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American Cowgirl

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Posted: Friday, November 28, 2008 10:00 pm

As night fell over the green pastures of Colorado Springs, Colo., lights flickered off in scattered farmhouses. The summer welcomed warm evenings, and three sisters found adventure in sleeping under the Colorado stars. It was a summertime excursion, a taste of freedom as they stayed up as late as they could and slept in their regular clothes.

As the night grew darker and the air started to cool, Beverly Sparrowk was awake and excited by the fantasy of becoming a cowgirl. She knew an opportunity to taste the reality of that life was only across the property line.

Sure that their parents had drifted into a hard sleep in their house, Sparrowk and her older twin sisters crept away from their camp spot.

It was a horse they were after - the first the former city girls had access to. Quietly, they crept into a neighbor's small pasture, put the bridal on the horse and led it to their secret spot. It didn't take too many night trips for the girls to master their escape. Guided only by the moonlight, they galloped bareback through a dry riverbed. They were free.

For Sparrowk, being a cowgirl was no longer a dream.

In October of this year, the Clements rancher and grandmother was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.

As a trick rider who did circus acts on horseback to being the first woman on a national cattle board, Sparrowk dedicated her life to horses and ranching - and that's what impressed Hall of Fame officials as they looked through her thick file filled with nominations and achievements spanning Western life.

"She's a really outstanding example of a cowgirl," said Tricia Taylor Dixon, curator of the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum. "I just looked (at her) and said, 'That's really a complete woman.' She's done everything she wanted to do."

Beverly Sparrowk hold the medallion she earned from the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

As a child, Sparrowk craved a country girl's life. Constantly on the move from one Navy base to another, Sparrowk and her family always lived in a city. There's nothing she wanted more than to see a pasture and a horse all her own. The year her family finally moved to the country, she fell in love with horses - even if it meant sneaking out of the house at night to see one.

With the colder weather and holiday season came the whisper that a horse was selling for $100. Sparrowk's parents agreed to pitch in $25 if the girls could come up with the rest. There was no way Sparrowk would let that horse get away. She worked all winter, running the coat check at a local dance. Come Christmas, she had raised the $25 and the family bought Ginger, a half-thoroughbred, half-quarter horse.

"She was quite a horse," Sparrowk said.

She was the type of horse who was always running away with the girls on back. And she had an attitude, too. Sparrowk still has the scar on her chin from the time Ginger kicked her in the face after Sparrowk flicked her.

"She slapped back," she said.

A lot has changed since those early days.

Sparrowk now splits her time between ranches in Clements and Oregon. Near Camanche's North Shore, her house sits atop a hill surrounded by acres of open land speckled with massive oak trees. Cattle roam in the distance. Horses graze in pastures near the house. And two short-haired border collies - Hank and Ruby - anxiously await their next herding adventure in the hills.

A photo in her scrapbook shows Beverly Sparrowk doing a popular trick, holding herself under the horse's stomach while her hands are free. (Courtesy photo)

Inside, the home she shares with her husband, Jack, is warm and sunlight shines through large windows. Decorative ropes hang from old wooden banisters and the mantel. A massive head of a steer - one they had on the ranch for many years - is stuffed and hangs over the fireplace, his horns stretched wide. The ceiling is lined with salvaged wood from remnants of an old settlement on their Oregon ranch.

When she's not working her land, Sparrowk sometimes enjoys the company of her eight grandchildren, who, on movie nights, try to feed popcorn to the bear whose head and heavy coat are a hunting trophy turned throw rug.

Sparrowk first got competitive in college. On an agriculture scholarship at Lamar College in Colorado, Sparrowk competed in rodeo. Goat tying and running barrels were her first area of expertise. At the time, she was the only woman competing in rodeo at her college. Even at competitions, she was the only female competitor.

By 1964, she had become a trick rider. Sparrowk was young and fearless. It was the career that would show her the country and teach her skills few people ever learn. She learned to trick ride from Dick Hammond - her riding partner and first husband.

The newlyweds worked together. It both helped and hurt their relationship.

"We didn't just perform, we competed against each other," she said.

Sparrowk trick riding in an arena with one leg in the air. (Courtesy photo)

She stood on a horse's back with one foot in the air. Or hung with her head almost touching the ground, both arms spread, only holding on with one foot in a stirrup and her knee under the fender. Or she would jump on a horse as it sprinted past, her homemade outfits made of sequins glistening in the arena light.

The challenging part for her was the ground work - jumping completely off the horse and getting back on as it sprinted past.

If she could hold on to the saddle or had the comfort of a strap, a trick was easy. But often, there were no hands and no straps involved.

"Anything I had to do upside down and not strapped in wasn't easy," she said, pointing to a picture of her hanging underneath Skeeter, a skillful horse who was trained in trick riding and barrel racing.

It's a dangerous sport. Women have died doing it. But she says she "lucked out and never got hurt."

However, there was that one time in Kansas City.

"It was a small arena … I whacked my head on the side of the arena," she said.

She was doing a trick, circling the arena during an afternoon show, when the horse got too close to the wall.

She was helped out of the arena. And the performance continued with other trick riders.

"The show must go on," Sparrowk jokes.

Paramedics on site said she had a small concussion. It's the only one she's ever had. But that night, she got back on her horse and performed the evening show.

As a trick rider and barrel racer, Sparrowk performed in rodeos from Salinas to Canada and Louisiana.

"We got to go places I never would have gotten to go," she said. "The traveling was great."

Once, the team had to get from a competition in Edson, Alberta, Canada to another competition in Colorado Springs, in two days. They drove straight through in an old Cadillac, the two horses in tow. One would sleep in the back seat while the other drove through the night.

Trick riding paid for the entry fees. Anything they won - and they won a lot - was extra spending money.

Even after Sparrowk quit trick riding in 1971 and her marriage to Hammond ended, Sparrowk got involved with ranching in other ways.

In 1978, she married former saddle bronc rider Jack Sparrowk, and moved to the ranch in Clements. He showed her a world of open fields and cattle. It wasn't long before she felt the need to have her own herd.

Now, the Sparrowks have over 2,000 cattle. They have horses, most are broodmares - female horses used for breeding. But there are some, like Boots, who are still used to compete in team roping.

These days, Beverly Sparrowk does all ranching on horseback, including riding through to check on her cows.

"If you find a sick (cow), you can rope it and doctor it right there," she said.

Sparrowk is not afraid to get her hands dirty or her pink and black boots muddy. However, she's as strong in the board room as she is in the field.

She joined an all-male board, the Foundation Beefmasters Association - then she became its president.

Beefmasters Executive Vice President Wendell Schronk who served on another beefmaster board with Sparrowk says she is a "class act."

"She has the ability to be a lady and the ability to get her point across in a group of men. She's certainly not shy when she comes expressing herself," he said.

The industry, from California to Texas, knows the name Beverly Sparrowk. She's the woman who married a leader in his own right, but had her own ideas and brought her own knowledge to the table.

"For her to come along and be a leader in the same family, that's a hard thing to do. She knew our industry. She had a vision. That always impressed me," Schronk said.

But she also had visions for the future, for ranch land preservation.

She started in her own backyards, in both California and Oregon.

Murphys Creek in Clements was one of her first projects. They pulled Himalayan blackberry bushes and removed a dam that was choking the creek's flow. In Oregon, they planted willow trees to stabilize the banks of Drews Creek.

From land preservation and trick riding to cattle ranching, Sparrowk knows she's done a lot with her career. She became the cowgirl - and business woman and conservationist - she dreamed of becoming the first time she and her sisters snuck away with the horse in Colorado Springs. It's a feeling that will never go away.

"I think women never lose their little girl fascinations with horses," Sparrowk said, smiling.

Beverly Sparrowk At A Glance

• Inducted into National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in 2008.
• Trick rider, barrel racer, conservationist, rancher.
• She was the director of the Girl's Rodeo Association in 1972.
• First female president of the Foundation Beefmaster Association.
• Awarded Chuck Yeager Award from the National Fish and Wildlife Association.
• She's also a prominent member of the Cattleman's Association, the National Cattleman's Beef Association and she and her husband, Jack Sparrowk, support organizations like Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other wildlife groups.
Source: Beverly Sparrowk, National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum



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