Women’s History Month: Five Historic Horsewomen You Should Know

Equestrian history is full of famous women working in every discipline you can imagine, from rodeo to the racetrack, and even a few disciplines you haven’t thought of—like fortunetelling! Read on to meet five unsung female equestrians who blazed their own trails.

By Jess Bowers

Here are five amazing female equestrians who you should definitely know about.

Lucille Mulhall

“I feel sorry for the girls who never lived on a cattle ranch and have to attend so many teas, and be indoors so much, with never anything but artificiality about them,” said Lucille Mulhall, a St. Louisan rider and rancher dubbed “The Original Cowgirl” by her turn-of-the-century fans and admirers. Tough enough to impress even “rough rider” President Theodore Roosevelt, who deemed her a better rider than his military cavalry,

Mulhall toured the United States with her trick horse, Governor, who could play dead, ring bells, and remove his owner’s hat on command. “Although she weighs only 90 pounds, she can break a bronco, lasso and brand a steer, and shoot a coyote at 500 yards,” wrote one breathless reporter, before marveling that Mulhall did all of the above while wearing a split skirt.

Claudia E. Fonda

This enterprising Virginia farmer turned her backyard-bred mare, Lady Wonder, into a lucrative local sensation. Between 1927 and 1957, Lady Wonder answered questions and told fortunes for more than 150,000 curious visitors using a homemade “typewriter xylophone” to spell out words. The mare even weighed in on a missing person case for the local police department. Fonda’s nigh-telepathic bond with her beloved animal fooled a Duke University psychologist into thinking Lady Wonder actually exhibited extrasensory perception. Unable to see that Fonda’s connection to Lady Wonder was so strong, she could cue her horse to “say” just about anything using subtle body language, Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine went to his grave believing he’d met a psychic horse.

May Wirth

“The Greatest Bareback Rider of All Time,” Australian-born May Wirth rode professionally for Barnum & Bailey’s circus throughout the early 20th century, where she became the first (documented!) woman to somersault from one horse’s back to another. Marveling at Wirth’s athleticism as she tumbled from animal to animal, the artist Marsden Hartley once wrote: “She is mistress of a very difficult art, and yet the brilliancy of her performance makes it seem as if it were but the experiment of an afternoon, in the out-of-doors.” The far more famous artist Alexander Calder also paid tribute to Wirth’s riding stardom in his Cirque Calder, a kinetic sculpture featuring miniature replicas of the greatest circus performers of the 1920s and 30s. A tiny Wirth, immortalized in her signature pink hair bow, balances upon a mechanized white horse.

Cheryl White

The first African American female jockey, Cheryl White was licensed to ride at Thistledown in North Randall, Ohio in 1971 when she was only 17 years old. Credited with 226 wins and earnings of $762,624 during her career, White was the first female jockey to win five races in one day, a feat she achieved in 1983. Beyond Thoroughbreds, White also distinguished herself as the first woman to win the Appaloosa Horse Club’s Jockey of the Year award in 1977, reclaiming the title in 1983, 1984, and 1985. In 2011, the Appaloosa Hall of Fame inducted White for her passionate support of the breed. After retiring from competitive riding in 1992, White worked as a racing official until her death at age 65 in 2019. “Cheryl was never a great self-promoter, and wasn’t concerned with the politics of racing,” said her brother, Raymond White Jr. “She just did her thing. She didn’t understand what she had accomplished. I don’t know that she understood her significance, or place in history.”

Louisa Woolford

Born to an Irish horse trainer, Louisa Woolford began performing equestrian feats at London’s famous Astley’s Amphitheatre during the Regency era. The most famous circus performer of her day, Woolford was especially renowned for an act performed alongside her husband, fellow equestrian Andrew Ducrow. In “The Tyrolean Shepherd and Swiss Milkmaid,” the talented couple danced atop two cantering horses while reenacting courtship, a lovers’ quarrel, and reconciliation. Another popular Woolford act, “The Flower Girl,” found her pirouetting solo atop a prancing pony while tossing flowers at her astounded audience. According to a quote from Ducrow’s obituary, Woolford “drew crowds by the accustomed gracefulness of her action, and the skillful management of her steed.”

Jess Bowers’s debut fiction collection, HORSE SHOW, features short stories about Mulhall and Fonda alongside other obscure horse history. Find her on X @prettyminotaur, on Instagram at bowersjess, and at www.jessbowers.org.