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  • A Ballad for Ginny Brothers
  • Laura Kalpakian (bio)

In her rough-and-tumble rodeo youth Ginny Brothers chose her horses with more care than she chose her men. She named all her horses Cody so they seemed a continuous equine lineage. She called all her men Bucko, so she could cry out, Whoa! Bucko! What a ride! untroubled by their individuality. Ginny's natural balance and athletic poise amounted to rodeo genius; her feats surpassed the skills of many cowboys, and on the circuit she raised a lot of jealousy tumbled up with lust. Ginny was untroubled by the ambiguity. She proved herself always fearless, adroit, and immune to hazard. Almost immune.

In 1937, not yet twenty years old, Ginny Brothers won the ladies' bronc riding title at Cheyenne Frontier Days. She went on to perform the same feat the next year at Madison Square Garden where she won a sterling silver belt buckle. She won the silver-pommeled saddle in Sydney, Australia, where she out-rode the men. She invented the Suicide Drag. In Calgary, not for the competition, but for the entertainment, she bulldogged a steer from the running board of a moving car. This became a standard Ginny Brothers feat. Any car with a running board would do. Her trick riding brought international audiences to their feet, especially her famous Suicide Drag.

Applause – like thunder funneled through mountain passes, echoing across prairie skies – roared in Ginny Brothers's ears, swirled around her in arenas from Boston to San Francisco, from London to Oregon, from Houston to Calgary. Ginny had straight black hair worn always man-short. She was rangy, muscled, with a loping walk, and the broad forehead, high cheekbones, the unsentimental gaze of generations who had stared out over empty plains, and lived by their wits and skills anyhow. Her mother hand-beaded all her western shirts. [End Page 136]

Ginny performed and competed even through rodeo's lean years during the War. In fact, she cleaned up during the War when the young men were all called up for active duty, and gas rationing kept the old cowboys at home. Ginny Brothers lit up these diminished wartime shows, and took on new challenges, rope tricks, and a few broncs in addition to her standard feats. In a world of rugged men, and even more rugged women, Ginny wore silver spurs, a fringed leather jacket, and strode into the arena with the aplomb of an acknowledged champion.

She sent half her prize money and all her trophies to her mother in Butte, Montana, where they joined the blue ribbons she had won as a kid. When, as the legendary returning champion, Ginny Brothers played Butte, she dazzled the locals with a free display of the Suicide Drag, standing tall on the back of her horse, and tearing down the main street, arms wide, hair blowing, wind-blistered lips apart. Then she executed a move at once so swift, so graceful, so terrifying as she fell – it looked like a fall – down, backwards, her body draped over the animal's hindquarters, her face terrifyingly close to Cody's thundering hooves. When she finished, she reined Cody in, and announced to the clapping, gape-mouthed townsfolk: If you want to see the rest of the act, you'll have to pay up and come to the show.

The smell of rodeo was a tonic to Ginny Brothers: hides, and animal hair, hay, and oats, and straw, dung, dust, rain, the slurp of hooves in mud, the groan of engines moving out in the night, horses whinnying in protest, metal sounds of bits and spurs, boot heels catching in stirrups, the crinkle of cigarette papers in leathery hands, the scratch of wooden matches on belt buckles, men and women who smelled of beer and dried sweat and coffee, who were precise, knowledgeable, reliable with their animals, and full of bullshit everywhere else.

Ginny was third-generation rodeo. Her parents, the Prairie Fern and Bill Brothers were truly Americans, Native Americans, though not native. They were both born in London, near Earl's Court where Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show had their headquarters and played for packed audiences nightly...


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pp. 136-142
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