 20th century, cowboys like Bill Pickett, Myrtis Dightman, Charlie Sampson, and Fred Whitfield paved the way for other African-Americans with the same love of horses, cattle, and exciting competition to thrive in the rodeo arena. The trail goes from the all-black rodeos of the 1950s and '60s to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo today.
Bill Pickett, of African-American and Cherokee descent, born in 1870 in Williamson County, Texas, grew up working as a ranch hand. Inspired by watching ranch dogs bring down cattle, he invented the technique of bulldogging. He rode alongside the steer, eased down from the saddle, grabbed the head, twisted the nose up, and finally bit the lip of the steer to further subdue it. Pickett signed on to the 101 Ranch Wild West Show and demonstrated his technique worldwide to millions. His popular trick morphed into today’s rodeo steer wrestling event. Pickett was the first African-American inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1971, and his bulldogging image is forever memorialized as a larger-than-life-sized sculpture in the famous Stockyards of Fort Worth, Texas.
In 1964, Myrtis Dightman, a talented bull rider often referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of rodeo,” made history as the first African-American to compete at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. He wanted to compete in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) because some said he couldn’t. He told the ProRodeo Sports News in July of 2016, “I had guys telling me, ‘They aren’t going to let you go to the Finals. They aren’t going to let you win anything.’ And I told them, ‘How do you know? Have you ever tried?’” By the end of his rodeo career, he’d made it to the NFR a total of seven times, and became a ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee in 2016.
Charlie Sampson, a bull rider from Los Angeles who found his inspiration in Dightman, was the first African-American to win a PRCA world championship. After riding a horse on a school field trip as a kid in 1968, Sampson couldn’t get enough and began working at the stables where he learned to be a cowboy.
Fred Whitfield, a seven-time tie-down calf roping world champion (between 1991 and 2005), became the second African-American to win a world championship in PRCA history, and the first to win an all-around world championship. Whitfield came after Bill Pickett, Myrtis Dightman, and Charlie Sampson.
“Those guys were all big-time pioneers. They endured a lot more than I did—no doubt. Dightman was made to ride after the rodeo [was over]. But he had a vision and he wanted to go to the National Finals,” Whitfield explains.
By the time Whitfield started to rodeo, in the early '80s, racial barriers had broken down somewhat, but they were still pretty strong.
“I went through a lot of stuff at 15 years old with the racial part of fitting in,” he says. “But I’ve gotten over all that and it has changed considerably now.”
SKY'S THE LIMIT
For Taylor and Haley to win, as female African-American ropers, is significant not only for the sisters, but for James as well. James competed in tie-down roping. The female equivalent is breakaway roping. Rather than dismounting, flanking, and tying the calf to stop time, the cowgirl’s rope is tied to the saddle horn with a piece of string that breaks away, indicating the time stoppage.
“My dad wanted me to succeed in roping because not very many African-American girls rope. He would always tell me, ‘There aren’t very many black girls who succeed in it,’” says Taylor, the first African-American woman to qualify for the Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association (CPRA) Finals. “People around me saw it as a big deal. I saw it as an accomplishment.”
“The sky’s the limit because Taylor and Haley are both talented,” Fred Whitfield says. “They can go as far as they want to go.”
He often watches the sisters rope, and the girls don’t hesitate to ask the former world champion for advice.
Taylor believes the racial barrier in rodeo, for her, is non-existent.
“If I break down, I know that the next car that goes by might not stop, but the next rodeo contestant leaving behind me—even if it’s someone I don’t know—will see my trailer and stop to help,” Taylor explains. When she asks her rodeo friends, who are also her competitors, for help or advice, she can count on honest answers. “In rodeo, we’re all family.
“I think rodeo is how Jesus looks at us. He doesn’t see us as any color,” Taylor says.
THE RODEO ROAD
Taylor can’t remember a time when she wasn’t riding or roping.
“When you learn to walk and talk, it’s part of being a human being. For me, rodeo is part of being a human being. I know nothing different,” she says.
Taylor’s great-grandmother owned a cattle ranch in Anderson, Texas, where she learned practical application and cow sense. She learned to cut calves, haul heifers to the vet, and work together as a family.
Attending high school in rural Texas with a class of around 50, the majority of Taylor’s classmates were involved in some way with cattle.
“We worked them, owned them, and most of the kids were in FFA or 4-H,” she says. “I showed pigs and chickens and a heifer, too.”
Taylor attended college on a rodeo scholarship, living away from the comforts of her hometown, friends, and family.
“I’ve always been a social person,” she says. “All of the rodeo people hung together, so it was hard to venture out and meet new people. But when I did, they were so surprised I was there on a rodeo scholarship. They almost couldn’t believe it. They’d even ask if I rode bulls.”
Today, Taylor rodeos three to four days a week, sometimes staying out on the road for weeks at a time. She competes in the CPRA and the United Professional Rodeo Association (UPRA), primarily traveling throughout Texas and Oklahoma.
“The road is what’s comfortable for me. Being on my horse is my comfort zone, and it’s where I want to be,” Taylor says.
But winning hasn’t always been easy for Taylor. During a seven-month dry spell, Taylor didn’t win a dime. Pulling into her driveway after the final rodeo with her best friend and hauling buddy, Whitney Thurmond, she decided she had wasted enough money and it was time to quit. As she broke the news, Whitney wouldn’t accept it. In fact, she entered Taylor in four rodeos. Due to an association rule, if Taylor didn’t show up to rope, she’d be faced with a fine double the entry fee.
“So I roped and I won three rodeos!” Taylor says. “There are slumps, and they’ll test your determination.
James taught the girls routine. He taught them that it starts at the trailer when they pull in at a rodeo and continues until the moment the clock stops.
“If I get off routine, it doesn’t feel right,” Taylor says. “From the time I nod my head and rope my calf, it’s so fast that I can’t tell you what happens. I sort of black out and it’s complete muscle memory. That makes it hard when you’re trying to fix something. Sometimes I’m thinking too much. Sometimes I have to take it back to basics.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Taylor still relies on her dad, and James goes with his daughters whenever he can.
“He’ll usually say something to me, like ‘be sharp,’ or ‘ride your horse.’ If my horse isn’t set in the box or if I feel uncomfortable, I’ll look at him and ask, ‘Is she good?’ Having him with me makes a big difference,” Taylor says.
Rodeo, James explains, is a family matter, and he relies on his wife, Shelly, for support feeding, turning out calves, and videoing the kids’ runs.
“When you grow up with a family that supports you in it—that’s the best. The memories and the lessons I’ve learned help keep me going, give me drive and determination, and make me want to win even more,” Taylor says.
Haley, at 13, is only beginning to make her mark in rodeo. She competes in breakaway, ribbon running, and goat tying in the Texas Junior High Rodeo Association and has made the finals in 2016-17. Haley won a saddle in 2016 for Rookie of the Year for Region IX.
“Haley gets nervous when she goes up against talented girls, but I get to help her through that,” Taylor says. “She entered her first CPRA rodeo this year. She was nervous, but she beat me!”
Rodeo can be an expensive sport. To win at a roping event, you have to ride a good horse, and good horses cost money. Saddles, bridles, and bits can all add up to thousands of dollars, not to mention trucks and trailers. James gave his daughters the tools for success. He wants them to be more successful and to go farther than he went.
“When I came up, I had to ride this person’s horse and use that person’s saddle,” he says. “I want my girls to have their horse, their saddle, a practice pen in our backyard, and their own truck and trailer. If they want to go and they want to be good at it, they have the opportunity.”
The only barrier Taylor and Haley dream of breaking in rodeo is the lack of breakaway calf roping events in pro rodeo.
“We’re making some progress, but we’re not there yet,” Taylor says. “A barrel racer can fantasize about running at the NFR, but I can’t. For now, I’ve made the CPRA Finals, but next I want to rope every calf and I want to win at the Finals.”
Haley aspires to be as talented as the girls who are winning, like her sister. Taylor says she’s already there.
Family traditions, lessons learned from competing in rodeo, and the men and women in rodeo history who have broken down barriers certainly helped shape the lives of Taylor and Haley.
“This is my passion,” Taylor says. “It’s so much more than backing into the box and roping. It’s the memories made. Rodeo teaches more than just horsemanship. It teaches patience, responsibility, standards and morals, and so many more life lessons. That’s why I hold it dear to my heart.”
When they back into the box, they’re ready to nod for almost anything life throws their way. No doubt, the next generation of rodeo contestants will come from little girls and boys watching these women compete and will fall in love with the idea of a life lived riding horses and roping cattle—without barriers.