The 62-Year-Old Quintessential California Cowgirl

During a life spent in dusty boots and blue jeans, Cindy Rosser has saddled, ridden, roped, shoveled, and seen it all. Writer Andrew Tilin asked her to recount some of her most powerful memories.

Photo: Bryan Meltz

Cindy Rosser, a 62-year-old northern Californian who comes from rodeo royalty and identifies with iconic western figures like Annie Oakley and Florence Hughes Randolph, knows her way around dirt, hooves, and manure. Over many decades spent wearing a cowboy hat, she’s broken her neck in the arena. She’s worked—and worked and worked—for her opportunistic, rodeo-promoting dad, Cotton, who at 89 still shows people why, as the head of the Marysville, California, Flying U Rodeo Company, he’s been dubbed the P.T. Barnum of rodeo. She’s made and lost a few dollars breeding bucking bulls. Late last September, we caught up with Rosser around the ranch and at her hometown event, the 2017 Marysville Stampede.

“Stock contractors can’t get rich. Too much overhead. Too many animals, a lot of feeding, shipping, and fuel. The only rich ones are the folks who have the animals and the oil wells, too,” says Rosser. “I do this because I love this.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

Rosser, all dressed up for the 2017 Marysville Stampede rodeo’s opening act: the ceremonial Twin Cities Cattle Drive. The drive lasts an hour or two, with Rosser and others herding some three dozen roping steers and Texas Longhorn bulls through Yuba City and Marysville.

“In the old days, the women were always the entertainment, the flash and the colorfulness. They were called glamour girls. They trick rode and ran barrels while the guys did their thing,” says Rosser. “About 40 years ago my dad put us in elaborate outfits—rhinestones and embroidery, designed by Nudie Cohn. Nudie made clothes for Roy Rogers. I remember being measured by him. That was interesting.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

Rosser on her land, where the family’s bulls stay during rodeo season and are regularly gathered and sorted. Rosser’s neighbors include rice farmers and a concrete plant.

“I live on 160 acres. Highway 65 is the four-lane freeway that goes in front of my house. My dad is half a mile away, right there at the off-ramp,” says Rosser. “We were supposed to get a NASCAR track nearby in 2003. We thought development would make our land worth a lot, and that we could then move away from the highway. Didn’t happen.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

Rosser in front of her father’s property. She lives just next door.

“There are rice farmers around here who have built big, beautiful homes. They’re growing some, but then they get paid not to plant, you know, maybe over there,” says Rosser. “You get paid not to work. I’m in my 60s. Haven’t quite figured that out yet.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

The Stampede’s cattle drive, says Rosser, always attracts locals, like these young women, who want to help in an old western ritual.

“I grew up where I live today. I was still a kid when my mom and dad divorced. She moved back to Red Bluff [California], where her family is from,” says Rosser. “I wanted to be around the horses, and ride. So I stayed, and raised myself. My dad was never around. I left the TV on at night.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

Rosser ties off one of the family’s bay horses, Estell, for transport. She’ll load another nine or so horses into the battered, manure-splattered trailer before it goes anywhere.

“For a while in high school I thought I wanted to go to Montana State. I wanted to get away, blaze my own trail,” says Rosser. “But I really liked working. Up first thing in the morning, doing everything. I loved getting my hands dirty.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

A pair of cowgirls team rope at the Stampede. Rosser says that women rarely compete anymore in bronc or bull riding.

“I remember breaking my neck when I was four or five months pregnant. My barrel-racing horse wasn’t even in the turn, and he slipped. Dumb of me. He’d lost a shoe, and I shouldn’t have run,” says Rosser. “He went end over end, and I drove my head into the dirt. My friend Sandy ran out of the announcer stand and into the arena. I said, it’s my neck. I was put on one of those boards. They taped my head to it. The horse was fine. I broke C1, at the base of the skull. Very few survive and do as well as I did. I’ve been lucky a couple times in wrecks.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

Bucking horses, driven from a nearby pasture and to be sorted ahead of the Stampede, reach Cotton Rosser’s property. They’re headed for a corral.

“Before rodeo started you’d have a get-together and say, let’s get your best cowboy and our best cowboy, and let’s find a bucking bronc for them each to ride. I mean, everybody had at least one outlaw horse on their ranch. It was a game. It was fun. Probably done for money, too,” says Rosser. “With rodeo, now it’s different. We focus a lot of time and resources on raising bucking animals.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

During the Stampede’s cattle drive, Rosser brings up the rear, paying close attention to the livestock. Local dignitaries ride up front, out of potential harm’s way.

“As stock contractors, today people hire us to bring the livestock in, and to run the rodeo for them,” says Rosser. “They’ll take care of the parking and advertising. We put on the rodeo.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

Junior bareback riders, hanging out at the Stampede’s bucking chute and awaiting their turns to ride bucking ponies. The best young athletes have sponsors, travel the U.S. to compete, and get the chance to attend nationals in Las Vegas.

“My son Mikel wasn’t a roper like his father. He loved the bulls. Even when Mikel got sick, he would lay in his hospital bed and study bull bloodlines,” says Rosser. “Mikel’s room is just as it was when he died [Julio Moreno and Rosser’s son, Mikel Moreno, died of leukemia in 2006, at age 18]. I’m a sensitive person. That things bother you? That shows that you loved.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

During the cattle drive, Rosser’s brother, Reno (pink shirt), as well as her nephew, Levi (blue shirt), do their part for the family business.

“These cattle drives, they’re not intense but they’re intense. I mean, you want to make sure nothing happens. No wrecks because a horse’s metal shoes slip on the pavement. Or have a steer just try to duck out because it sees green grass. Most of the livestock don’t want to hurt anyone. But they do want that grass,” says Rosser. “We used to have this other drive called City Slickers—dudes that didn’t know what they were doing but would spend four nights with us. We really ended up just having to watch out for them. And watch the cattle, too.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

Rosser at the end of the cattle drive, atop the paint horse Bigon.

“The Flying U’s big claim to fame has always been rodeo opening ceremonies. I’ve been on horseback on a turntable 25 feet in the air, on top of a big prop like a cowboy boot. Or a birthday cake. Once we made a spaceship, and played music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’d also ride a horse through a giant sheet of decorated paper while carrying the American flag. The horse had to be taught that the paper would tear. It had to believe that you weren’t running it straight into a wall,” says Rosser. “First we did all of this on white horses. Then black horses with white saddles. Then we got into paint horses.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

With the cattle drive over, Rosser, Bigon, and some of the cowboys’ horses take five. They’re waiting for the trailer, and a ride back to the ranch.

“I once had this little horse named Caveman. He was only a decent bucking horse, but he was versatile,” says Rosser. “One day I told my dad, I’m going to train Caveman to go through the paper. He said you’ll never get it done. Then I worked Caveman all day. By golly, that night in the performance, I said Caveman, don’t let me down. Boom, he went right through it. I rode him for the rest of that year.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

Rosser coils rope, while her nephew Levi takes off his glasses as dusk approaches.

“I would say that we have about 40 events in California anymore. At one time we had 80 rodeos,” says Rosser. “I can remember at county fairs, everyone used to have a rodeo. Now there are car tracks and motorcycle racing, and we have to put on these short, hourlong showdeos, and extreme rodeos. Fair organizers just want people to buy a beer and have the chance to get off their feet before spending more money at the carnival. The rodeo itself isn’t always such a big thing.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

Rosser in a corral, and surrounded by bucking bulls. She holds a list of which bucking bulls should go to the Stampede.

“People will still spend money to go to a rodeo,” says Rosser. “It’s special. It’s the Wild West. I call it man against beast, and to some that doesn’t sound good. You know it’s man against animal, they’re not beasts. But that’s what I say.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

Every morning, Rosser feeds the bulls fenced in front of her house. They’re separated from the herd for reasons like injury or excessive aggression, and because Rosser is fond of them.

“My sister-in-law Bonnie says take vacations, see the world,” says Rosser. “I said that’s fine. But I have livestock to care for.”

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