When you’re the youngest—and the smallest—of twenty-four children in a family, what do you do to get yourself noticed?
If you’re Barbara Inez Barnes, you climb onto a horse.
And you stay there for a half-century, entertaining audiences around the world and winning twenty national trick-riding titles.
Barbara was the last-born baby of Nebraska rancher Lorenzo Dow Barnes, who had sixteen children by his first wife and eight by his second. When Barbara was born in 1902 her father gave her the nickname “Tadpole” because she “slithered” rather than crawled.
The nickname was soon shortened to “Tad.”
“I started riding before I could walk,” Tad recalled in 1986. “I rode a horse to school with my brother. The school maintained a barn for horses of the schoolchildren. We kept hay there for the horse.”
By the time she was seven she was helping her father and older brothers tame wild horses.
Tad won her first steer-riding contest at the age of fourteen and made her professional debut at the Gordon, Nebraska fair in 1917. During World War I she rode bulls in the main streets of Cody, Nebraska to raise money for the Red Cross.
Soon after the war she moved to Texas with her brother and joined a wild west show.
“The first time I ever saw trick riding was in 1921 at a rodeo in Fort Worth,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do.’”
She became a full-time professional cowgirl the next year.
In 1923 she toured the United States and Mexico with a wild west show and won second prize in bronc riding at the Madison Square Garden rodeo.
In 1924 she married rodeo cowboy James Edward “Buck” Lucas, also from Nebraska. The two of them competed in an international rodeo at Wembley Stadium in London that year (in the audience were the prince of Wales and the queen of Spain), and Buck Lucas was named world champion steer wrestler.
Buck and Tad in 1925 built a house in River Oaks with an arena in back where they trained horses for jumping, trick riding, and bulldogging.
Tad and Buck Lucas and another Fort Worth trick-riding star, Louis Tindall, often performed at the same rodeos. The Lucases trained the horses that Tindall rode in his act. But in the 1940s Louis Tindall’s life would swerve from rodeos to rackets and end in a gangland assassination in his driveway.
Tad Lucas was named world’s champion cowgirl at the Chicago rodeo in 1925.
At the Fort Worth rodeo in 1944. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)
From the mid-1920s through 1942 Tad Lucas won virtually every major prize offered to women in rodeo, competing in trick riding, bronc riding, and relay racing. She won (three times) the $10,000 MGM Trophy awarded to the champion all-around cowgirl at Madison Square Garden, where she also won (five times) the title for trick riding.
“You’ll never see the likes again of the trick riding we used to do when there was competition,” she recalled in 1986. “The riders don’t practice the hard stunts we did in the old days.”
Lucas pioneered the riding trick of crawling under the belly of a galloping horse and coming up on the other side into the saddle.
Another of her popular tricks was jumping over an automobile on a horse.
Texas Monthly magazine wrote of her, “Lucas would vault into the saddle from a standing position, urge her horse into a gallop, and then hang upside down from the saddle in a series of drags—the Cossack Drag, the Back Drag, the Fender Drag—trailing the fingers of one or both hands in the dust of the arena, before performing her famous Under the Belly Crawl. Her finale was the Hippodrome Stand, in which she galloped out of the arena while standing on her saddle, her back arched and her arms extended upward.”
While she was performing the Under the Belly Crawl at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 her arm was crushed when she fell from her horse, and she was told she would never ride again.
Within a year she was back in the saddle, trick riding.
Buck Lucas died in 1960. Tad continued to live in their house, which had been visited by such friends as Will Rogers and Elliott Roosevelt, the walls of the den covered with photos of her with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, Tex Ritter, Ken Maynard, the Sons of the Pioneers, and another queen of the cowgirls, Dale Evans.
Although Lucas performed in rodeos in every state but Hawaii, “I guess Texas is my favorite place, because I have lived here sixty-two years,” she said in 1986. “I was a real cowgirl from 1918 to 1951, but I continued in rodeoing until 1958. I came back from playing Brussels, and my horse was getting old and I didn’t want to break in another.”
She rode her last bucking bronc at the age of sixty-two.
Tad Lucas died in 1990 at the age of eighty-seven.
She is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery.
Tad Lucas is generally regarded as the best rodeo cowgirl of all time and is the only person honored by all three rodeo halls of fame: the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, the National Rodeo Hall of Fame, and the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.