10 photos of badass rodeo girls who play by their own rules.

During a recent visit to Canadian, Texas, photographer Ilona Szwarc was pleasantly surprised to see how many more girls were competing in rodeo competitions than she remembered.

Szwarc first encountered the rodeo as an exchange student in high school, but on a return visit years later, she was blown away by the young, female competitors. In watching them compete, Szwarc was struck by how the girls expressed their femininity in a stereotypically masculine sport while also adopting and adapting the masculine demeanor of rodeo competitors for themselves.

This sparked the idea for her new series "Rodeo Girls," which captures the spiritual connection the girls have with their horses.


"[The girls] love the feeling of being one with the horse," Szwarc says. "They would talk to me how much they loved adventure and the feeling of speed and risk taking."

Here are 10 of the incredible young rodeo riders featured in Szwarc's series:

1. Tierra, 9,  on her family's ranch in Adrian, Texas.

All photos by Ilona Szwarc, used with permission.

2. Karlie, 10, of Bushland, Texas, stands by a horse walker.

3. Bayley, 16, sits behind the Cowboy Church building in Amarillo, Texas.

4. Camree, 7, practices goat tying just outside Canadian.

5. Kaylee, 10, relaxes after a full day of competing.

In the background is the truck she drove with her parents from New Mexico to Texas, where the rodeo finals were held.

6. Sam, 15, relaxes in her bedroom in Clarendon, Texas, which is decorated with portraits of John Wayne.

7. Rylee and Kenli ride horses on their family's ranch in Happy, Texas.

8. Tayln, 7, lays on her pony in Canadian.

9. Sisters Rylee, 11, and Kenli, 9, stand arm-in-arm on their farm in Happy, Texas.

10. Chaley, 10, poses with a donkey on her grandfather's ranch in Canadian.

There is a deep tradition of women in rodeo from Annie Oakley in the late 19th century and into the present day.

These girls are part of a new generation that have taken up that mantle and are proudly pushing the boundaries of the sport, carving out their own space in an area often dominated by men and clearing the way for more generations of girls and women to follow.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by Tod Perry

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