If Tammy Kelly walks into a western clothing store anywhere in Wyoming, Oklahoma, or even in Las Vegas, Nevada, people know who she is. They are proud to meet her, happy for a chance to talk with her and perhaps get a chance to have her sign a particular piece of rodeo memorabilia. You see, Tammy enjoys celebrity status in most western states and cities.
This should be true in Payson, Arizona - the home of the oldest continuous annual rodeo in the world. You would think that folks in a rodeo town would recognize a local girl, particularly if she was a 13-time All-Around Junior Rodeo Champion, but Tammy Kelly’s accomplishments go far beyond this. Tammy is a Professional Women’s Rodeo Association (PWRA) six-time World Champion Bull Rider.
If you are not a rodeo fan, you may never have heard of the PWRA or a woman’s bull riding champion, but PWRA is in its 56th season. Women’s bull riding has been a staple of the organization since its inception, and during the 1990s, Tammy Kelly dominated the event. She won five consecutive world titles from 1994 to 1998, then came back to win again in 2002 at age 41.
So, why doesn’t Payson know about Tammy Kelly? Well, some of us do. If you have eaten breakfast at the Beeline Café in the last 10 years, chances are that Tammy’s mother, Jerry Sanders, cooked it for you. Jerry is a cowgirl in her own right, but like her daughter, she won’t brag about it. If you have lived in the area long enough - back when Payson was a cow town - you might know Jerry and her daughter. If not, you may never have heard of them.
This is because, first, there is no PWRA bull riding at the Payson, Rodeo. In fact, it is unusual to find woman’s bull riding at a rodeo in Arizona. Second, Tammy didn’t start riding bulls until she was 32 years-old and had moved from Payson to Queen Creek, but she is a Payson gal, so for those of you who don’t know Tammy, let me introduce her.
Tammy was born in Payson and raised in Gisela and Payson. She attended school in Payson. Anyone who knew Tammy then knew that she was one tough kid. She was going to make her mark, we just didn’t know where. She is a granddaughter of Normand Winters, one of the roughest, toughest Rim Country (or anywhere else) Cowboys to ever fork a horse. She is a great granddaughter of Anderson Lee “Babe” Haught, guide to Zane Grey. What’s more, she married a former Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) bull rider, Frank “Machine Gun” Kelly.
In a 02-17-04 interview with Tammy and Frank Kelly, Frank told us: “Gary Leffew (1970 world champion bull rider) and I had a bull riding school in Phoenix. I dated Tammy a few times and she was keeping the books for us. After watching some of the guys ride she told me, ‘“I can do that.”’
I told her that she would get hurt. ‘“I’ll show you, I can ride these bulls,”’ she said. I knew that Tammy was quite a rodeo hand and had ridden in some junior rodeos, so I put her on a bull and she rode him. She showed me and from that time on, I knew that she could do it.”
Frank knows a little about bull riding. He has won the event at the Payson Rodeo on five different occasions and he teaches young bull riders.
Tammy wanted to ride bulls; she had the determination and the ability. Frank saw this and told Tammy, “All right, I’ve been down this road. I can tell you what to do. First, you need to be in shape.” Tammy was in great shape, but she started an exercise program prescribed by Frank. Focus was not a problem for Tammy; she had it from the get-go.
So Tammy trained; she rode the bulls in Frank’s string. Frank said that she could ride any of them. Then at 32 years of age, she started riding bulls in the rodeos and never looked back. After winning five consecutive world titles, she slacked off a little not attending as many rodeos so that she could spend more times with her two children. In 2002 Tammy came back to win her sixth world championship in Fort Worth, Texas at the age of 41.
There are two things that Frank is very proud of. The first is that Tammy held down a 40-hour a week job during the five consecutive years that she rode bulls to a world championship. She was also a wife and mother, the glue the held the family together.
The second is that Tammy was invited to ride an exhibition bull at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. This would be no ordinary bull ride for Tammy. Not only would there be thousands of fans looking on, but she would be riding a men’s National Finals Rodeo bull!
Women's bull riding is different from the men’s competition. Women have to stay on a bull for seven seconds, not eight, and the bulls are, as Tammy Kelly told us “typical of what they bring to high school and college rodeos for men. They are not as rank as PRCA or Professional Bull Riders stock.”
This was the National Finals Rodeo. The bucking bulls were the best in the world. Tammy would come out of the chute on one of those bulls. The bull would be “Snappy.”
We asked Tammy to give us an idea of what was going through her mind when she found out that she would be riding a national finals bull at a national finals rodeo.
"I've always been a sort of daredevil,” She told us. “For me, it was a real challenge to prove I could do it. When people were saying I couldn’t, that made me want to try even more.
“A bull is a bull. If you were to let the thought of injury enter your mind, you probably wouldn’t do it. I don't let it into my mind. Guys who want to ride crave bulls, while most female bull riders are more tentative. They don’t practice as much. Most women look at it as ‘if I practice, I'll get hurt.’ The way I see it, you can’t expect to just go out and do good. You have to work at it.”
That may be what sets Tammy apart from her women competitors. She is a 5-foot-4-inch, 115-pound woman with the mentality of a male bull rider!
To Tammy, a bull is a bull. She would ride any national finals bull they cared to trot out to her, including Snappy. When the gate opened, few people expected Tammy to stay aboard Snappy for more than two jumps. Many feared that she would be hurt. The general consciences - “Its all right for the girls to ride those smaller bulls used in the PWRA, but they shouldn’t be letting her come out on a national finals bull. It’s suicide!” Those folks were about to get an introduction to Tammy Kelly!
Tammy nodded her head. The chute gate came open and she rode a twisting, renowned national finals bull to the buzzer, stayed on for a couple more jumps, then threw a leg over Snappy’s shoulder and landed on her feet with a perfect standing dismount. She stood in place and tipped her hat to the crowd. The fans in turn gave Tammy a raucous standing ovation.
Later the stock contractor told Tammy, “It’s too bad that was an exhibition. You made the best ride of the day. You would have won day money hands down!”
Tammy is a true professional and a credit to her sport. Her efforts have never been for the prize money. In 1995, she won the world championship and received only $10,000. By comparison, Jerome Davis, the men’s 1995 world bull-riding champion, pocketed more than $135,000.
Stopping far short of criticizing the discrepancy in payouts, Tammy only wants to make women’s rodeo better known nationally. “Then, maybe the purses will grow. The money thing didn’t tick me off,” she told us. It just made me want to work that much harder.”
Tammy is retired from active participation in rodeo and lives in Queen Creek, Arizona. She has two daughters. The oldest, Tera, is attending Northern Arizona University on a track scholarship. Her youngest, Frankie, is making her mark in the junior rodeos. Frank and Tammy continue to run a bull riding school.
*Story told by Jayne Peace & Jinx Pyle
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