True Grit: The Cowgirls of Fort Worth

Tough yet kind. Ambitious yet humble. Lovers of the land with a fierce respect for animals. Hard workers who get it done. They carry themselves with quiet confidence and a deep sense of pride. They are gracious. They are strong. They are cowgirls.

Ali Dee – Bull-Raising Renaissance Woman

Ali Dee does a little bit of everything — and she does it all well. She’s an Emmy Award-winning TV host and announcer for the Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Cowboys. She runs two Western fashion lines, and her designs are sold in more than 2,000 stores nationwide. As a singer/songwriter/guitarist, her debut EP hit the top 10 on the iTunes Country Chart — and she also starred in the TV series “Texas Women” on the Country Music Channel. 

“I like to say I’m a cowgirlpreneur,” explains Dee, who also found time recently to restore a 100-year-old building in Tolar, Texas, and transform it into an events venue. She raises bulls nearby on her ranch with her husband, retired professional bull rider and five-time PBR finalist Cory Melton. They have about 60 bulls at any given time. “Our 1- and 2-year-olds hang out in our front pasture with our older bull named Weezy — he’s the babysitter. Our mini donkey Marty is also very fond of the young bulls and likes to pull on their tails.” They provide bulls for the Cowtown Coliseum rodeo every weekend and for major competitions including the PBR Finals and the National Finals Rodeo.

Melton was at the NFR in 2019 when Dee took on her latest endeavor: first-time mom. Pecos (named after the site of the world’s first rodeo) arrived six weeks early and presented a new challenge to the couple’s expertise in raising animals. “Raising a baby is way harder. The bulls are typically pretty docile and independent … they also sleep through the night,” she laughs.

You may spot Dee in the Mavs’ arena, but this do-it-all cowgirl prefers the quiet of the countryside. “I really love being a ranch mom not only to Pecos but to all the bulls, horses, and other critters we have,” she says. “Nature is my happy place.” 

RosieLeetta Reed – Teacher and Storyteller

Imagine setting out from El Paso on a month-long expedition with 25 covered wagons drawn by mules, living just like frontier explorers of the 1800s — and taking 100 sixth graders along for the ride. That’s exactly what RosieLeetta “Lee” Reed did during the Huff Wagon Train Project, which retraced the route of Gold Rush adventurer William P. Huff. “That was a rolling classroom, and it was living history,” says Reed, the president of Texas Buffalo Soldiers Association and a Texas Parks and Wildlife area chief.

She’s also the founder of Lakeside Riders, a local nonprofit that helps disadvantaged youths learn traditional outdoor skills like fishing, archery, and camping. “You teach them animal husbandry, and you teach them to love the land.” Reed is very hands-on with the group, showing kids how to bait a hook and ride a horse. They field trip down to Fort McKavett to camp like pioneers while she tells true tales of Texas history around the fire.

Reed learned many of these stories as a child on her family’s ranch; they have been passed down in her family for generations. Her great-great-grandfather and his two brothers were soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 9th Cavalry, a regiment of the famous Buffalo Soldiers that protected the Texas frontier after the Civil War. Reed also learned about tough-as-nails frontier women like Cathay Williams, Stagecoach Mary, and Johanna July — all of whom she portrays in theatrical presentations throughout the state. “In each one of those women is a part of me,” says Reed: Cathay’s cunning, Mary’s strength, and Johanna’s love and knowledge of horses. 

By teaching children about Western ways and sharing the stories of these legendary trailblazers, Reed herself has joined their ranks as an invaluable player in Texas history. Her contributions to Western heritage are an inspiration for African Americans, for women, and for anyone who feels the frontier spirit in their heart.

Janie Johnson – Double Trouble

Fort Worth newcomer Janie Johnson competes as a barrel racer and reports on Western events from the sidelines — sometimes at the same rodeo. The daughter of four-time world champion saddle bronc rider Clint Johnson, Johnson recently moved here from Amarillo to join The Cowboy Channel, which is headquartered in the Stockyards. She reports from the field for the network and also hosts its daily “Western Sports Round-Up,” all while squeezing in pro-rodeo rides whenever she can. Sometimes her two passions overlap, like at the Parker County PRCA Rodeo last summer. 

“We won a check in the barrel race and made it back just in time to get the bull riding interview. It was a lot happening but so fun and rewarding,” Johnson says. “I’m really lucky to have two things that I truly love to do. I love this sport and the people in the industry, so covering it for TV is a dream come true. But competing allows me to stay connected to why I really love it: the horses, the thrill, the passion for competing. I just wish there were more hours in the day.”

Before landing in North Texas, Johnson worked as an associate producer for the National Finals Rodeo and reported on major events, including the X-treme Broncs Finale for CBS Sports. “I had originally planned on going more into the film/television production business but just kept feeling this draw back to the Western industry.” Today, she’s also feeling the love for Fort Worth. “[It’s] unlike anywhere else … I have never lived in a place that immediately felt like home before moving to the Fort Worth area.”

Whether she’s riding or reporting, Johnson’s mindset is the same: “Every day you work hard, take challenges head-on, and focus on bettering the way of life that you love.”

Molly Thompson – Steward and Ambassador

For local children and foreign travelers alike, Molly Thompson provides the opportunity to experience a quintessential Texas activity: riding a horse. She and her husband own Benbrook Stables, a living piece of Fort Worth history that first opened in the 1950s. Molly was drawn to the 100-acre property because she wanted her children to grow up as she had in the Western lifestyle but not in the middle of nowhere. Benbrook Stables offered the best of both worlds. But when she purchased the place in 1998, its facilities were as dilapidated as its reputation. 

“For 22 years now, we’ve been doing nothing but refurbishing it and bringing it back to life and making it the equestrian center that it should have been all these years,” says Thompson. Thanks to her hands-on efforts, Benbrook Stables is now a landmark destination for trail rides, lessons, and kids’ camps. Riders enjoy direct access to 30 miles of designated equestrian lake trails and thousands of acres of Army Corps land — plus a stellar view of downtown Fort Worth at the turnaround point. 

Thompson has welcomed would-be cowboys and cowgirls from all over the world, including Australia, Great Britain, and Japan. “Everyone that comes to Texas wants to ride a horse,” she says. “They buy their first pair of boots and a cowboy hat, and then they come out and get on a horse. They just really want to do something that’s true Texas … they want to have that feeling, and we give it to them.”

She also gives that feeling to the many children who saddle up at fundraisers for Make-A-Wish, 65 Roses, and St. Jude Children’s Hospital. For Thompson, donating the use of her facilities to charity is the most rewarding thing about taking care of Benbrook Stables. “It’s just the greatest thing of all to be able to say: Here it is; everybody can enjoy it too. I love that.”

Sarah Brown Armstrong – DIY High-Flyer

Most rodeo athletes grow up in the Western lifestyle, busting mutton as little tikes and learning the ropes from their families. Not Sarah Brown Armstrong. You’d certainly think that the 22-year-old bronc rider and Western lifestyle influencer was raised in the saddle; she trains horses on her Black Angus ranch in Wyoming and won the RIDE TV series “Cowgirls” two of the last three years.

But the Weatherford native only took the reins at age 14 after a cheerleading injury turned her attention from the gridiron to the rodeo arena. “I quickly realized how fun and challenging horses could be, and I dove in headfirst,” says Sarah, who learned how to ride and rope with books, random advice, and plenty of trial and error. “I taught myself almost everything.” She began competing in rodeos and working at a horse training facility, where a nasty buck-off left her wounded — and wanting to ride bucking broncs. “It scared me pretty bad,” she says. “I wanted to face my fear but also to learn how to better ride a horse that bucked if I was going to train horses for a living.”

Sarah started riding broncs at 18, just as soon as she could sign her own entry forms. “As you would imagine, my parents weren’t very excited about the idea.” She instantly fell in love with the sport that “feels like a car crash,” she says. “There is so much power and so much speed to it … you almost have to defy gravity and physics to make it work.” Today Sarah is one of the world’s top female bronc riders and proof that you don’t have to grow up in the Western way of life to become a cowgirl or cowboy. “If you want to get involved, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for some help getting started. There are so many people eager to teach others.”

Naydalyn Rios – Ballerina on Horseback

With a graceful flash of reins and ruffled skirts, eight ladies on galloping horses perform synchronized twists and tricks in a precisely choreographed routine — all while riding sidesaddle. They are escaramuzas, the female contingent of the Mexican rodeo and national sport: la charrería. At 16, Naydalyn Rios is the youngest on the home team, Las Coronelas de Fort Worth. It’s a family affair; her mother is the team captain, and her grandmother and great-aunt sew the costumes. Two cousins ride alongside her. “They mentor me, and they help me a lot,” says Rios, whose father and grandfather also competed in la charrería. 

Escaramuza is a highly technical sport that’s inspired by the women who fought in the Mexican Revolution. Many rode out as decoys, stirring up dust clouds to divert the Federales’ attention from the revolutionaries’ movements. Escaramuzas honor these women with their horseback agility, dauntless attitudes, and traditional dress. 

Competing in a voluminous skirt poses no problem for Rios. “Ever since I was little, I was in a dress,” she says. “I’ve gotten used to it.” She started riding in honor guards at age 3, strapped into a tiny sidesaddle, then joined Las Coronelas five years ago. Being an escaramuza like Rios requires athleticism as well as artistry. You need impeccable balance and focus — and plenty of practice. “It’s a work in progress. Especially when we get a new routine, you’ve got to work at it until you get it down.”

But it all pays off for Rios, who loves the adrenaline rush of competition. “You feel all these emotions. You’re excited; you’re just ready to get it done … I just feel happy when I do it.” She hopes to compete at the nationals in Mexico this year and beyond. “I very much have this in my future,” says Rios. “It’s not a personality; it’s a lifestyle. It’s who I am.”

Kadee Coffman – Grace and Grit

As a girl growing up in Clovis, California, Kadee Coffman idolized the rodeo queens she saw in the arena every year. “The queens would dazzle and sparkle in sequins and rhinestones, paired with great horsemanship and the toughness of a cowgirl,” she remembers. “I became very involved showing my horses at a young age, and as soon as I was old enough, I competed for Miss Clovis Rodeo.”

She competed, and she won and then kept winning, finally taking the title of Miss Rodeo California in 2007. Along the way, she realized how much she liked doing interviews — but she wanted to be the one asking the questions. She decided on a career in journalism and set her sights on reporting at the National Finals Rodeo for CBS Sports. “I knew my dreams and goals were going to soon outgrow my small but charming, town,” says Coffman, who moved to Fort Worth in 2011. “I’m a fifth-generation cowgirl to our family’s ranch, and to say it was difficult to leave my hometown is an understatement.”

Her career took off. Coffman covered the NFR for eight years and has hosted telecasts for NBC Sports, RFD-TV, and The Cowboy Channel. She pursued her fashion interests as vice president of media marketing at Dallas Market Center, and she also designs handmade belt buckles for Johnson & Held. But the rodeo queen’s latest endeavors involve more sawdust than sparkles: totally remodeling her home by TCU. “I didn’t think I’d love the remodel process, but I actually did, a lot.” While trying to convince her husband to flip another house, she’s working for America’s fourth-largest school builder, CORE Construction.

“If you would have asked me 10 years ago if I’d be working in construction, I would have just laughed,” says Coffman. But no matter what goal she chases next, one thing is certain: “I’ll continue to support, advocate, and work in the Western industry for as long as I can.”

Duke Largo – Daredevil Go-Getter

“I guess you could say that I’m somewhat of an adrenaline junkie,” says Duke Largo, a bronc rider, bull rider, and Hollywood stuntwoman for the television series “Yellowstone.” “I like doing things that a lot of people wouldn’t do.” She has been skydiving and bungee jumping, and she even dabbles in bullfighting. “I thought it would be something fun to try,” explains Largo, who “had a blast” learning the sport at a Bullfighters Only camp a couple of years ago. “I ended up doing a cowboy poker scene for ‘Yellowstone’ a few months later, so I was glad that I had taken the opportunity to familiarize myself more with being on the ground and around fighting bulls.”

Largo isn’t just on TV as a stunt double; she’s appeared on several reality shows and stars in RIDE TV’s hit series “Cowgirls.” Her passion for working on film is growing, but riding broncs and bulls is her first love. “It’s empowering but humbling. It really helps me to keep my life in perspective; I feel like it brings me closer to God. It’s an escape when life gets rough because when you climb in that chute, you’re not thinking about anything else.”

While she may seem fearless to us, Largo’s courage doesn’t come from an absence of nerves, doubts, and fears — but from her willingness to face them and to get in the saddle anyway. “It takes a lot for me to try to keep all of that in check sometimes,” she says. “The most challenging part of being a roughstock rider is managing my mental game.” 

 With a thrill-seeking spirit and an endless appetite for new challenges, Largo’s can-do attitude is infectious. “‘Can’t’ never could do anything,” she says. “Go out and get it.”

National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth

Hats Off to Cowgirls

You can learn more about trailblazing Western women at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, which completed a dramatic $5.5 million makeover in 2019. High-tech features and interactive experiences immerse the visitor into the world of the cowgirl. Life-size horses gather around you on the video walls in the second-floor exhibition “It’s Never Just a Horse,” where artifacts showcase the relationship between women and their steeds. There’s also a bucking bronc ride and a design room where you can create your own horse, boots, and Western shirt; at press time, these two attractions were temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.  

Downstairs, a hologram of Annie Oakley tells her story next to her real-life shotgun and wedding ring in the gallery Hitting the Mark: Cowgirls and Wild West Shows. Glass screens display archival images and footage from the 1880s to early 1900s. You’ll also find plenty of pop memorabilia, including Wonder Woman’s costume, Reba McEntire’s dresses, and Jon Snow’s saddle from “Game of Thrones.” Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show parade flag holds a place of pride among the many historical artifacts.

But the National Cowgirl Museum isn’t just about history; it also honors women who are cowgirl up right now. Five inductees will be welcomed into the Hall of Fame for 2021 on April 27 at the 45th Annual Induction Luncheon and Ceremony at Dickies Arena:

Pop Chalee: Renowned artist and muralist known for her traditional Native American style of two-dimensional paintings with wildlife and forest scenes.  

Lari Dee Guy: Eight-time Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Champion roper with $1.5 million in winnings and the founder of the Rope Like A Girl youth campaign.

Kathryn Kusner: The first American woman to win an Olympic medal in an equestrian competition and the first licensed female jockey in the country.

Lavonna “Shorty” Koger: Cowboy hat designer and restorer with 40 years of experience and the owner of a leading custom hattery in historic Stockyards City, Oklahoma.

Miranda Lambert: Country music superstar, two-time Grammy Award winner, and native Texan who released her debut album independently to launch her career.

The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame is located at 1720 Gendy St. by the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and tickets cost $10 for adults, $7 seniors/military, $4 children 4 -12, and free for first responders and children 3 and under with paid admission.

Fort Worth Cowgirls in the Hall of Fame

  • Stacie Dieb McDavid
  • Mitzi Lucas Riley
  • Joyce Gibson Roach
  • Margaret McGinley Dickens
  • Tad Lucas
  • Dr. May Owen
  • Anne W. Marion
  • Anne Burnett Tandy
  • Velda Tindall Smith
  • Jerry Ann Portwood Taylor (attended Paschal High School and TCU)
  • Pam Minick (doesn’t live in Fort Worth proper, but she definitely is a strong Fort Worth presence)

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