by BETTY L. MARTIN
HOUSTON, March 15 (Xinhua) -- More women than ever are choosing to travel the hard road in highly skilled equestrian fields under the professional heading of "cowgirl," says the woman scheduled each night to open the largest rodeo on earth.
In the grand entry parade that precedes each rodeo and music concert of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo through March 23, Niki Flundra, 33, carries the U.S. flag into the arena without using a saddle, bridle or reins.
Steering her horse Zyada with her thighs and knees is something she's picked up during 17 years as a professional trick rider, movie stunt double, horse trainer and all-around cowgirl who, along with her rodeo cowboy husband Dustin Flundra, owns a horse and cattle ranch in her native Alberta, Calgary in Canada.
"I think that rodeo is evolving every day and women are more respected in the field and in different Western events," Flundra said. "There are more women ropers, cutters, trainers, women riding cow herding horses and in competitions where both men and women compete." Most professional rodeo events, such as bull or wild-horse riding, are still dominated by men, she said.
"The professional rodeo events, because they are rougher and tougher, do limit the number of events women can enter," Flundra said, "but there are women's rodeo events where women compete with other women and a few rodeos where women compete in some events with men."
Barrel racing -- the art of riding a horse through a course around barrel obstacles without touching, much less knocking over, a single barrel -- is the one event at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo that is solely open to women. Eight women have competed or will compete nightly through the March 4-23 rodeo schedule in barrel racing to vie for award money of up to 50,000 U.S. dollars for the category's top prize winner.
Flundra can barrel race. She also can do tricks while astride or standing on various parts of a horse, tricks that have been captured on film in 23 television shows or feature films including "Shanghai Knights," "Flicka," and "Little House on the Prairie."
She grew up watching her father engineer the pyrotechnics shows at the annual Calgary Stampede rodeo or riding older horses at her grandfather's ranch just across the road from her parents' home.
"I saw the Calgary Stampede and it sparked my interest. I just knew I had to do that," Flundra said. "I grew up horse crazy. I knew I had to be around horses. I had my first horse when I was 13 years old, saving up to pay 100 (U.S. dollars) each month until I had her paid off. It all just kind of sprung from there."
Horses have attracted and held her interest ever since, she said, enduring through learning the skills to become an ace trick rider.
"Trick riding was one of the first rodeo events women mastered," Flundra said.
Though not documented as thoroughly as that of the American cowboy, there is a history of Western women who worked on cattle ranches or participated in rodeos.
What is documented is spotlighted at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.
Women, including wives and daughters of ranchers, did ranch work and went on cattle drives, especially at times of war when men were called to join the fight, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the late 19th century, famed cowgirls such as sharpshooter Annie Oakley earned international recognition in William "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Wild West Show. Among the skill set of the cowgirls at the turn of the century were trick riding, marksmanship and trick roping.
Gone today are the side-saddles and the bulky split skirts of their predecessors, but the cowgirl spirit is still strong as women are competing in increasing numbers in modern rodeos along with multitasking in other spheres.
Flundra said hers is a rodeo family. Her husband is a saddle bronc rider who is often in the same rodeos where she is performing, such as the couple are doing at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
"We stay together at rodeos whenever possible," she said. "Sometimes, we have to travel different roads. From the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, we'll go to another show in Arizona, and then back home for calving season in April."
Also traveling with the rodeo couple is their energetic son, Ridge, who will be three years old at the end of March. Inside the Houston rodeo's lounge and child-care center for performers and their families, Ridge ignores the large-screen TV and its images of his mom or dad in the rodeo arena, instead enjoying riding in the child-size toy cars and trucks.
"Our home in Alberta, 10 miles from the Montana border, is all things rodeo," Flundra said. "Especially now. Whether we're home or on the road on the rodeo circuit, I always have to go ride herd on my child."