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Seeking Opportunity, a Cowgirl Hits the Road

Jackie Crawford was six months pregnant when she won the breakaway roping title at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association National Finals in December 2020. Calf ropers in the sport generally tuck in their shirts to reveal their prize belt buckles, but when Crawford rode, she let her shirt hang loose over her belly for comfort.

In an interview with Wrangler, the event’s sponsor, after her victory, Crawford mentioned the unborn baby girl she had already named Journey.

“This is one amazing journey that I’m getting to be on, and little Journey getting to be on it too,” she said. “She was giving me some kicks today, so she was excited.”

Two months after giving birth in March this year, Crawford, 39, went back out on the road for a full season of rodeo competitions with baby Journey and her 4-year-old son, Creed, in tow. Her husband, the retired roper Charly Crawford, stayed at home in Stephenville, Texas, with daughter Kaydence.

Rodeo athletes typically spend the summer racking up prize money at local events in order to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo at the end of the year in Las Vegas, a competition among the top 15 athletes from each discipline in what is considered the Super Bowl of the rodeo world.

Women have limited opportunities in the sport. Breakaway roping — in which riders throw a breakaway lasso around a calf released from a chute — and barrel racing are the only individual events open to them. In fact, the 2020 season was the first since 1959 in which the P.R.C.A. — which sanctions local rodeo competitions — included breakaway roping in its annual finals, though as a separate ticketed event. Until then, just one of its seven events, barrel racing, included women competing by themselves.

And the financial rewards for women are often small. By the end of the 2021 season in September, for example, Crawford had earned $36,200 at P.R.C.A. rodeos, which got her back into the finals. By comparison, bull riders, all of whom are men, would have earned at least $100,000 on their way to qualifying.

But the fact that breakaway roping is now being included in the National Finals Rodeo and other rodeos indicates that the perception of it as a niche event within the rodeo world is changing.

And Crawford, though she did not repeat as champion this year, finishing sixth, is determined to ride the wave.

“This season was long and financially really hard but we made some great memories,” she said. “And I felt good about being able to win a world championship, take a few months off, come back and still make the N.F.R. — that was a big accomplishment for me.”

“But we’re going to keep pressing until the P.R.C.A. will put us in everywhere as a standard event with equal money.”

Earlier this year, The New York Times caught up with Crawford at a few stops along her journey, including a rodeo event in Alvarado, Texas. In a hectic life on the road, Crawford found peace astride a horse. The pressures and stresses melted as she waited for her moment in the arena. Her mind calmed. Her nerves steadied. And then, with the nod of her head, the calf was released and she set forth, kicking up dust behind her.

In breakaway roping, the faster the calf is caught, the better the competitor’s ranking. Everything happens at lightning speed. The rider attempts to lasso the calf the instant it is released from the chute, so a winning time may be under 2 seconds. Crawford’s best performance this year was in Fort Worth, Texas, catching the calf in 1.6 seconds for a prize of roughly $3,000. Here, Crawford surges forward on her horse, Uber.

Crawford first took part in a roping event when she was 12. She went on to compete through high school and college, earning five regional and national college-level championship titles by the time she graduated in 2005. At that point, most breakaway ropers step away from the competitive arena.

“In generations past, unless women wanted to compete for pennies on the dollar, then their breakaway roping career was done after college,” said Kendra Santos, a rodeo journalist and the former communications director for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. “They just had to do it for the love of the game.”

Crawford kept at it, accumulating 20 world championship titles, including for team roping events and her historic win at the national finals last year. Above, Crawford puts on the 2020 prize belt buckle.

“She’s one of those people who has long been preparing to be great at something that didn’t have a big incentive at the end of the line,” said Bobby Mote, a bareback riding champion. “She just kept showing up every day.”

While the prize money for breakaway ropers is low, the costs for a cowgirl to compete can be high because they have to haul their horses across the country with them. (Bull and bronco riders are assigned livestock at random at the event site and often hit the road together, splitting the costs.) The costs of the horse pen, gas and caring for the animals on the road all add up.

Crawford usually travels with four of her horses, T-Boy, Kevin, Roulette and Leroy, attached to a bus that she purchased at the start of the season. Above, she prepped Uber (whom she later sold) for the Alvarado Fast Track Qualifier.

Crawford was teaching a roping class one evening last March when she felt a few cramps. She didn’t give them much thought. It was only after the lesson that she realized she was having contractions. She fixed supper for her family and headed to the hospital, where Journey, above, was born.

Five days later, Crawford was back on her horses. About a week and a half later, she was competing again and winning.

In the first few months, Journey would wake up throughout the night. Crawford was also pumping and nursing in between competitions. She was barely sleeping.

Crawford eventually hired a babysitter to come with her and bought a bus so that her entire crew of eight (her two children, the babysitter, the four horses and her manager) could fit comfortably.

They also adopted an abandoned kitten they had spotted on the side of the road. They named him Skid.

It’s a circus, Crawford said, “but I just don’t think I could physically leave my kids for two months. I’d rather quit.”

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