Saddle bronc gal: Cowgirl has put together quite a career

Kaila Mussell's goal hasn't changed during her 14-year career.
She wants to be respected and known as a bronc rider, not just as a woman who rides broncs.

Mussell, who is from Chilliwack, is believed to be the only female bronc rider in North America, at either the amateur or professional level - but for her that has never been the focus. It isn't an act. She isn't risking bodily harm and travelling hundreds of miles every weekend solely to break down barriers for women in the sport of rodeo. Mussell is there to compete, and to win, just like everyone else.

"I love riding broncs, and the sport and the people," Mussell said earlier this week after competing at rodeos in Valemount and Pritchard last weekend. "For some reason this bronc riding thing I've held onto for the longest (of any sport).

"I think primarily because I haven't accomplished my goals yet and mastered it; I don't think I ever will."

Aside from stints in Texas and Alberta, Mussell has always called Chilliwack home. It's where she learned to barrel race, which she was quite good at. It's where she started steer riding at 12 years of age and it's where she started trickriding, an act she took on the road to various stops in Western Canada and the Calgary Stampede. And it's where she learned to ride broncs.

Mussell, then 21, entered her first saddle bronc event in 2001. It hasn't been easy as the first woman in a male-dominated part of rodeo but she refused to back down when others claimed women don't have a place in roughstock events like bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding.

"She had quite a lot of ups and downs with people accepting a lady in bronc riding," said her father, Jack. "It took quite a while to win the judges and people over."

Kaila describes her father as her mentor and someone who has supported her throughout her bronc riding career. He walked away from the sport in 1972 when he married his wife, Cindy. Now 71, his words to his daughter as a child still resonate with her.

"We were always raised that if you can do the job, if you're capable, you can do it," Kaila said. "I did the research, read the rule book (there was no rule prohibiting women riding in saddle bronc events) and went and did it."

She didn't just do it; she did it well.

In the early days, she had success in B.C. Rodeo Association amateur and semi-pro events. Just a year later, she entered her first Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) event. That April afternoon in Prineville, Ore., she placed fourth in saddle bronc, becoming the first female competitor to finish in the money of a PRCA roughstock event.

For some, that might have been enough, but Mussell has kept going. She went on to fill her professional card a year later in Florida, by earning a minimum of $1,000 on the pro circuit, and continues to ride today. She's still trying to achieve a sense of self-satisfaction, to have that feeling she knows she can walk away from saddle bronc with no regrets.

"Once you know her, you know the battle isn't with anyone but herself, she's a perfectionist," Jack said.

"When I was a bronc rider I didn't do it to win the world. I didn't do it to be someone to talk about. I did it for myself and my buddies.

"Kaila's the same way."

Though she's still competing while a month away from her 35th birthday, her perspective has changed over the years.

She has toyed with quitting several times, tired of the steady stream of shoulder injuries and broken collarbones, saddles and stirrups that don't fit for her like they do for the men, and exhausted by the immense pressure she puts on herself to win and bring home money each weekend.

And then in 2011 Canadian country music legend Ian Tyson wrote a song about her, Saddle Bronc Girl, and Mussell said it helped her put everything in perspective. Her focus shifted towards having fun and enjoying riding like she used to. She doesn't ride on the pro circuit much anymore - though she still has her pro card and could if she wanted to - as she focuses more on amateur and semi-pro rodeos in Western Canada, and she's OK with that.

She still has big dreams, but she's more realistic than she once was.

"I definitely would like to qualify for the CFR (Canadian Finals Rodeo)," Mussell said. "I had big dreams - I don't know if it's within reason now because I'm looking at the financial side of it - but I would love to be the first woman to qualify for the NFR (National Finals Rodeo)."

Despite all the ups and downs, the injuries and the self-doubt, in some ways she has accomplished more than most riders do in their careers.

And she's still enjoying success - heading into the Valemount and Pritchard rodeos, she led the BCRA's saddle bronc money winnings.

When she does decide to walk away, it will be when she's satisfied inside. Mussell hopes it's still a few years off, but when she retires she'll have plenty to look back on positively, and she'll have left her mark on the rodeo world.

"I'm absolutely proud of what she's done, but it doesn't matter what she's done, I know she's going to do well at it," her father said.

"She's probably won more followers than she knows."

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