Back When They Bucked with Betty Sims Solt
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
Today’s cowgirls don’t know the debt they owe Betty Sims Solt. The New Mexico cowgirl was on the front lines, working to make opportunities for girls and women in rodeo.
At a college rodeo, Solt won the girls’ all-around title, and received a ten dollar watch for her efforts, while the boys’ all-around won a saddle and a scholarship. “I was disappointed when things like that happened,” she said.
She spent much of her high school and college days, and the years afterwards, working for equal opportunities for the young women in rodeo.
Betty was born in 1935, the youngest of six children and the only daughter of George E. and Wahlecia Dell Blackwell Sims. George was a bronc rider who put his kids to work on the ranch south of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and whose kids loved to rodeo.
Betty was riding by the time she was five, and in high school, competed in the barrel racing, breakaway roping, and the cutting. At the time, breakaway was not a standard high school rodeo event. She competed in amateur rodeos across the state as well, causing the principal to question if she was interested in school. One day, in high school, she was summoned to his office. He had stern words for her: Did she intend to rodeo, or graduate from high school? Her answer: “Sir, I am going to try and do both.” And she did, graduating as class valedictorian. But that wasn’t the end of it. She talked him into buying calves, so during the last class period of the day, which was for athletics, the students could practice roping at the arena on the outskirts of town.
In college at New Mexico A&M (now New Mexico State), she did the barrel racing, goat tying, and flag race, and again, occasionally, the breakaway; it wasn’t a standard event for women yet.
In high school, she also competed in a girls’ event that no longer exists today: the boot and cigar race. The girls put their boots in a big pile in the arena. They went to the far end then, on a signal, ran to the pile, dug out their boots, put them on, and ran back to their horses, tied up in the arena. After mounting, they rode to the other end, where they were to light a cigar and keep it lit as they rode back to the starting point. In 1951, she won the Santa Rosa boot and cigar race and her first buckle.
She got help and advice from her brothers and dad for the 1951 race. As he drove her to school each day, she’d practice lighting her dad’s cigar, even though “I hated that cigar,” she said. After struggling to light it during races, her brother Tom had an idea: he taped together four matches, and “when he struck those matches, I got that cigar lit in a hurry.” She also had a strategy for the pile of boots: she stood back and as the girls threw the boots back, she’d see hers coming and grab them as they flew by.
She and her brothers, all rodeo contestants, were instrumental in starting the first Santa Rosa High School rodeo, with the inaugural event in 1951. One of the prizes for competitors that first year was yearling calves donated by local ranchers.
Betty set records in high school rodeo, winning the breakaway roping at the 1953 New Mexico High School State Rodeo, and setting a state record in the event the next year, which held for several years.
In college, she went on to excel, winning two world barrel racing championships in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (1957 and 1958) and fourteen barrel racing titles. She served on the board of directors for girls events in the NIRA, served as a delegate to the NIRA convention in Colorado Springs, and was tapped to serve as vice-president of the American Junior Rodeo Association (1953-1955), which was put together by Al Davis. She also competed in the Southwest Rodeo Association, which included competitions in New Mexico, Colorado and Texas, winning a barrel racing title in 1958.
Through her high school and college years, she was one of the people who fought to make breakaway roping a standard event, and to even out prize money. It didn’t bother her to voice her opinion. “When I saw what was happening, I knew I was going to work (to make it right.) Some of the others kept quiet and went along, but I didn’t want to do that.” She acknowledges that she wasn’t the only person working to make girls’ rodeo better. “I wasn’t the only one, but I was the most outspoken one,” she chuckled. In 1953, the National High School Rodeo Association crowned its first champion; the NIRA had their first champion sixteen years later.
After graduating in 1958 with a degree in animal husbandry, she hoped to go back to the Sims ranch. But drought had forced her parents to sell it. She was offered a job in agriculture research back East, but she didn’t want to leave the West. So she returned to college to become a school teacher.
One of her best and most favorite horses was a sorrel stallion named Sonny. He belonged to a friend of her father’s, and was used by the friend’s son for the barrel racing. When the son advanced past barrel racing, the father told Betty she could borrow the horse, on one condition: “if you can win, you can take this horse. If you can’t win, you can’t have him.” She won on him, never knocking down a barrel at college rodeos. He was also a dream horse for the flag race, too. If she missed a flag, he would circle again so she could get it. Another exceptional horse she rode was Spooks, her sister-in-law’s horse. Spooks was an all-around horse and she won on him in many events, including barrels, goats, and the cutting.
Betty taught for 33 years, most of them in Roswell, and many of them as a reading teacher. She always tried to work rodeo and the western way of life into her subject matter. “I included ranch life and the history of rodeo in school,” she said. For speeches and demonstrations, she would have students show how to saddle a horse or milk a cow, and sometimes they came to school dressed up like cowboys or cowgirls. She enjoyed her students. “We had a lot of fun.”
Betty continued to rodeo till 1960. Her last rodeo was in the barrel racing at the Smoky Bear Stampede in Capitan, N.M., which she won.
In her adult life, she got involved in cowboy poetry, publishing two poetry books with her brother, and starting the movement in Roswell, chairing the Roswell event for several years. She recited her poetry at gatherings across the nation.
She volunteered as a 4-H leader, was a member of the International Reading Association, and is a charter member of the Berrendo Cattlewomen of Roswell. She was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Ft. Worth, Texas in 1990.
She, along with Evelyn Bruce Kingsbery and Sylvia Mahoney, founded the NIRA Alumni in 1992, to help rodeo alumni reconnect and not lose touch with each other.
Betty has retired from teaching and many of her volunteer roles. Her daughter Georgia Solt Perry, lives with her, and Betty enjoys her grandchildren: Georgia’s son Ethan and daughter Genna.
She looks back fondly on her rodeo life. Some of the best parts of her life were being with family, on the ranch and in rodeo, meeting new people and competing. “I just loved the excitement of rodeo.”