The supposedly gentler sex has been part of Western lore since the 19th century, when Calamity Jane set up in the Black Hills of Dakota and sharpshooting Annie Oakley was the star turn of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show.
Faye Blackstone, one of the greatest trick riders in the history of rodeo, may one day pass into legend beside that illustrious pair.
Between 1937 and the early 1950s she and her husband, Vick – whom she married on horseback in the middle of a rodeo arena – were among the most prominent fixtures on the rodeo circuit of the day. His specialities were calf-roping and bronco-busting. Hers were barrel racing(traditionally a women's event where riders gallop around barrels set in a tight cloverleaf pattern), but above all stunt riding.
She is credited with inventing three tricks: the "ballerina", striking poses on the saddle of the horse; the "flyaway"; and most famously her signature "reverse fender drag" in which she dropped down to the flank of her horse as it galloped full tilt. She would hold her body parallel to the ground, with her right leg and arm hooked to the saddle and her head facing backwards, next to the animal's thundering rear hooves.
Faye's favorite horse was called Cricket, but others served her through the years. "What you want is a calm horse, and you can tell right away," she told an interviewer in 2002. "You saddle a horse up, but ride on her rump instead. If she bucks, she's too excitable. If she doesn't mind, you can do tricks." Only once was she hurt: "I let a horse fall on me and he busted my leg."
Dangerous or not, rodeo riding was all Blackstone wanted to do ever since, as an eight-year-old girl in Nebraska, she watched a woman rider stay on board an enraged bronco. She made her first rodeo appearance – to her parents' dismay – just four days after she graduated from high school. She developed her tricks, she explained, because she usually appeared after several riders had already performed, and "I wanted to give people something new."
By the 1940s, Faye and Vick were touring the country as part of the Gene Autry Wild West Show, clocking up thousands of miles each year on the road. In addition to her dexterity on the back of a horse, Faye was also an accomplished seamstress, making her own and her husband's costumes herself. In the winters, the Blackstones went back to Florida, where they would settle in the early 1950s after their rodeo days were over, running an 11,000-acre cattle ranch, the Quarter Circle A, south of Tampa.
But even in retirement, the couple's fame grew, as rodeo itself became ever more popular and well rewarded – albeit slipping somewhat from its traditional roots out on the range. These days, half of all competitors have never worked on a ranch, while a third of them have been to university.
In 1982 came the crowning accolade, when Vick was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and Faye entered the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas – the first and only couple to be so honoured. Five years later, her husband died, but she soldiered on, still riding into her 90s – sturdy, tough and plain spoken as she had always been. She was and remained, one friend said, "an honest-to-God cowgirl."
That style was evident in the reply Blackstone gave a reporter from The St Petersburg Times who asked her how rodeo riders kept their hats on amid all the bucking and broncoing. "Jam it down in front at first," she declared. "Then work it down all the way to the back of your head. I mean, squash it down."
Fayetta June "Faye" Hudson, rodeo star: born Diller, Nebraska 3 June 1915; married 1937 Vic Blackstone (died 1987); died Bradenton, Florida 30 August 2011.