Courtesy Photo



"Jonnie" Jonckowski’s introduction to the cowgirl way of life began at a tender age. While the rest of her family went to Minnesota for their summer vacation, Jonnie headed to Baker, Montana to the ranch of a family friend. During her first week of work, she was given the task of herding 90 head of cattle along a dry riverbed from Wibaux to Ekalaka, Montana. Starting before sunup, nine-year-old Jonnie, trailed the herd to the homeplace, arriving two hours after dark. She had used the distant pickup lights that ranch owner, Jim O’Connor and his son Dan had turned on, to guide her in. Because of the passion she acquired for horses on the ranch, the owner awarded her with her first horse, a Welsh pony, who had to be boarded in the Jonckowski’s back yard in Billings, Montana. That is, until the neighbors said “Enough!” Her summer ranch work was the foundation for her cowgirl way of life. 

At the age of 14, Jonnie took a job as a wrangler on a dude ranch, working for Don Wright, who along with Ted Knight, operated the world’s largest bucking horse sale in Billings before it moved to Miles City. While working for Don, Jonnie was mesmerized by all the rodeo tales of Montana cowboys Bill and Bud Linderman, and, of course, the Greenough’s, Turk and his sisters Marge and Alice.  

In 1976, Jonnie was in a coffee shop with her mother when she spotted a poster advertising an All-Women’s Rodeo in Red Lodge. She promptly announced to her mother that she was going to enter the bareback riding event. Her mother responded with an eyeroll that said, “Whatever!” Jonnie borrowed her tack and equipment from local cowboys who also helped her climb aboard a big bay bronc. She made the eight second whistle and was promptly dumped on her head in the muddy arena. She was immediately taken by the adrenaline rush and also enjoyed the attention that followed her ride. That same summer, several girlfriends suggested she try riding bulls. The Hayloft Saloon in Billings was offering bull riding for all comers for several weekends. Once again, she borrowed tack and equipment, relied on some quick advice from local cowboys and climbed aboard. A bull called Man Mountain didn’t seem to care that she was a lady and promptly unseated her in about four seconds. But the hook was set, and thus began Jonnie’s bull riding career that spanned an amazing 25 years and included such famous arenas as Madison Square Garden, the LA Forum, Pendleton Roundup and Cheyenne Frontier Days. 

In 1977, Jonnie was eager to improve her bull riding skills. She enrolled in a bull riding school in Fountain, Colorado that was operated by Chris LeDoux, Bobbie Berger and Bruce Ford, all successful PRCA cowboys. The school consisted of 105 cowboys and one cowgirl – you guessed it, Jonnie. She rode about 30 bulls at the school and qualified as one of the top ten riders that would compete for the coveted school buckle. She placed second in the competition but suffered her first of many bad injuries when her bull kicked her in the face. With some amazing work by talented surgeons, she recovered to the beautiful lady she is today. 

For the next several years, Jonnie rode as many bulls as she could, including numerous exhibition rides on top rodeo bulls. She followed small town rodeos and county fairs and even waited till the end of rodeos so she could get on the unridden re-ride bulls. During this time, Jonnie was a member of the Girls Rodeo Association, which later transitioned to the Professional Women’s Rodeo Association (PWRA). Jonnie and the other rough stock ladies travelled to all corners of the country, riding wherever they would sanction their rodeos. 

Jonnie reached the pinnacle of her sport in 1986, when she won her first world title for bull riding in the PWRA. She went on to win another world title in 1988 and was reserve champion five other times. 

Jonnie was her sport’s biggest advocate and cheerleader. She campaigned tirelessly to bring the women’s bronc and bull riding to the biggest venues and arenas. In 1988, Cheyenne Frontier Days was one of those venues. She spent three years convincing the rodeo committee to bring back lady’s bronc and bull riding. It had been 50 years since a lady had ridden rough stock in Cheyenne and now the committee agreed it was time. That year and again in 1989, Jonnie and three of her rough stock friends put on quite a show in Cheyenne, attracting media attention from all over the country and around the world. As Jonnie continued on her mission, her next goal was the Pendleton Roundup. It had been 68 years since the ladies were allowed to compete in rough stock events. In 1991, Jonnie and her cowgirl friends again stole the show in Oregon. 

That same year Jonnie reached the crowning achievement as a cowgirl and rough stock performer when she was nominated and inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. This was an extraordinary honor as she took her place next to other Montana women including Marge and Alice Greenough, Ann Secrest and world-famous photographer Barbara Van Cleve. The hall also includes Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor, Dale Evans, Reba McEntire, Annie Oakley, Sacagawea and many other notable cowgirls from around the country. 

In 1992, because of her many successes with her bull riding, Jonnie was invited to ride against the men in the World Bull Riding Championships in Scottsdale, Arizona. Jonnie showed well in the competition and was asked to return in 1993 as the only lady invitee. 

In 1996, Jonnie became a film star in Hollywood. She was chosen from a group of 3,800 cowboys and cowgirls to play an outlaw named “Chance” in the show “Wild West Showdown”. The filming was done at the Disney Golden Oak Ranch where many famous westerns were made.

Throughout Jonnie’s rodeo career, she always maintained her love of horses. In 1998, she founded Angel Horses, which is a non-profit equine therapy and horse rescue facility operating in Billings. Angel Horses uses rescued horses and donkeys to provide comfort therapy for senior shut-ins, cancer patients, disabled veterans, at-risk youth and special needs kids of all ages. Angel Horses is Jonnie’s pride and joy - her labor of love. She has touched hundreds and hundreds of lives in the Billings community and beyond.