An exciting acrobatic rider known for her flair and split-second timing, Pauline Nesbitt was one of the most exciting rodeo performers of her time. She made her own costumes and modeled them in the Sears Roebuck catalog, which placed the image of real cowgirls in homes across America.
She was born Jane Slovensky in August 1905 in Union City, Ohio. His parents Stephanus Szlovinszky and Maria Koscso were from Slovakia. She and her 10 siblings grew up on a ranch in Stanley, Wisconsin. At age 13, she first rode a bronc while visiting friends in Gonzales, Texas, and from then on she was intrigued.
Her career began at age 17, when she became a lady bronc rider. She switched to horseback riding after watching cowgirl Tad Lucas at a rodeo in San Antonio, Texas. Her admiration for Lucas’ daring riding performances led to a change in her rodeo career and she too flourished as a rider.
Barbara “Tad” Lucas started out as a bronc rider in 1922, but achieved more success as a rider. Between 1926 and 1933, she won trick-riding titles at Fort Worth, Cheyenne Frontier Days, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Her greatest accomplishments were at Madison Square Garden where she won the 1925, 1926 and 1928-32 trick-riding titles and the 1926 and 1928-32 all-around cowgirl titles.
Pauline’s first marriage to Grady Wilson did not last. On the rodeo circuit, she met rodeo clown Jimmie Nesbitt, whom she married in September 1927. The Nesbitts lived in Fort Worth for a time but eventually purchased a Nowata ranch, where they raised cattle and horses. Jimmie convinced her to quit bronc riding and focus on freestyle riding. During rodeo season, they spent their time together on the road in their car, towing a trailer with Jimmy’s mule and Pauline’s pinto.
The pair toured major rodeos in the 1930s and 1940s. He wowed crowds as the quirky bullfighting rodeo clown while she delighted audiences with her horsemanship. His shoulder presses, underbelly stunts and spectacular routines were world famous. Pauline has played in all of America’s top rodeos: for Gene Autry at Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden and competitions in Cheyenne, Fort Worth, Kerrville, Tulsa and Denver. She even had a stint with the Ringling Brothers Circus and appeared in some WWII girl rodeos.
In 1934, Pauline finished fourth in riding at Madison Square Garden. She won her first riding championship at the Fort Worth Rodeo in 1937 and successfully defended her title in 1938. That same year Nesbitt became the World Champion Trick and Fancy Rider. She often competed while injured. Perhaps her worst injury came when she was kicked while going under the horse’s belly during a show in Idaho. She finished the performance and traveled to Colorado with three fractured vertebrae. She buckled herself in a brace and finished the season.
In addition to training all her horses, Pauline made her own costumes. Her beauty led her to modeling, where her love for Western fashion was highlighted in several articles. She modeled women’s western clothing, with Tad Lucas and others, for the 1941 Sears Roebuck Catalog.
Pauline remained involved in ranch-rodeo life after her career ended in 1948 herding and raising cattle and horses until the 1980s. She died in November 1996 at age 91 in Nowata. For her athleticism and riding, and her notable contributions to the sport of rodeo, Nesbitt was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1999 and the National Cowgirl Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
Dr. Edwyna Synar has been writing and speaking about women’s history for over 20 years. Her stories in this series can be found at http://rememberladies.weebly.com. A podcast of “Remember the Ladies Series” is also available on Spotify.