PUEBLO, Colo. – As a time-to-time spokesperson for the organization, I’ve been asked, “Why are there are no female riders in PBR?”
“That is true,” I like to say. “Take every gender intelligence research study and throw it out. This fact proves women are smarter than men.”
Of course, that’s a joke playing into the ever-present danger of this sport.
There’s sometimes truth in humor, but not here. Women can and do ride bulls.
From talented, courageous athletes like Jorden Halverson, 27, set to participate in the PBR Team Series Combine in Bowie, Texas, in April and budding star Najiah Knight, now 16 and competing in Junior Rodeo, female bull riders are intent on making a name and one day a place for themselves on PBR’s top tour.
The bulls don’t care much about chromosomes. Lean the wrong way, sit back too much, get too cocky with your free arm or make any number of other subtle but costly mistakes, and riders like Jorden and Najiah are dispatched without prejudice, just like anyone else.
A close-up X-ray of a broken bone looks the same no matter who you are.
First came the pioneers, who we shouldn’t forget any time of the year, let alone Women’s History Month.
At the top of the list is Jonnie Jonckowski, a world-class track star who was headed to the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal. She was derailed by a bad back injury, despondent, then picked up bull riding to sate her competitive jones and regain a life’s purpose.
Women were supposed to hold on with two hands. Jonckowski, who created an intense workout regimen to become completely ripped, rode with one.
She became the first woman to compete against men at a championship level of bull riding at the Justin World Bull Riding Championship in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1992.
She was a rare bull rider – male or female – able to transcend her sport and reach a national audience through appearing on shows ranging from the Late Night with David Letterman and 48 Hours to What’s My Line and To Tell the Truth to starring as a character named Chance who she calls “a back stabbin’, horse stealin’, bank robbin’ son of a gun” on the appropriately titled Wild West Showdown.
Among the trailblazers, there’s also Cindy O’Neall, PBR’s official competition secretary who, with less fanfare, rode from 1992-1999, beginning when Jonckowski was nearing the end of her career on the fledgling women’s circuit.
O’Neall grew up in southwest Missouri near Joplin. Her family wasn’t involved in rodeo, but she started hanging around a nearby horse stable and began riding and exercising the horses.
Her neighbors had a roping arena, and Cindy found her new favorite place.
At 13, she began team roping and pulling the chute gate. Soon, she began hazing for the bull doggers. Throughout her teenage and college years she worked at a racehorse stable.
She never stopped hanging around the practice pen, and when she was 28, in Arkansas, when one of the cowboys urged Cindy to get on a bull, she did just that.
“It wasn’t a tough bull, but he was tough enough for me to get hooked,” she said. “It was the biggest rush ever. One that’s hard to explain.”
Being on the bull warped both her sense of time and what she could do in life.
“It’s amazing how long 8 seconds can be,” she said. “It’s like a whole different time zone.”
She found an organization to compete with other women and was even more hooked.
“I wish I had known women were riding bulls 10 years earlier,” she said.
She began riding all over the country. The 100 Night Rodeo in Cody, Wyoming, brought the daring women in. An event in the Carolinas included an outlandish, quite dangerous bull chariot race. In Scottsdale, the women riders were paired with celebrity team ropers. They competed alongside the world’s best at a PBR Bud Light Cup event in Houston.
Cotton Rosser invited the ladies to one of his California Rodeos.
“Oh, Cotton loved to tear us ladies apart,” Jonckowski laughed. “He’d run the rankest sh-t under us. No rhythm or pattern, they just blew out of the chutes and went apesh-it. It was, ‘Oh, let the girls ride them! Let them get hurt!’”
In part because of that danger, anytime anyone gets on a bull, the events are thrilling. But growing the women’s bull riding league proved difficult, because only a few girls were competing.
“We didn’t have the numbers,” O’Neall said. “You were doing it not for the love of money but for the love of it.”
There wasn’t much money to love. The paltry prize pools for women’s bull riding events could be $1,000. On top of that were the expenses of being on the road.
“Let’s say we mastered the art of carpooling,” O’Neall said.
Bull riding is bull riding and bones were broken – her right arm twice along with her collarbone.
One time, a bull named Roan Rocket, who sported one deranged twisted-up horn, making him a threat when merely standing still, cracked heads with Cindy, breaking a bone above her eye.
It was at her own promoted event. Afterwards, she sat with a bandaged head, figuring the payout before heading to the hospital.
That’s how Jonckowski remembered it – nary an ambulance to be found at the women’s events.
“Your fellow contestants would scoop you off the dirt and bring you to the hospital,” Jonckowski said. “The extent of our medical care (looking at a broken bone) was, ‘That’s not so bad – it’s actually kinda straight!”
As much as O’Neal shrugged off the danger and loved riding, she wanted to be behind the scenes on the production side. She promoted events for the WPRA (Women’s Professional Rodeo Association), the ACRA (American Cowboys Rodeo Association) and PBR in Missouri and Oklahoma.
“I knew as I watched the action at the front of house of the MGM at my first PBR Finals in the 90’s that my heart was set on being a part of that elite group on the premier level,” she said. “I was willing to do the work to get there.”
She soaked in lessons from showmen like Rosser, legendary operator of the Flying U Rodeo Ranch, who once had a humongous boot rolled onto the dirt.
That was a sight to see, and then a horse busted out of the boot with Rosser on top. The crowd went wild.
Her appreciation for over-the-top PR stunts like that explains why O’Neall once found herself inside a Goodwill looking for extra-large used lingerie. What fan doesn’t enjoy a good media goat-dressing contest?
She and her husband, Joe, also owned bulls, including Ugly Buck, who bucked off Ty Murray in the 1999 PBR World Finals.
After Joe passed in 2022, she sold the better bulls and settled into full time rodeo secretary work.
O’Neall’s wide range of experience prepared her for joining PBR as a scoring and timing operator in 2014 working the Unleash the Beast, Teams, Velocity and Challenger series events.
At the time, PBR was planning to take the sport to China, and she was assigned to the project as the competition secretary, scoring and time operator, and to assist with any athlete issues. When for various reasons bull riding in China proved impossible, the PBR Blue Def Tour (now the Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour) was created and O’Neall was named its secretary.
Today, her duties include producing the draw and Daysheet familiar to fans who closely follow the sport.
When the event begins, she is situated at the controls of the scoring system, acting as the traffic cop making sure everyone is sharp and accurate.
After each out, whether the rider makes the 8-second whistle, or is thrown off or otherwise unable to generate a score by letting go of the bull rope or touching the bull, the judges each tap their scores for rider and bull onto their digital pads and send them to PBR’s proprietary scoring system.
O’Neall has just seconds to review the numbers and release them to the television truck, the arena scoreboard, RidePass, the PBR web site and the world.
If she spots an outlying score among the judges, before sending on the final scores, O’Neall immediately checks if that entry may have been made erroneously.
It doesn’t happen often, but everyone is connected on headsets to discuss a funky number.
Even without any discrepancies, O’Neall is communicating with the judges via headset throughout the night.
“Most of the time it’s serious business. Sometimes, it’s not,” she said.
While fans may debate some of the numbers, how these scores appear so quickly on TV and the arena scoreboard is taken for granted.
Fans are now accustomed to seeing the ride score flash on screen before the replay is complete. They may forget that only a few decades ago, judges would pore over the scoresheets after the event and sometimes change a score that had been recorded incorrectly.
“Having the technology to instantly verify and release official scores to the fans has changed everything for the sport,” she said.
Sometimes, the score is temporarily held. O’Neal has seen so many rides – she estimates nearly 40,000 since PBR abandoned its Chinese ambitions – she can sense when there will be a video review. For those close rides, she waits for the judge’s decision to release the official score.
After the last rider competes on the weekend’s first night, the frantic pace continues for O’Neall.
She has to get the event results reports out as quickly as possible. Then she works with the livestock director to set a new bull list for the next day’s draw.
The Sports Medicine team will tell her which riders are too banged up to compete the following day to ensure the proper match ups.
“Cindy’s dedication and attention to detail is outstanding. Whether it is the Unleash The Beast, PBR Teams, Velocity or Challenger tour, PBR is proud to have her as the scoring gatekeeper to the world,” said Jon Sager, PBR SVP of Information Technology.
Next, she connects with the television crew on the coming round’s buck order, determining section breaks, and extended commercial pods. The livestock director needs this information as soon as possible to begin building the bull pen maps.
“Cindy has set a very high standard for the quality and reliability of the information she provides to the television broadcast. She does great work and makes our life a lot easier,” said David Osborne, a freelance producer for PBR on CBS since 2003.
O’Neall thrives on the fast pace of the work, and she’s always eager to pitch in to keep the show rolling. Her dad was a truck driver and when working for CFI (Contract Freighters in Joplin), she earned a Commercial Driver’s License, put to use when she has driven PBR’s semi-trucks, including when COVID-19 created a driver shortage.
Factoring in when she rode bulls in PBR events, O’Neall has been with the organization for its entire history.
“Over the past 30 years of riding, producing events, owning bulls and being involved with scoring and timing, I have seen PBR go through several management stages,” she said. “Each one made enormous contributions so the next group could take it to the next level.
“I am so honored and proud to be a part of this team. With the leadership, management, and the best Western sports live event crews ever, the PBR has reached an iconic level. The best part is, as much as we have grown, it still feels like family.”
Article Courtesy of PBR