Trick Roper and Rider Nancy Sheppard Tells Her Story
The year must have been 1947 when a dazzling 17-year-old brunette adorned in orchids was entertaining a crowd at what was considered the largest and most prestigious rodeo at the time at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The woman’s name is Nancy Sheppard. Her claim to fame was that she was the only woman who could stand on a running horse while spinning two ropes, one in each hand, at the same time.
Sheppard is 85 years old now, yet, the world-renowned rodeo star still drives out to venues outside the sleepy town of Globe, where she resides, to perform trick roping for audiences.
Sheppard was born in Fort Worth, Texas, home of the world’s first indoor rodeo, on Dec. 29, 1929. Her family was a pioneer Texas ranching family, and the rodeo tradition in her family runs deep. Her father Cleve Kelley was a Texas cowboy and rodeo calf roper, and signer of the famous Boston Rodeo Document. Her mother Margaret Adams was the daughter of prominent horse and mule dealer, and showed horses as a child in the old coliseum in Fort Worth.
Needless to say, Sheppard grew up around rodeos.
“These are the kinds of things I saw all my life,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
When Sheppard was maybe three years old, she remembers watching a woman dressed in all white riding a snow white horse around an arena. It was the infamous cowgirl Mamie Francis riding alongside her husband Frank Hafley.
Sheppard thought to herself, “I’m going to do some of that someday.”
So, she began trick roping when she was small. She learned by watching.
At the mere age of nine, with her hands clasped behind her back, she worked up the courage to approach Harry Rowell, an acquaintance of her father’s. He was also the producer of the Hayward Rodeo in California.
“I was very shy back then,” she remembers. “It took all I had.”
Right then and there, she negotiated her first rodeo contract for $10. It was normal to perform in rodeos at an early age. Next thing she knew, she was hired to perform at the Rowell Ranch Rodeo. She can’t remember how big the grandstand was, but that early debut launched her career.
She trained hard – she took on acrobatics, trapeze, tumbling, tap and folk dancing. These all strengthened her abilities as a trick roper and trick rider.
She mother made all of her riding and roping wardrobe by hand. (Sheppard would make all of her own wardrobe pieces once she became an adult.”
By age 11, Sheppard was performing at the Pendleton Roundup in Pendleton, Oregon.
It was not long after that she began trick roping while executing the hippodrome stand on horseback. The idea came from her boss at the time, rodeo producer Everett Colborn. He suggested combining the two when she was 14; and, to this day, she says it was the best advice anyone ever gave her.
The way she talks about it, you would think it was a breeze.
“Standing on the horse is the easiest part,” she says. “The hard part is getting on the horse.”
Around that same time, Sheppard got a part shetland, part thoroughbred horse she named Candy. She trained him herself. He was foolproof, she says, and she credits him for her early rise to stardom.
“He made me look like the greatest, whether or not I was,” she says. “There will never be another like him. He was the smoothest horse I’d ever been on.”
Cowboys would make bets about Sheppard. They would bet that she could ride Candy across the arena with a glass on her head. She never did try that, she says with a laugh, but people often asked her how she trained Candy to be so foolproof.
“He knew what I was doing and vice-versa,” she remembers. “We were partners. I never thought I’d love any man as much as I loved that horse.”
“I trick rode him until he could go no more,” she adds.
Sheppard was getting offers to perform around the country. Her parents were divorced by then, but her mother went with her to all her shows. Off she and her mother went across the states, hauling Sheppard’s horse around in a trailer.
When she was 16, she met her future husband Lynn, from Globe, at a rodeo in Burley, Idaho. He was calf roper, steer wrestler and team roper.
The following year, Sheppard was at Madison Square Garden in New York, performing with orchids pinned to her shirt from a man with high hopes of becoming her other half.
“That was hard to miss, all those orchids,” she says with a laugh.
That man’s wish was not fulfilled. Instead, Lynn and Sheppard eloped at the Gila County Courthouse when Sheppard was 18.
And after that, they went rodeoing.
“That’s all we did,” she says.
They performed everywhere, from California to Boston to Texas.
Three years later, Sheppard gave birth to their son Lex. The couple stayed in Globe three weeks after Lex’s birth; then they lost no time hitting the road again.
“I could barely restrain myself those three weeks,” she says.
Already, rodeo producers were eagerly awaiting Sheppard’s return to the arena. She bought a travel trailer so Lex could have everything he needed, and the Sheppards were off rodeoing.
In 1953, Sheppard was offered a movie contract for Western films. They wanted to sign her on the spot.
“You will be the leading lady in your first picture,” she was told.
She declined the offer. Lex was two years old at the time, and she had plenty of rodeos she was expected to appear in.
For years, she rode and roped from coast to coast, hitting just about every major rodeo in the U.S. In addition to Colborn and the Christensen Brothers, she worked for rodeo producers like Harry Knight, Leo Cremer, Kohrs Rodeos, Doc Sorenson and Cotton Rosser.
She has appeared in numerous publications, and the renowned Western boot brand Tony Lama ran full-color ads of her wearing the brand’s boots.
Within the last 25 years, Sheppard has been inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Rodeo Fame, and the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs.
In 1992, at age 60, Sheppard was invited to a party for clothing designer Giorgio Armani in Milan, Italy as a guest performer.
“Only the richest people in the world and royalty were invited,” she recalls. “They had 20,000 gorgeous roses flown in from Morocco.”
She still has a photo of herself from that day wearing the outfit that she made.
Her trick roping performance was one of many acts in roughly two-hour long show, but her show supposedly received the most applause.
She will never forget when, after the show, a New Yorker in faded denim walked up to her, shook her hand, and said, “You make me proud to be an American.”
Last December, after five years of working at it, she released her first book, “Ridin’, Ropin’ & Recipes,” which includes biographies of rodeo performers she has known throughout the years, as well as recipes they shared with her. She paid for the book herself.
Flipping through it, she can point out names and faces instantaneously.
“He was the wildest cowboy,” she says, pointing to a photo of cowboy Dave Ericsson.
She flips the page to the name Don “Brown Jug” Reynolds.
“I was seven years old when he was born,” she says with a smile. “When he rode out, they gave him a standing ovation… He was a real daredevil.”
Sheppard still keeps a busy schedule. Locally, she is a member of the Gila County Cowbelles. She performed tricks at the Singing Wind Book Shop in Benson in January, and she had a book signing at the Payson Museum this past March, where she also performed and presented as an inspirational speaker.
And, she remains adventurous.
“I still want to get a dancing horse,” she says.
Copies of “Ridin’, Ropin’ and Recipes” can be purchased at the Pickle Barrel Trading Post in Globe.
Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.