Tall - and sideways, upside down, off the back of the horse ...
the Old West wasn't so old, Mitzi Lucas Riley '47 kept her saddle polished
and the rodeo world smiling. Now she's at it again.
Rachel Stowe Master '91
Lucas Riley hung up her trick-riding saddle decades ago, but she's riding
high in media circles these days. The 74-year-old former rodeo star (and
former Frog) has been a favorite among reporters and photographers covering
Fort Worth's new jewel -- the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.
Mitzi, a member of the board of directors, is a prime example of the can-do
spirit behind the legends and legacies honored in the museum.
stranger to the spotlight. As the daughter of "Rodeo's First Lady" Tad
Lucas, Mitzi sampled her first taste of show biz as an infant. And she
liked it. Tad was a champion saddle bronc rider. Mother and daughter were
daring trick-riding partners for two decades. Both are inductees into
the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame -- Tad in 1978 and Mitzi in 1996.
was the prettiest girl -- cowgirls and all -- who ever got on a horse and rode
into the arena," said Lanham Riley, who was involved with TCU's Ranch
Management program for many years. "She had the greatest personality,
she was always smiling and she never met a stranger. It didn't matter
how tough it got, she was always smiling."
Mitzi was a mere 2 1/2 pounds when her mother took her home -- nestled in
a cotton-lined shoebox warmed by a hot-water bottle. By the time she was
5 months old, she had graduated to a grape basket.
and my aunt took turns taking care of me," Mitzi said. When it was time
for her to eat, her aunt took her down to the arena. Everyone wanted to
see the baby, so Tad just put Mitzi in her hat and rode around the arena.
and the smell -- I just bonded with the arena that day," Mitzi said. She
rode before she walked. "My mother wanted to know where I was, so she
sat me on her horse. It was a playpen to me with all her straps."
her first paycheck at the ripe age of 6 when she filled in for her mom.
Tad shattered her arm in 1933 and was in a cast for three years. (The
museum displays a large Navajo bracelet given to Tad to wear over her
deep scar.) With contracts to fulfill, Tad tapped Mitzi to ride in her
place. That was just the beginning.
can catch a glimpse of the two trick riding in footage from an old home
movie included in the "Greatest Rides" exhibit. It's the only time Mitzi
has seen herself ride.
gals' trick riding combined the art and skill of gymnastics with the challenge -- and
danger -- of a moving apparatus.
is all in the timing," Mitzi said. It required a lot of repetitious practice -- until
she and her horse both got it right -- and complete trust in her horse.
of the only events where you don't have control of your horse. You drop
the reins when you start and don't pick them up until you're through.
You don't have any control except for what you trained."
her horses were always her best friends, and then she added with a laugh:
"I really didn't think I would get married. I didn't think I could find
a man I could love as much as my horse."
made up a lot of their own tricks. Tad invented the suicide drag -- where
she gracefully hung off the back of a running horse. "You sit on the hips.
Hold on here," she explained, pointing to the handles on the back of her
saddle. "And just lean back and relax. Getting up was a little harder."
her mother trained their own horses (each had at least two) and made their
own costumes. Mitzi's dad even taught her how to take care of their car -- there
were a lot of flats in those days -- as they drove the rodeo circuit.
kept them going on the road and kept Mitzi wrapped up in rodeo instead
of surrendering to an offer from Hollywood. "I didn't even give it a lot
of thought," she said. "It was a seven-year contract. I was too independent.
I liked what I was doing -- I didn't want to have to answer to a studio."
they lived in Fort Worth, the Lucas women didn't like the Texas heat,
so they headed northwest. Starting in Colorado, the trail would include
Utah, Idaho, Montana and sometimes California, among other places. Two
of Mitzi's favorite rodeos were the Calgary Stampede and Cheyenne Frontier
get me home by Labor Day, but that was a sad day for me because Mother
was going to be on the road again."
when Mitzi was 15, Tad let her miss school for the Madison Square Garden
Rodeo in New York. Mitzi's principal at Arlington Heights made her agree
to keep a daily journal. "I still had to study on the road," she said,
but admitted: "My heart was never in school."
graduated from high school, the duo planned to participate in a big USO
show in Europe, but the trip fell through. "That's when I was sent off
in art so she could sharpen her costume design skills. She spent her freshman
year at Tarleton State University and then came back home for her sophomore
year at TCU. Over the years, she has taken several night classes at TCU,
and oldest daughter Lana graduated from TCU's nursing school in 1977.
The Rileys lost her to cancer about 10 years ago.
enjoyed the couple of years I went to college," Mitzi said. "Many times
I wished I would have finished, but I got married at 19 instead."
the cowgirls' heyday slowed. Mitzi continued to rodeo for a few years
after she and Lanham Riley married. He was a calf roper and competed at
many of the same rodeos as his wife and mother-in-law. The couple traveled
the rodeo circuit with their two sons until Mitzi retired in 1954. They
had a new daughter and their older son was about to start school, so it
seemed like the right time. (Tad didn't retire until 1958, and that was
just because her horse was too old and she didn't want to train a new
one.) The Rileys had five children in all.
"I put all
my scrapbooks and rodeo stuff under the bed and was just Mom," Mitzi said.
until the kids were going off to college that Mitzi started getting the
old dreams out, when she joined the Rodeo Historical Society, which supports
the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma. Mitzi has served
on the board, and she, her mom and her husband have all been inducted
into the society's Rodeo Hall of Fame. This year her dad -- steer wrestler
and bronc rider Buck Lucas -- is up for the honor.
when her mother died, Mitzi established the Tad Lucas Memorial Award recognizing
women who have advanced the sport of rodeo.
something in Mother's name. She had worked with the Rodeo Historical Society
and was actually one of the founders," Mitzi said, noting that the award
is not limited to competitors.
wanted to honor women who had contributed to the rodeo, who had kept it
Master ('91) and her husband Kevin (MBA '91) live in an area of unincorporated
Tarrant County with their three sons.
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fitting new home
content to be quiet nor modest, the “cowgirls” of the past blasted into
Fort Worth this summer with a three-day celebration that included parties,
programs and a downtown parade.
in 1975 in Hereford, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame is now
housed in a spectacular $21 million facility that opened in Fort Worth’s
Will Rogers complex in June.
Hall of Fame has inducted 159 honorees, including Sandra Day O’Connor,
first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who was inducted during
the museum’s opening.
Not limited to the traditional definition of cowgirl, honorees include
pioneers, artists, writers, entertainers, humanitarians, businesswomen,
educators, ranchers and rodeo cowgirls.
The criterion is simple: Women who have distinguished themselves while
exemplifying the pioneer spirit of the American West. They are from all
walks of life but have one thing in common—the cowgirl “spirit,” the can-do
attitude that elevates them above the rest.
addition, the museum’s archives include information about and artifacts
from more than 400 women.
information, call 817-336-4475 or 800-476-FAME, or go to www.cowgirl.net.