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TCU Magazine "AlumNews"

Riding Tall - and sideways, upside down, off the back of the horse ...

Back when 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.

By Rachel Stowe Master '91

Mitzi 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.

She's no 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.

"My wife 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."

Born prematurely, 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.

"My mother 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.

"The applause 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."

Mitzi earned 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.

Museumgoers 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.

The Lucas gals' trick riding combined the art and skill of gymnastics with the challenge -- and danger -- of a moving apparatus.

"Trick riding 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.

"It's one 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."

Mitzi said 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."

Trick riders 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."

Mitzi and 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.

That independence 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."

Even though 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 Days.

"Mother would get me home by Labor Day, but that was a sad day for me because Mother was going to be on the road again."

Finally, 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."

After Mitzi 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 to college."

Mitzi majored 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.

"I really 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."

Eventually 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.

It wasn't 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.

In 1990, when her mother died, Mitzi established the Tad Lucas Memorial Award recognizing women who have advanced the sport of rodeo.

"I wanted 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.

"I just wanted to honor women who had contributed to the rodeo, who had kept it alive."

Rachel Master ('91) and her husband Kevin (MBA '91) live in an area of unincorporated Tarrant County with their three sons.

To comment on this article, e-mail tcumagazine@tcu.edu

A fitting new home

Never 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.

Founded 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.

The 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.

In addition, the museum’s archives include information about and artifacts from more than 400 women.

For information, call 817-336-4475 or 800-476-FAME, or go to www.cowgirl.net.