Jane Burnett was not even seven years old as she sat on her pony “huddled over the saddle horn, icicles hanging from the end of my nose,” positioned to turn a horse herd she had helped her daddy round up one winter morning in Montana. She knew then and there that she had “hired out as a tough hand.”
The Burnett family ranch, where Jane first learned cowboy skills, had been settled by her grandfather, William Clinton Burnett, and his brother W.P. (Perkins) in the 1880s. William “Bill” also had ranch and business holdings near Sheridan and Buffalo, Wyoming. By the time his son Clint was in high school, it was “understood” that he would eventually take over some of the ranch responsibility in Montana.
When Clint married and he and his wife had their daughter Jane, his attention to ranch details generally centered only on helping during necessary periods of the year: branding, moving cattle to summer or winter pastures, and haying. Otherwise, he preferred the gregarious activities of gambling, drinking and carousing.
Jane, however, spent much time on the ranch with her grandfather and became an adept horsewoman. Now an octogenarian, she has written her story that weaves Montana ranch life with her own entrance into the rodeo arena and working in Hollywood as a stunt double. Hobbled Stirrups is now available from Caxton Press, and it is a tale that is quite a ride.
TW: Your work as a hand on the family ranch in Montana started when you were pretty young, didn’t it?
JBS: I think anyone who lived on a ranch had to do their share as a “hand” as soon as they were physically old enough to take part in the work. By age six, I was already gathering cattle and/or helping with the chores.
TW: Did you feel “cheated” out of a childhood?
JBS: I was already very independent even before age four, and I always felt I had the best of both worlds because I was allowed the freedom of making my own choices by being treated as an adult from a very early age.
After learning how to ride on the ranch, Jane found there was greater challenge beyond the Burnett fence line. While in her teens, she began entering rodeos. Jane first competed in steer riding and later signed on as a bareback bronc rider. But she found her true sport when she stuck her boots into a pair of hobbled stirrups and became a saddle bronc rider.
The stirrups were tied together just tight enough to give the rider stability without being rigid. After her first such ride in Montana, Jane went on to top broncs all across the U.S. in rodeos from Chicago to Florida and from California to Madison Square Garden in New York City. As she put it, “I was to get in and out of fights, hospitals, jails and marriages; get whipped in several different states, bucked off in a few of them and divorced in a couple of others. And all because I had ‘hired out for a tough hand’ and thought I had to follow through without complaining.”
TW: Other girls/young women who worked on family ranches in the West at the time didn’t ride steers and buck horses. What attracted you to the sport?
JBS: It was more a matter of finding a niche of my own where I was accepted as one of the “hands” by proving that I could participate right along with the cowboys. Proving to myself that I was capable of riding bucking stock also made me feel I finally belonged somewhere. Because of my parents’ lifestyle (rancher/gambler), I never really seemed to fit in with the activities of neighboring ranchers and their families.
TW: What do you consider the “highlight” of your career?
JBS: How can you select a highlight from a life that varied from riding broncs in Madison Square Garden to struggling to be accepted in the movie business to eventually joining the army, raising a family, dealing blackjack in Reno and being a published author? Each one of these lives provided their own highlight.
TW: What was your toughest time?
JBS: Even though I did ride at Madison Square Garden one year, my toughest time was in 1942 when I had to finally accept the fact that Madison Square Garden was canceling their women’s bronc riding competition before I had sufficient opportunity to prove myself (in my own opinion).
Jane Burnett Smith is a Montana ranch girl who proved her mettle to the world on the deck of a bronc, and her story is truly quite a ride.