Cowgirls of Color: Bucking the Trend


Posted Mon, Jan 8, 2018

Makala Nealy, 26, has been riding horses since she was three days old.

DENVER — The Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo women’s barrel racing champion, Makala Nealy, 26, has been riding horses since she was three days old.

Three days old?

Actually, that’s not quite true…Nealy’s father (Thurston Nealy) had placed her on a horse’s back when she was three days old.

“My dad was a tie-down roper (calf roping), and my mom barreled raced,” Nealy says. “So I just grew up around it.”

Nealy has been barrel racing since she was 5-years old, and gained more riding experience during her early teens, when she started investing herself into the sport.

“When I turned 18, I got my women’s professional rodeo association permit,” Nealy says. “That was when I really got serious.”

Rodeo of Champions

In celebration of Martin Luther King Day, and to honor the slain Civil Rights leader, Nealy will be one of the many “hands” participating in the MLK Jr. Rodeo of Champions on Jan. 15, at the Denver Coliseum, 4600 Humboldt St.

Billed as “The Greatest Show on Dirt,” the event, which is part of the Western Stock Show, is a salute to African American and Native American Cowboys and Cowgirls.

The MLK Jr. Rodeo of Champions features champion Cowboys and Cowgirls who tell the history of African-American’s role in settling the wild west – a fact that was notoriously ignored by Hollywood and a little-known aspect of Western history.

Black women have always been a part of the Bill Picket Rodeo, which includes bull riding, calf roping and barrel racing since the rodeo’s inception 1984 by Denver music promoter Lu Vason. After attending Wyoming’ Cheyenne Frontier Days in 1977, Vason noticed the absence of the American-Americans who had migrated westward – a documented fact. Among them was legendary rodeo star and original bulldogger Bill Pickett.

Black Cowgirls have always been apart of the Bill Picket Rodeo.

Racing in Their Blood

Nealy, a Bill Pickett Rodeo veteran, owns seven horses, five are on her ranch in southern Colorado and two are in Oklahoma. She ran three of those horses during her championship season last year, Doc., Gambler and Goldie.

“They are quarter horses,” Nealy explains. “They go back to different bloodlines, some have quarter horse racing blood, and some have been specified as barrel horses.”

Nealy says the cool thing about the Bill Pickett Rodeo is everybody tries to help one another, and she doesn’t feel any gender discrimination among her male counterparts.

[“The men are] competitors,” she says, “but everybody wants to see everyone succeed and do well.”

Vason’s Vision

CEO/President of The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, Valeria Howard-Cunningham echoes Nealy’s feelings, punctuating the fact that the men have taken the women under their wings, and don’t mind teaching them all about the event and teaching them about rodeo.

“They work together as a very close knit group,” Valeria says.

And as far as fan support…

“I get emails all the time from fans who are very excited about seeing the women, Valeria says. “They never thought that women would be leading and organization or participating. So we’re a very encompassing group. Women, men, kids we try to include the community.”

Valeria Howard-Cunningham has been successfully running the Bill Picket Rodeo since the passing of her husband Lov Vason in 2015.

Valeria explains that this year The Bill Picket Rodeo is celebrating its 34th anniversary. She was married to the event’s founder Luv Vason, until he passed away in 2015, and has been successfully running the organization, which is a male dominated sport.

“Like everything in life,” Valeria says, “you have to evaluate the people and the team you have around you. And me being a woman, I had the opportunity to elevate women into prominent positions within the organization.”

Women such as Margo Wade-LaDrew, Miss Barbara “Kitty” Love, Sheri Vason and Ronnie Frank have played pivotal roles outside the Denver market to aid the mission of the rodeo.

Closer to home, advisors such as Nicole Scott and Peggy Wortham have tirelessly assisted and elevated the Bill Pickett Rodeo organization.

And of course there are the legends, Carolyn Carter, Stephanie Haynes, Acynthia Villery, Danielle Clark and Tiphanie Carter who have deep-rooted history of Black women in rodeo

Black is Beautiful

The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo attracts 30 to 50 women such as Nealy throughout the year, because it tours all over the United States, and there are different women who participate in different markets.

Barrel Racing is just one of the events where Black Cowgirls compete.

“You’ll see the faces of black women throughout the rodeo,” Valeria says. “It is always a beautiful picture when we see beautiful black women coming out on those beautiful horses. It just gives you a good feeling to see these beautiful women who have mastered this sport, and have became professionals at it.”

Valeria says the Bill Pickett Rodeo circuit starts in Denver in January, and the rodeo doesn’t move without her.

“We go to Memphis, Tennessee in April,” she says, “then we do our west coast tour in July, which includes Oakland and Los Angeles, California. Then we go to Atlanta, Georgia, then we do our rodeo finals in Washington, D.C. in September.”

Nealy is a mainstay and performs with every stop as the rodeo establishes a footprint across the United States as being the only national African-American touring rodeo.

“Last year we started out in Denver,” Nealy says. “I ran my good horse there, we had some ground issue, and we ended up taking second, so that was kind of a good start. Then at the end of February is when we went to Arizona, and I ended up winning Arizona.”

Nealy explains those good beginnings helped set up her championship year, as she kept placing and doing well out in California and Memphis. Nealy says she kind of struggled during the Finals in the nation’s capital, but she changed horse and was able to win the barrel racing competition.

Opposed to the men’s four events, the rodeo highlights only two female events, Ladies Barrel Racing, (where the horse and rider attempt to complete a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels in the fastest time), and the cowgirl’s answer to the men’s steer wrestling: Steer Undecorating (where the cowgirl has to gallop up along side the steer and remove the ribbon attached to its back in record time.

Did we mention this is all attempted at a high-rate of speed?

Different Walks of Life

Like their male counter parts, the Cowgirls come from all walks of life, according to Valeria. Some hold executive positions in different companies. Some are RNs and managers from all different types of industries.

So what do they have in common?

“They love horses and they love rodeos,” Valeria says. “So that’s how they got into rodeo. Some have ranches, horses, some teach other people how to ride and how to interact with horses. It’s a pretty diverse group. You have people who work their ranches with none-profit organizations teaching young kids how to ride and how to treat horses. Some use it as a hobby.”

Valeria says the cowgirl’s ages can run from 7 to 50 years old. She underlines the fact that The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo has had a huge impact educating communities and introducing people to the roles of Black Cowboys and Cowgirls.

“It has also had an impact on generations of people who wanted to get more involved with horses and learn how to ride,” she says.

The rodeo has featured such stars as Barrel Racing and Steer Undecorating champion Stephanie Haynes, who is one of the most decorated females.

“She has been in the rodeo all her life,” Valeria says. “Her daughter rodeos, her granddaughter rodeos, they have a ranch, and they make a business of rodeo. She has been inducted in the Walk of Fame, and the Black American West Museum in downtown Denver. She has won the most Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo championships.

Current Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo champion, Makala Nealy smiles and laughs if asked, is she famous for her accomplishments. Actually, her work ethic won’t allow her to rest on any such laurels, as she rides anywhere from two to four horses a day out on her ranch near Elizabeth, Colorado.

“After Sept. 1, give my horses a couple months break,” Nealy says. “They kind of just hang out. However, two week ago, I started back to riding them again and getting them back into condition and getting them in shape for Denver. They had a nice little break, but now it’s back to work.”

If You Go:

What: MLK Jr. Rodeo of Champions

Where: The Denver Coliseum, 4600 Humboldt St.

When: 6:30 p.m. Jan. 15, 2018

Cost: $20-$40 Children under 2 free

Parking: Free

Phone: (303) 373-1246



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