The gate opens and a calf bursts out of the chute, racing across the dirt-floored arena with two riders in hot pursuit, lassos whirling.
The first rider gets a rope around the calf’s head and the second snares a hind leg, dropping the animal to the dirt and earning an appreciative cheer from the crowd for the two-woman roping team.
Welcome to the second annual Larry Bell Memorial All Girls Rodeo, where men may be men but it’s the ladies’ time to shine.
Sixty female competitors, ranging in age from preteen to 50-plus, took part in the Wednesday night event on day one of the 2019 Benton County Fair & Rodeo in Corvallis, with more than 200 spectators watching from the grandstands.
The riders competed in team roping, breakaway roping, barrel racing, pole bending and goat tying. There was also a wild cowhide race, in which a rider towing a cowhide by a rope races across the arena and picks up a passenger, who jumps face down onto the cowhide and holds on for dear life during the dusty, bumpy ride back.
While there are opportunities for women to compete in events such as the Northwest Pro Rodeo Association rodeo on Thursday and Friday at the Benton County Fairgrounds, the sport tends to be dominated by men.
All-female events like the Larry Bell Memorial — named for a longtime Benton County Rodeo Committee member — put the spotlight squarely on women.
There were cash payouts for the first six finishers in each event, with fancy belt buckles for the winner in each category and a saddle for the all-around champ. The rodeo was also a “pink-out” event, with contestants and spectators encouraged to wear pink in support of breast cancer patients and survivors.
Breeana Denue of Blodgett, a former Benton County Rodeo queen, was taking part in the event for the second time. She and her horse Molly were signed up to compete in pole bending and barrel racing.
“It’s just something special that lets the girls compete on a day without the boys,” she said.
Rebekah Grant of Harlan qualified for the barrel racing event at the Larry Bell Memorial by taking part in a preliminary race series. She noted that there were about twice as many participants at this year’s all girls rodeo, a sign that its reputation is beginning to spread.
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“It’s word of mouth,” she said. “Good news travels in the rodeo world. If people like this event, they’ll tell their friends and then they’ll come here.”
Olivia Kerr, a high school rodeo competitor from Prineville, said she heard about the Larry Bell Memorial on Facebook and was the first contestant to sign up. She won the wild cowhide race and was scheduled to compete in breakaway roping and goat tying with her horse Boots.
“It’s for sure a girl power thing,” she said of the rodeo.
“It just shows we can get out there and get dirty as well.”
This year’s Benton County Rodeo queen, Jesse Nordyke of Corvallis, didn’t compete in the rodeo, but she carried the American flag during the grand entry and pushed cattle for the competitors. She said the Larry Bell Memorial is a great way to get young women interested in rodeo and give them a chance to hone their skills.
“Today I saw so many young girls compete,” she said, “and even if they didn’t have a perfect ride, to see them compete and improve was just awesome.”
Former Miss Rodeo Oregon Nicole Schrock, the chair of the Benton County Rodeo Committee, said there was so much interest in this year’s event that an informal “slack” performance had to be added in the afternoon for those who wanted to compete but didn’t sign up until after the main event had reached capacity.
With that kind of demand, Schrock added, she’s confident that the Larry Bell Memorial All Girls Rodeo will continue to grow.
“The numbers just exploded this year, so that’s an indication of how popular this event has become,” she said.
“So yes, I think we’ll be back, and we’ll do our best to make this event bigger and better.”