Professional barrel racer Tonia Forsberg is well known for her stunt work and animal training abilities. Photo courtesy Tonia Forsberg.

Initially, Walter didn’t want his daughter involved in the business, but he did let her do some extra work.

“I didn’t start working until after high school,” Ann said. “My dad always told me I was too tall to double kids and too young to double adults. He kept me away from it. I did get to go visit him on the set, and there were a couple of movies we got to be extras in.”

One of those movies was the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman epic “Far And Away.” The movie concludes with the couple participating in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889.

“We spent the whole summer in Montana while my dad was doing the movie,” Ann said. “My great-great-grandma was in the actual land race at the same age I was when I got to be in the movie. I got to be in a covered wagon and ride in the land race.”

After she graduated high school, Ann thought about going away to college when her father encouraged her to stick around Los Angeles, at which time he taught her to do stunt work.

“I was hooked after that,” Ann said. “You don’t want to go back to school after you’re making a good check. After high school, I went to community college and started learning about the business. I went on location for ‘Secondhand Lions’ in Austin, Texas. That was my first movie. I thought ‘Well, yeah, I don’t want to go back to school.’”

While she does a little bit of everything, horse work and Westerns are her favorite.

“You want to be known as doing everything,” Ann said. “You try to make yourself known as more than just the horse girl.”

Making a living as a stuntwoman also means taking the work when asked, because there’s always someone else to take your place. Ann says her father taught her to prioritize work over rodeo.

“My dad would start to go to a rodeo far away, but he’d get called to work,” Ann said. “He’d always turn down a rodeo to work. Rodeo has changed where guys are making a little more, but I was always taught you turn down rodeo to work. It was a better way to make a living doing stunts than rodeo.”

Ann used her stunt work to fund a breeding to leading sire Dash Ta Fame and got her dream horse, the aptly named Fallin For Fame (“Buzz”). Now retired, Buzz carried Ann to 17th in the WPRA world standings, the one year she decided she’d turn down work to rodeo.

“Buzz was doing so well, and I raised him, so I decided I was going to take the year off and rodeo,” Ann said. “I always dreamed about going to some of the bigger rodeos. I knew if someone called [from work], I was going to have to turn it down. I did that for a year. I’m so thankful I had Buzz.”

Ann is currently running Buzz’s sister, California Fame.

Sammy Thurman Brackenbury was the grand dame of barrel racing stuntwomen.
Sammy Thurman Brackenbury competes at the Oakdale, California, Stampede in 1961. Photo courtesy of Cowboy Girl.

Sammy Thurman Brackenbury

The grand dame of barrel racing stuntwomen is Sammy Thurman Brackenbury. The 1965 Girls Rodeo Association—now WPRA—World Champion Barrel Racer was an all-around cowgirl before she made her first appearance on film. She later fostered the growth of professional barrel racing on the West Coast before earning her world title and leaving the sport behind for a long career as a stuntwoman.

“I’d still do something if they called me,” laughed the effervescent 85-year-old.

Named after her father Sam Fancher, an all-around hand, Brackenbury followed him into the arena. A talented roper and hazer, she competed with her father in the early days of rodeo—“back when they rode dinosaurs,” she chuckled—before trying her hand at barrel racing.

“The GRA was in Oklahoma and Texas,” Brackenbury said. “In California they had a state association when I got started.”

The talented horsewoman won most of the barrel races when they were first offered at rodeos. Some places like Santa Maria, where she’d enter with her father, kept changing the ladies’ event in hopes of finding a different winner.

“They had a barrel race long before everybody started having them,” Brackenbury said. “I won the barrels riding my little bay horse. The next year, they had a pole bending. I split the day money the first day with a local gymkhana girl. I told my dad I was riding his calf horse the next day. He said, ‘Oh no, you’re not.’ and I said, ‘Yes, I was.’ That’s how it usually went between my daddy and me. I rode his horse and just smoked them the next day. The next year, they had a stake race, just a down and back. I won that, too.”

Brackenbury continued to dominate at local races, many of which she encouraged places to have.

“I got in on the ground floor out here in this country,” Brackenbury said. “I had been reading about barrel races in Texas and studying up on it. I had been working at it for a while and made barrel horses out of every horse we had.”

Brackenbury made the GRA top 15 for 11 straight years, from 1960 to 1970. In addition to her world title, she took reserve honors in 1961 and won the NFR barrel race in 1962 in Dallas, Texas.

Toward the later years of her NFR qualifications, Brackenbury—then Thurman—dabbled in the picture business.

“When I was 18, I did ‘Horse of the West’ for Disney,” said Brackenbury, who played Eleana Vasquez in the “Wonderful World of Disney” feature, of which a clip still exists on YouTube of a young Brackenbury roping. “Much later I did ‘In Cold Blood’—it was a true story about Perry Smith, who grew up to be a murderer. Bobby (Robert) Blake played him as an adult, but they had flashback [scenes] to what he remembered about his mother. I played his mother. They filmed me roping a calf and picking him up off the fence and riding off with him in front of me, and then later, when I wasn’t such a nice mother, having an affair with a sailor.”

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