From the earliest frontier days to modern agricultural movements, women have long made a profound impact on the American West. Yet, for generations their influence was largely glossed over as a supporting role to their male counterparts in literature, film and canvas. A new national symposium aims to turn the spotlight.
Earlier this year the second annual Art of the Cowgirl celebrated women’s contributions to the Western lifestyle. Hosted in Phoenix, Arizona, the only-of-its-kind conference showcased women’s involvement in all aspects of ranching life.
Like the women of the West, it would be hard to put a label on the Art of the Cowgirl. It is one part trade show, highlighting the character of the American cowgirl across nearly every medium. But it is much more than an art fair. The annual multiday event provides channels for women from across the world to demonstrate their prowess—from craftsmanship to stockmanship, horses training clinics to rodeo.
Now in its second year, the Art of the Cowgirl drew an impressive line-up of the world’s most respected female artists, competitors, horse trainers and clinicians from around the globe, all to bring awareness to women’s impact on the culture of the West.
The event is a timely demonstration of women’s growing participation in ranching and farming. Over the past thirty years, the number of female-owned farms and ranches has tripled, and women now constitute the industry’s fastest-growing demographic. More than 14 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million agricultural properties are women owned or run, according to the latest census data, and that number is expected to rise.
At nearly one million strong, women ranchers contribute almost $13 billion in economic activity and are responsible for more than 301 million acres of agricultural production in the United States. Quickly, female ranchers and farmers are restaking their connection to the land and leaving a powerful example for future generations.
This rise of the American cowgirl is redefining traditional roles. In 2017, female ranchers out earned their male counterparts by about 16 percent, which was one of only ten fields where women earned more than men on average. Today, women account for thirty percent of farm operators in the U.S., and they are taking on leadership roles and starting their own businesses in greater number than men.
This year’s Art of the Cowgirl celebrated women’s movement to the fore of the ranching industry, and it provided a unique opportunity for these leaders to cultivate relationships, share ideas and build on their successes. The line-up itself – which included livestock sales, clinics led by renowned women trainers, performance horse competitions, art exhibits and presentations, to name only a few – reflected what an outsized role women have taken in modern ranching.
“Art of the Cowgirl is driven by horsewomen,” explained Mesa Pate, director of events. “I wanted to produce an elite cow horse event for women like me who come from ranching backgrounds and dream of taking a cow down the fence in Fort Worth, yet still respect the working cowboy, cowgirl and ranch horse.”
The weekend events were preceded by a nearly week-long performance horse competition, the World’s Greatest Horsewoman, and a women-only ranch rodeo. The final competitions of both were held ahead of the Art of the Cowgirl. “It’s a unique way to tip our hat and show respect to working ranch cowgirls and the horses they’ve trained,” Pate noted.
Famed horse trainer Buck Brannaman – whose daughter Reata, a distinguished horsewoman on her own merit, was among the presenters at Art of the Cowgirls this year – once said: “Whether it’s horses or whatever it is you do, it doesn’t become an art until your soul goes into what you do.” To be sure, the Art of the Cowgirl commemorates the millions of Western women whose commitment and work is nothing short of an artform.
“For a lot of horsewomen, horsemanship is their art,” said Pate. It was on full display in Mesa.