On a drizzly, late summer night at the final Carbondale rodeo of the season, a 15-year-old girl eases down into a narrow steel chute and onto a 600-pound steer. She ties her gloved hand down tight on the animal’s back. Her father leans over the top of the chute, holding onto her shoulders in case something goes wrong and he needs to yank her off the steer.
Fellow contestants in worn chaps and cowboy hats jostle their way to the rim of the chute, some shouting words of encouragement to the girl. Tension crackles in the air as the announcer introduces her to the crowd in the bleachers. “Tianna Davis from Rifle, Colorado.” After a few moments of mental preparation, she nods her head, the chute bursts open with a clang, and she’s off for a winning ride.
“I like the adrenaline rush,” Tianna explained afterwards. “And I like being one of the only girls.”
Tianna is a freshman at Rifle High School and the first female to win the belt buckle for steer-riding two years running at the Carbondale Wild West Rodeo (CWWR). She turned 15 on Aug. 22, the night she made her final ride of the CWWR season, earning enough money to claim first place.
“Sometimes I don’t notice I’m a girl,” she said. “[Riding steers] becomes a normal event.”
A natural at riding bucking bovines, Tianna started off as a mutton buster at the Beaver Creek rodeo at age 5 when she asked her father, Terry Davis, for a kitten if she rode all the way to the end of the arena. Davis said he didn’t think she’d make it so gave the OK for the cat.
“She rode to the other end,” he recalled with a chuckle, “and won first place.”
Tianna became champion mutton buster at the 2004 National Western Stock Show in Denver and stayed with the sport until she grew out of it.
Graduating to steers and junior bulls, she began collecting prize belt buckles, including junior bull riding champion at the Flat Tops Rodeo Bible Camp in 2012. Tianna is also an accomplished horsewoman, having worked on 4-H horse projects most of her life. She’s won prizes for trail, dally roping and other rodeo events.
Now she says she’s ready for bulls and bareback broncs, setting her sights on being an all-around world champion cowgirl, like rodeo star Ty Murray only different.
“They’ll have to take ‘cowboy’ off [the title] and put ‘cowgirl’ in,” she said.
But she’s bucking the tide as a female in a man’s sport. Professional bull-riding, even at some small town rodeos, doesn’t always welcome women.
The Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, headquartered in Colorado Springs, dropped bull-riding as a sanctioned event in 2008. The Little Britches Rodeo Association doesn’t allow girls to ride roughstock nor does the Colorado High School Rodeo Association. Until 2011, Colorado resident Polly Riech was the only woman in the nation who competed on the professional bull-riding circuit.
T.J. Hooker, of Norco, Calif., is co-founder of the Women’s Roughstock Foundation (WRF), which supports women and girls who want to ride bulls and broncs. Now 28 and a corrections officer for the Costa Mesa Police Department, Hooker’s been riding bulls since she was Tianna’s age.
As a female, she was barred from bull-riding in high school and college rodeos. But, once out of school, she competed in open rodeos with Professional Bullriders Association riders and bulls. She’s also ridden rodeos all over the West with the WRF and has the belt buckles to prove it.
But success has not come easily. Hooker’s been hurt a lot and has had to break cultural barriers that come from generations of men who don’t want to see girls on bulls. She said men are uncomfortable with women getting hurt.
“If girls get hurt, rodeo contractors will say they don’t want us,” she explained. She questions the double-standard. “Guys get hurt, too,” she added.
Tianna recalled times when stock contractors wouldn’t let her ride bulls.
“They need to open up,” she said. “It’s the 21st century.”
Jerry Berentis stocks CWWR’s bulls and has been organizing the Fruita Rim Rock Rodeo (FRRR) in Mesa County for 20 years. He’s skeptical about women entering the sport.
“To me, it’s like having a woman football player in the NFL,” he explained. “She must be real exceptional to compete with the men.”
Before this year’s season, Berentis had only allowed one girl to ride his junior bulls at the FRRR. She didn’t have a good ride and since then, he’s set a high standard.
“I would deny [anyone] who didn’t have the ability to ride animals and not get hurt,” he explained.
He believes men have the upper hand when it comes to riding bulls.
“Men and women are different,” he explained. “I don’t know if anyone’s noticed that but they’re built different.” He said men are naturally stronger.
But, said Hooker, who often teaches men how to ride bulls, that’s not a good reason to keep women out of the sport.
“It takes skill, talent and a sports mentality to ride a bull,” she added. “I want to give girls a chance.”
Late this summer, Tianna became the second girl to ride Berentis’ junior bulls at the FRRR. She said her first ride (on a bull aptly named “Dumpster”) was not her best.
“It was my first time [at the Rim Rock rodeo], and I was really nervous,” she said. “I lost my focus point and got bucked off.”
But she kept going back, and she kept hanging on. She drew “Dumpster” again for her latest ride two weeks ago. This time she was ready. She stayed on for six or seven seconds, she said, and placed third.
“I was really excited,” she said. “I landed on my feet.”
Berentis said Tianna is a capable rider.
“She’s a good kid, and she’s doing what she wants to do,” he added.
Tianna will be back in the chute one more time this season at the FRRR finals on Sept. 28. And she hopes to gather enough interest for junior bull-riding next summer at Carbondale’s Wild West Rodeo.
“There is no ‘if,’” she said with characteristic determination. “I’ll definitely get enough people to ride.”
Portions of this article were first published in The Citizen Telegram on Aug. 8.