Fannie Sperry Steele (1887-1983), born Fannie Sperry, was an award-winning bronc rider and rodeo performer from Montana, one of the first women inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame, and the first Montana native in the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
Born Fannie Sperry to Rachel and Datus Sperry, Fannie was a first-generation Montanan. She was taught to ride by the time she could walk by her mother Rachel, since her father was prevented from riding by an old injury. She inherited her love of horses, especially Pintos, from her mother.
A common practice for female rodeo riders at the time was to tie the stirrups together under the horses belly for greater stability in the stable. Judges allowed this for women with no penalties. Fannie was famous for always riding “slick” — that is, she never tied her stirrups together. She thought the practice was unfair to the horse because it didn’t have a fair chance of throwing off the rider.
“Mine is the reputation of being the only woman rodeo rider who rode her entire career unhobbled. I confess it is a record I am proud of!”
She won several awards for her riding in professional rodeos during her lifetime, including Women’s Bucking Horse Champion of Montana in 1904 at the age of 17, and Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World of the first Calgary Stampede rodeo in both 1912 and 1913, where hundreds of cowboys from Western Canada, the United States and Mexico competed for thousands of dollars in prizes.
Before the Calgary Stampede began, a horse named Red Wing trampled rodeo rider Joe LaMar to death. As she always did, Fannie stood in line with the men to draw the slip of paper telling her what horse she would ride. She drew Red Wing. Though she had the right to refuse to ride him and draw another, Fannie never turned down a horse. She rode Red Wing and stayed on the whole time, winning the title of Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World, along with $1,000 cash, a $300 gold belt buckle, and a beautiful saddle with hand-tooled roses. Decades later, when asked if she was afraid to ride the horse, she replied “You just forget about being scared when you ride horses”.
On April 30, 1913, She married Bill Steele, a fellow rodeo rider and arena clown, and together they began operating their own Wild West show. Besides her horsemanship, Sperry Steele was also skilled with a rifle. During their shows, she would often shoot ashes out of cigars in her husband’s mouth.
Sperry Steele competed for the last time in 1925 at Bozeman, and continued riding exhibition into her 50s. She did not completely retire from riding until until 1974, at the age of 87, when she entered a rest home in Helena, Montana. Fannie died a rodeo legend in 1983.
“To the yesterdays that are gone, to the cowboys I used to know, to the bronc busters that rode beside me, to the horses beneath me (sometimes) I take off my hat. I wouldn’t have missed one minute of it.”
“I have never tired of rodeo in my life. I have never seen one show too many, be it good, bad or middlin’. I hope there’s an arena in Heaven… that’s where you’ll find me… Fannie Sperry Steele.”
Image by Edward F. Marcell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.