“Cowgirl is an attitude.”

This is a quote from famous cowgirl Dale Evans, who goes on to say, “Cowgirl is a pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands. They speak up. They defend the things they hold dear. A cowgirl might be a rancher, or a barrel racer, or a bull rider, or an actress. But she’s just as likely to be a checker at the local Winn Dixie, a full-time mother, a banker, an attorney, or an astronaut.”

Although I grew up on a ranch in eastern Montana and I rode horses, gathered cattle with my dad and helped with branding, I never really thought of myself as a “Cowgirl.” But through my years of reading and researching for my books, I’ve come to realize that I am—maybe an “urban cowgirl” by strict definition, but a cowgirl by attitude.

My grandmother was a cowgirl—a real one, one who not only rode horses, but also rode bucking stock in rodeos in the 1920s & ’30s.

The 1920s was the heyday of rodeo for women. They grew up riding out of necessity alongside their fathers, brothers & husbands and naturally they were just as competitive in trying to see who could stay on the back of a bucking bronc or steer or roping calves as the men.

Rodeos started out as impromptu events—cowboys betting each other who was going to get bucked off the quickest. Annie Oakley paved the way for women when she gained fame in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a sharpshooter. Lucille Mulhall, when she was 18 years old, lassoed and tied three steers in 3 minutes, 30 seconds—faster than the best cowboys—won a gold medal and a $10,000 prize for a world record!

This “cowgirl attitude” is the way my grandmother lived. And I modeled my character, Nettie, on my grandmother and the cowgirl attitude.

In the first book, Cowgirl Dreams, Nettie is a strong-willed girl of 14 who dons her brother’s pants, sneaks out of the house to ride in her first “public” rodeo. She risks broken bones, her mother’s wrath and society’s branding cowgirls who rode the rode circuit as “loose women.” But by the time she successfully rode that steer until it stopped bucking and she was still on its back, she knew: rodeo was in her blood. Competing was something she HAD to do.

In my second book, Follow the Dream, Nettie continues her pursuit of her rodeo dream. At the beginning of this story, she seems to have it all—a rodeo cowboy and plans for riding the rodeo circuit—fame and fortune.

More obstacles arise: unexpected family responsibilities and unrelenting hardships. The drought of 1930s, nick-named the “Dirty Thirties” hit Montana—not as severe as the Midwest—but still bad enough that grass for grazing horses become in short supply. My grandparents actually trailed their herd of horses from Cut Bank, MT to Salmon, ID, a trip of 400 miles and three months, to find feed for them.

Nettie’s adventures in overcoming the obstacles to her dream are the epitome of the phrase “Cowgirl Up.”

“Cowgirl up” is an expression that means to rise to the occasion, not to give up, and to do it all without whining or complaining. It is easy to say “cowgirl up,” however it takes a true cowgirl at heart to live up to the true meaning.

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.