By Brad Reynolds
Bonnie McCarroll didn’t die in the arena, but the dreams of many a cowgirl did. When McCarroll’s horse crushed her in 1929, it vindicated every rodeo manager and cowboy who had said, “Women don’t belong here.”
But then, cowgirls’ expulsion had been a long time coming. At the 1914 Pendleton Round-up, Bertha Blancett had come within four points of beating Sam Garrett for the title of “All- around Cowboy.” Both Cheyenne and Pendleton had banned 98-pound Mabel Strickland from men’s competitions after she set the world record for steer roping in 1924. Women had proven they could be as good—if not better—than their male counterparts. In spite of this fact (or as a direct result), cowgirls were given the boot.
Bonnie McCarroll died in her hospital bed on September 29, 1929. After that, Pendleton and other major rodeos barred women from roughstock events.
Those barriers remained in place fifty years later. …When Jonnie Jonckowski barreled on through them.
In 1994, Lynn “Jonnie” Jonckowski told American Cowboy, “I’m more of a lady than a cowgirl.”
She grew up on paved streets. Her interest was in track, not tractors. Her father, Larry, was a Toyota dealer, her mother, Alma, a stay-at-home mom. Jonnie was no more a cowgirl than her Billings classmates, and she had no intention to be.
That changed when she met Jim O’Connor.
“Man, how I loved that rugged, gruff old man,” says Jonnie.
O’Connor was her neighbor’s father, and one summer, Jonnie was invited out to the O’Connor farm, where she learned to ride horses. When her vacation came to an end, she had difficulty saying goodbye.
“I had adopted [O’Connor] as a grandpa,” she remembers. “I told him, ‘I don’t want to go, grandpa. I want to stay on the farm.’” O’Connor couldn’t oblige, of course; so, he offered the young girl an exceptional parting gift.
He said, “Pick out a horse.”
Jonnie returned home glowing. Alma, however, was dubious of the news.
“We walked over to the neighbors,” says Jonnie, “and Mom said, ‘Please explain to my daughter that she’s not really getting a horse.’“
When O’Connor backed his truck into the Jonckowskis’ lawn, Alma believed it then.
In the following years, Jonnie spent summers on dude ranches and even competed in a barrel race at 16, but horses were just a hobby; running was her life. In 1976, at age 22, Jonnie was on pace to make the U.S.A. Olympic Track Team, but her hopes were shattered by an untimely back injury.
“Dieticians, trainers, nutritionists were always telling me what do. Now I had to decide what I was going to do,” she remembers. “I saw a poster for bareback riding at the Red Lodge Rodeo and said, ‘Why not?’”
The thing of it was, Jonnie had never actually ridden bareback. “I went into a bar and asked some cowboys to teach me,” she laughs. “I said, ‘I have two weeks to learn this.’”
She picked it up almost effortlessly, and when it came time to compete, she lasted to the whistle.
“I thought that was pretty neat,” she remembers. “I got some catcalls and my picture taken, and I thought, well, that’s the end of that.”
Broke In, Broken, Broke
Not long after the Red Lodge Rodeo, Jonnie got a call.
“It was these gals that said, ‘You should ride bulls with us.’
So I did. I lost it in four seconds, but thought wow, I could get into that!”
With new direction, Jonnie enrolled in a Colorado bull riding school, the only one she could find to take women.
“It was 105 guys and me,” she laughs.
Being in a “man’s world” wasn’t easy, especially after a rough ride. Jonnie was constantly having to prove herself as tough as the boys. She shrugged off contusions. She smiled through busted bones.
The worst of it came when her nose was kicked nearly clean off by a bull. It hung by a flap of skin on her forehead.
“Thankfully,” says Jonnie, “there was a plastic surgeons conference going on at the time.”
Jonnie went on to finish second in her class, but the licks kept coming.
A broken rib here, a torn muscle there—every injury set Jonnie back financially. To make any money at all, she had to travel the circuits, and even then, her winnings rarely covered expenses.
“A big check then was maybe three hundred dollars,” she says.
In 1986, Jonnie qualified for the World Title competition in Oklahoma. At this point, she had exhausted all of her resources. To continue riding, she had to win.
“I was so broke,” she remembers. “I said I would ride or die trying.”
It was not an empty promise. One day prior to the competition, a bull had fallen on her, crushing her leg. She was unable to walk. She was unable to mount a bull on her own. The pain was incredible. Medical personnel strongly advised that Jonnie not ride. But it was now or never.
Jonnie was lifted atop a large brindle bull named B12. The chute opened. And she rode the hell out of him.
Show ‘em, Girl
Jonnie left Oklahoma a World Champion. Now she had her sights on Cheyenne and Pendleton. It was high time women be allowed back in roughstock events, and Jonnie was on a mission to make it happen.
“I campaigned three straight years for Cheyenne. I wanted to make sure all these gals in their thirties and forties got a chance to ride,” she says. “I told our story to radio and TV stations all over the world, over and over again.”
Jonnie sat for countless news interviews. She competed on American Gladiator. She appeared on popular programs like The Late Show with David Letterman, The Johnny Carson Show, and Nightline. (She even dated Charlie Rose for a time.) Every chance she got, she shone a spotlight on women’s bull riding.
In 1988, Cheyenne agreed to take Jonnie and three other women in roughstock events. Press from 77 countries were in attendance.
“They looked like they were waiting for the Beatles to show up!” she laughs.
Then came the pressure to ride.
“I was sick to my stomach,” she remembers. “I had been telling the story so long that now I had to prove I belonged there.”
Jonnie got thrown pretty bad on her first ride, but she maintained her poise.
“Everyone looks at you like you’re their sister. Nothin’ flattens a crowd like a girl getting hurt,” she explains. “I jumped up and waved at everybody, and they cheered.”
After the performance, fans rushed to get autographs.
“George Straight was there. His autograph line was half as long as mine,” laughs Jonnie.
Cheyenne invited her back in ’89, and again she was hailed as a media sensation. After that, the Pendleton committee reversed their stance on women in roughstock. In ‘91, Jonnie rode into the arena, the first woman to do so since Bonnie McCarroll in 1929.
“I slapped the sign that read, ‘No women beyond this point,’” she remembers. “Alice Greenough’s brother, Turk, was there. He hugged me and said, ‘You show ‘em, girl. This has been a long time coming!’”
Idols and Angels
Jonnie returned home to Montana in 1996. Her mother had developed Alzheimer’s, and her father needed help taking care of her.
“She was an incredible human being,” says Jonnie. “I once asked her why she was always at the airport when I flew out, but she was never there when I came home. She said, ‘I wouldn’t miss it. I always thought it would be the last day I saw you alive.’ She never let that fear show. She allowed me to be me.”
After her mother passed, Jonnie went to work in a Billings nursing facility, but she had trouble following rules.
“One patient, Ruby, was coming up on her 99th birthday,” says Jonnie. “She was an old rancher from Colstrip, could hardly move or see. I said, ‘What do you want for your birthday, Ruby?’ She said, ‘I want a paint pony.’”
A few days later, Jonnie put rubber shoes on a horse and walked him right into Ruby’s room. She placed a grain bucket on the bed, so that Ruby could pet him.
“She was so happy. She said, ‘My God, Jonnie. I can smell him.’ The rest of the afternoon, everyone wanted to see the horse. Most of the rooms were too crowded, so we had to take the screens off windows so he could stick his head in,” Jonnie recalls. “Management pink-slipped me the next day.”
Jonnie was once again jobless, but far from disheartened. In 1998, she established Angel Horses, a nonprofit organization that provides physical and emotional stimulus to senior citizens—especially those affected by Alzheimer’s— through the use of rescued horses (and other animals) in a therapeutic environment.
“Being with the horses, you see people come alive,” says Jonnie. “One woman told me, ‘Dad hasn’t looked at me with this much clarity in a year.’”
Along with the elderly, Angel Horses also services at-risk youth, children with special needs, and families affected by cancer. The organization is 100 percent volunteer-run, 100 percent funded through donations.
“Horses, insurance, food, transportation—it’s a huge bill every month. I live in poverty to keep it going,” Jonnie explains, matter-of-factly.
She doesn’t ask for sympathy. For Jonnie, poverty has always been a hurdle, never a wall. Wherever she’s gone, she’s found strangers to call friends. Her kindness and charisma have opened doors for her wherever life leads.
“I got to go around the world with a quarter in my pocket,” she beams.
In 2022, filming is set to begin on a major motion picture about her life. Titled Baby, Hold On, the film is written by Gigi Levangie (Stepmom), directed by Nash Edgerton (Gringo), and stars Sienna Miller (American Sniper) as the illustrious lady bull rider.
“It puts me in a head-spin,” says Jonnie of the movie. “Hopefully it can inspire someone out there.”
The road to the top is never easy, and you’ll never get there if you accept the status quo. To all the girls out there who have ever been told, “You can’t” or “You won’t” or “That’s for the boys,” Jonnie has a message for you:
“Don’t listen to what anyone says. Have a little faith. Do what makes you happy.”