A full-grown horse can weigh up to 1,210 pounds, depending on the breed. It can run as fast as 55 mph and the striking power of a hoof can be deadly. It’s no wonder then, that rodeos—still a bastion of the American Southwest tradition—conjure images of bucking broncos and big, grizzled cowboys swinging spurred boots around in a bowlegged saunter. It’s not an exclusively male sport—women have been celebrated competitors since its nascent days—but the world of rodeo is still seen as a masculine one. So imagine her surprise when Polish-American photographer Ilona Szwarc visited Texas and found that some of the most intriguing figures in rodeo are just little girls.
Szwarc would be quick to correct me here—there’s nothing “just little” about these young women. She refers to them as “individuals” and “young girls,” but never “little girls.”
Not everyone is born into ranch life, but many of these young women have been riding for their entire lives—literally. Some were first placed in a saddle as soon as they were old enough to sit upright as babies. Szwarc met some mothers who would walk their children around on a horse for a little while every day so that they’d grow up used to the movements of a horse and learn to be confident around the massive animals.
But no matter how long they’d been living the rodeo life, Szwarc found these young women to be quietly empowered. She notes that, in a way, what they are doing is radical. Rodeo is a traditionally conservative institution, but while these young cowgirls pay homage to their cultural heritage, they are also clearly playing by their own rules.
See more of Szwarc’s Rodeo Girls throughout the Southwest here and check out her American Girls project here.
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