“Every sport has its champions that dominate that sport for a time. A few of these champions actually change the sport for those that follow. The sport of Rodeo is no different.
Anyone who follows rodeo is familiar with contemporaries like Larry Mahan and Trevor Brazile.
Not many, however, are familiar with Mabel DeLong Strickland.”
Vogt Silversmith’s re-designed and expanded Mabel Collection is inspired by legendary rodeo rider and Western film star Mabel Delong Strickland. In honor of our launch later this month, we’re sharing some history behind one of the great names of the West, with insights from Chet Vogt on why this iconic American cowgirl inspired his design.
Makings of a Cowgirl
Born in 1897 near Wallula, Washington, Mabel Delong was first put in a saddle at just three years of age. She took to it right away. As just a young teen in 1913, Mabel entered her first rodeo, the Walla Walla Stampede, and won the trick riding competition. She went on to win the event three years in a row.
“Mabel was totally into horses from childhood, and in 1913 she began her career in rodeo as a trick rider winning the competition at her hometown rodeo in Walla Walla Washington. She soon expanded into full rodeo participation as a bronc rider and steer roper, as well as competitive trick riding relay races.”
Little but Fierce
Mabel hardly looked the part of a stereotypical rough-and-tumble rodeo star. She was tiny, friends described her as “gentle as a dove,” she loved dresses and pretty clothes, but she was tough as nails. In an era where women were expected to be proper and ladylike, Mabel entered the roughest rodeo events right alongside the cowboys—and won. From relay races and Roman riding to bronc busting and steer roping, Mabel was a true all-around rodeo athlete. Especially skilled in steer roping, she almost beat the men’s world record at Pendleton in 1922, hitting 18 seconds flat. Her 25-year career competing with the men earned her a reputation as rodeo’s “most beloved cowgirl.”
Mabel’s signature was trick riding on her Arabian mare Buster—jumping her over a car or circling beneath her belly at a full gallop. Another favorite mount was a Quarter horse named Joker, who belonged to a Texas sheriff and was used to track outlaws before becoming the preferred horse of a pretty rodeo phenom. In 1923 and 1924, Mabel won the trick riding title at Madison Square Garden. In 1922, she won both the McAlpin Trophy and the top all-around cowgirl title at Cheyenne.
“Although, she was petite in stature being barely over five feet tall, Mabel would enter against the men in the bronc riding and steer roping, competing in every major rodeo from Madison Square Garden to Cheyenne and Pendleton. She won the all-around title in Cheyenne in 1923. Her accomplishments have gained her entry into the Halls of Fame in all the major rodeos of the time.”
“A petite and attractive lady, she went to Hollywood in her later years. There she became a stunt rider and occasional bit part actress.”
In the early days of rodeo, there were few separate events for women; cowboys and cowgirls competed together. This was the subject of significant controversy as many were concerned about the safety of female participants, not to mention the appearance of propriety in allowing women into such a dangerous and rough sport. In defense of her career, Mabel once told a newspaper reporter: “I know you think I’m a paradox, but I belong in the saddle for I’ve been there since I was three. I love the open, dogs, horses, guns, the trees, the flowers…Still I love dresses and everything that goes with them.”
However, by the early 1930s, women’s opportunities in rodeo were phased out. It wasn’t until 1948 that cowgirls were included again in the sport, this time with their own separate division.
Even as her sport began to turn away female participants, Mabel was not deterred from her place in the saddle. She soon heard Hollywood’s call and began a stunt riding and acting career, shining on the silver screen in such films as “Rhythm on the Range” with Bing Crosby. Along with fellow riders Bonnie Gray and Bertha Blancett, Mabel founded the Association of Film Equestriennes, a society for fellow lady stunt riders. She became a sought-after figure in the emerging Western movie scene.
Legacy of a Cowgirl
“Mabel showed the world that a female athlete can compete at a high level and encouraged others to follow.”
In 1941, Mabel’s beloved husband Hugh Strickland passed away. The couple had married in 1918 and had their daughter April before competing together on the rodeo circuit. Mabel once said of her husband: “Now, here’s the way it is with Hugh and me: He’s a one-woman-man, and—well, I’m a one-man-woman. My home is my heaven. Hugh’s my husband, and that doesn’t mean maybe; he’s my manager; he’s my daddy sweet-heart and we’re pals right down to the heel of our boots.”
After Hugh’s death, Mabel retired and moved to Buckeye, Arizona. She raised Appaloosa horses with her second husband Sam Woodward. Mabel remained active in the horse world, serving from 1949 to 1965 as one of the first women on the Board of Directors for the Appaloosa Horse Club. She passed away in 1976 in Arizona at age 79. Remembered always as “the first lady of rodeo,” Mabel has been inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame, the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, the Cheyenne Frontier Days Hall of Fame, the Pendleton Hall of Fame, and the ProRodeo Cowboys Hall of Fame.
Photos courtesy of Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection/Los Angeles Public Library