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Learning from a veteran rider, newcomers grasp the basics of a time-tested (but often male-only) cowboy tradition

In a quiet Alberta arena on a Saturday afternoon in March, Estelle Coulson enjoyed the thrill of a lifetime.

She climbed into the ring-side chute and mounted her horse. Once settled into the saddle, she gave a nervous nod. Handlers swung open the gate and away she went. Ms. Coulson managed to stay aboard the bucking bronc till the horn sounded, meaning her ride was long enough to have counted – for men or women – in an official rodeo competition.

“It was amazing because I actually rode my horse for eight seconds. ... I used to look at cowboys and go, ‘Oh my gosh, they are amazing. I would love to be one of them but I’m a girl,’” said the 37-year-old from Cochrane, Alta. “To be able to look at a cowboy and go, ‘Frick, yeah, I did what you do’ – it’s such a great feeling. I think it’s a confidence booster for females and it makes you realize that no matter what happens in your life, you can overcome. You can do anything.”

Estelle Coulson, whose ride at the Bearspaw Arena went successfully, feels bronc riding can be a big confidence boost for women, one that ‘makes you realize that no matter what happens in your life, you can overcome. You can do anything.’

Ms. Coulson was one of seven participants in the recent Women’s Only Ranch Bronc School at the Bearspaw Arena, 45 minutes west of Calgary. Students learned the basics of the roughstock event – often reserved for only male contestants – before getting a chance to attempt the real deal.

Which sounds fantastic – until your name is called. Ms. Coulson freely acknowledged her preride jitters. “But you’re calm because you’re like, okay, I was born to do this. This is my dream. This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “To get the opportunity as a female to do a men’s sport, it’s very humbling. And you feel very blessed, very humbled, by the fact that you actually get to try something this crazy.”

Instructor Pearl Kersey, who ran a similar camp last year and is an experienced competitor, says the sport’s popularity with women continues to grow. “The biggest thing is to create a safe space for women to come and do it,” said Ms. Kersey, who, among her victories, claimed the women’s ranch bronc crown at the 2023 Ponoka Stampede in Alberta, which earned her a spot at the world championship. “When I started, I was flying by the seat of my pants, picking up a couple of tips along the way. Then over the years, it’s oh, I wish I knew that sooner, I wish I knew this sooner. Here, at least I can tell them, give them a heads up.”

Ms. Kersey scoffs when she hears people insist that female riders are going to get injured. “That’s their fear, not mine,” she said. “We could put on a women’s school and a men’s school, and the men will hit the dirt as much as the women. But because it’s a woman, it’ll be, ‘Oh my god.’ No one likes to see a woman get hurt, but they’re going to do it anyway, so why not create a safe spot? Somewhere they can excel at it and succeed. But not everyone wants women in the bronc world, right?”

Angela Kirstein, 38, another newcomer to the sport, sees nothing but upside and a bright future, especially for the youngsters. “We are a lot tougher than guys think we are,” she said. “I feel like once this starts going, it’s going to pick up. For these girls here – I’m 15 years older than some of them – I have high hopes that they’ll do really well. For me to just be a part of something that’s beginning, it’s cool.”

Pearl Kersey demonstrates what to do in the chute before getting on a bucking horse. ‘When I started, I was flying by the seat of my pants,’ says Ms. Kersey, a veteran rider who hopes her instruction will give others an easier start.
Aided by Skye Rees and Ms. Coulson, Angela Kirstein dons a protective vest and rides a mechanical bull. She is a newcomer to the school. ‘For me to just be a part of something that’s beginning, it’s cool.’
For Ms. Coulson and the other bronc-riding pupils, the goal is to stay on the horse for eight seconds, the competition standard for most rodeos.
Mouthguards help riders’ jaws absorb the shock of being bucked up and down, and reduce risk of injury if they land on the ground.
Maria Newton and Josie Hughes are riders from Willow River, B.C., and Longview, Alta., respectively.
Baby powder, which reduces friction, can help prevent leather from sticking when the saddle is tightened. Powdered boots can also come off more easily when the rider needs to remove them.
Riding a bronc can be exhilarating for a few seconds, but also exhausting. Danielle Leveille of Nanton, Alta., is taking a rest.
On the mechanical bull, Ms. Newton gets pointers from Ms. Kersey, who earned a spot at the world championships at a competition last year. She says the sport is continuing to grow for women.

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