The Quadrille de Mujeres rides into the arena during Sunday's performance at La Fiesta de los Vaqueros. The riding group has been the opening act at the Tucson Rodeo for 34 straight years.


At full speed, 11 cowgirls gracefully kick off La Fiesta de los Vaqueros.

Fully clad in brightly-colored sequins and spandex, led by two riders carrying flags, the Quadrille de Mujeres riders burst out the gates at a full gallop and in a straight line, split off and run the length of the rodeo's arena in a figure-eight pattern.

For three minutes, the group performs like this, weaving in and out, and fully in sync. The performance ends when the national anthem begins.

The riders make up a speed and precision drill team. The timing must be perfect, lest a collision of two horses will occur.

It's like a choreographed dance, if the dance were on fast-moving horseback.

"The way I describe it," said Skyla Teel, a former Tucson Rodeo Queen and sometimes-Quadrille performer, "is synchronized swimming - on horses, at a full run, in spandex."

The Quadrille de Mujeres has been the opening act at La Fiesta de los Vaqueros for 34 straight years, and Judy Blair has been a part of every one.

Blair has been a part of the Quadrille since its inception in 1963, but there are riders as young as 18, too.

Their outfits are sparkly and colorful, and a different outfit is picked out for each performance.

This Quadrille has performed all over the Southwest, including in Las Vegas and Laughlin in Nevada; Window Rock and Prescott in Arizona; Cedar City, Utah; and various parts of New Mexico.

What started as a group of girls trying to find something to do with their time has evolved into a whole lot more.

"It was a bunch of bored women in Maricopa," Blair said. "We were all from there, and we rode horses well because that was about all we had to do out there.

"We started out first doing square dancing on horseback and we progressed to this."

The Quadrille is a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association specialty act, meaning they are rodeo professionals but not competitors.

The bull riders, tie-down ropers and barrel racers of the rodeo world might get the fame, and the fortune, but the Quadrille de Mujeres don't do it for the money.

They might not be contestants, but their job certainly isn't easy.

"They're overlooked," said Preston Williams, a team roper. "It seems simple when you watch them, you think: 'Oh that's easy, they're just riding around out there'. But really it's a lot of timing and horsemanship out there. If their timing is off, they're capable of running into each other and T-boning each other, it takes a lot of practice."

In the weeks and months leading up to an event like La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, the Quadrille de Mujeres practices once or twice a week in Casa Grande, and for two hours at a time.

And throughout the year, it's each girl's responsibility to keep her horse ready and in shape.

"It's called legged up," Teel said. "You gotta keep your horse legged up."

There's a fine line between success and danger.

Every time two cowgirls cross paths at the center of the figure-eight formation, inches stand between a smooth ride and a head-on crash.

Collisions might not happen often, but they do happen.

Blair once somersaulted with her horse when it overreached, and she was hauled out of the rodeo in an ambulance.

Teel is also a barrel racer, so her horse - named Charlie - is well-trained in speed and timing.

But, in a performance in October 2003, the timing was off.

"I was riding with a lady and her horse tripped Charlie," Teel said, "took him out at his front legs and I Superman-ed over his ears, he somersaulted and landed on me."

Teel broke her left leg and had her first ambulance ride out of the arena.

To Blair, Teel and the rest of the Quadrille de Mujeres, it's a hobby. A fast-paced, life-threatening hobby.

"Still," said Krista Walter, a Quadrille performer, "It's exciting for me because it's dangerous. You've got to be skillful because you got 1,200-pound horses running at each other, and it gets to the point where it's exciting and you're not scared."

Added Blair: "This is something you can't take with a grain of salt because a lot of lives are at stake out there. We're trying to thrill the audience, so we take chances."

Tucson Rodeo winners

• Will Lowe of Canyon, Texas, was the aggregate winner for bareback riding, earning $3,771. He had the second-best score (84) on Sunday. Lowe won the event last year, too.

• Steer wrestler Casey McMillen, of Redmond, Ore., had the event's best time (4.1 seconds) on Sunday and was the overall winner, earning $4,516.

• In saddle bronc riding, Jeremy Ray Melancon of Huntsville, Texas, won both Sunday's event (with an 83-point ride) and the overall aggregate, in earning $2,991.

• Tie-down roper Randall Carlisle, of Castor, La., won with $3,718. On Sunday, he placed fifth with a recorded time of 12.3 seconds

• Jake Barnes of Scottsdale, and Walt Woodard of Stephenville, Texas, won team roping with $3,329. On Sunday, they placed second with a time of 6.8 seconds.

• Cindy Smith of Hobbs, N.M., was the women's barrel racing champion, with earnings of $3,419. She won on Sunday with a time of 17.06 seconds.

• In bull riding, Tyler Smith of Fruita, Colo., came out on top with $3,133 and on Sunday with a score of 88 points.