Cowgirls for CHRIST

Story by Jeannie Stone

Sherry Hales is a blue jean visionary. She is not bedecked with robes, chanting or waving an incense ball. She simply saw a need that needed filled, dug in her spurs and set out to fill it.

In 2000, Hales and her fellow caballeros founded Cowgirls for Christ, a non-denominational Christian association where girls can come together 12 times a year to develop competitive rodeo skills and celebrate their faith in the dusty world of the rodeo arena.

The idea of Christian cowgirl rodeo events began pricking her soul when Hales became convicted of her backsliding ways. A longtime church-goer, she had rejected her longtime desire to attend church on Sundays and, instead, gave into the desire to barrel race.

As a member of the Arkansas/Oklahoma Barrel Racers Association and the National Barrel Horse Association, she participated in local events for a girl like her. And then she noticed that there were a lot of girls like her – only much younger.

“I felt they needed a church were they could feel comfortable, a church where they could wear their jeans,” she said.

She felt a real hurt for the girls who were basically un-churched – at least during rodeo season. That is when the Lord sent a vision, the framework for Cowgirls for Christ, which compelled her to start a ministry allowing girls like her to combine their love of rodeo with their love for Christ.

The show, alternating between the Atkins, Russellville, Clarksville, Danville and Dardanelle arenas, are part exhibition, part competition and part worship.

“It really gives girls the chance to compete on a smaller, nurturing platform where they don’t have to travel so far and can make relationships,” Hales said.

In the beginning, the organization was all about Christian modeling, developing horsemanship and offering competition. The group soon began identifying neighbors needing a helping hand such as storm and fire victims, elderly friends living on fixed incomes, and abandoned children. Benefit shows became part of the outreach.

Church services were added in 2005, and the following year brought the formation of the Barrel Racing Association. The 90 members are comprised of beginners, ages 3 to 5, and youth, 18 years and younger.

Parents and grandparents are members as well. They gather in groups looking for shade and trying to stay away from chiggers as they park their trailers in the wild grass surrounding the Russellville arena.

One grandpa leans on the fence watching his granddaughter warming up her horse. A mother brushes the tail of her daughter’s horse, and a couple dozen adults already sit in the stands fanning themselves and waiting for the service to begin.

Riding instructor Ariel Finkenbinder has her eye on several students.

“I have a lot of students I bring to Cowgirls for Christ,” she said. “This was Mary Katherine’s first year. We did jackpots and she won a saddle at their banquet. They did the banquet up really nice, and that alone was a good experience for the girls.”

Finkenbinder is grateful the program sets affordable entry fees.

“All the money collected from the fees go right back into the program,” she said.

“The best part is I feel good bringing my students on Sunday because they can still attend church.”

V.E. Shepaerd of Dardanelle agreed about the church part but also gave some credit to the power of working with horses. He laughed.

“These horses will teach these girls more about respect than their parents can,” he said.

“You can tell we are in God’s will. He has blessed us so much.” There has been an outpouring of support from local businesses and individuals she said.

“The girls have chances to earn points through attendance, participation and performance. At our December awards banquet we gave 12 buckles and nine saddles. The top 10 riders in each division took home even more prizes than that,” Hales said.

“We couldn’t do this without our friends in the community.”

Recently, Cowgirls for Christ has made the decision to alter their target membership by allowing boys to join the organization. The change has been made in keeping with the group’s desire to offer an event the entire family can enjoy. The new name is Cowgirls – Cowboys for Christ.

The stands seem to have turned into a huge front porch with folks sipping, sweating, talking and laughing. It certainly feels like fellowship.

Before you know it, strains of Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord roll over the bleacher pews. The sounds of a guitar and sweet voices stir the loosely assembled congregation into singing.

Brother John Hooser, from Oklahoma, is introduced and totes his black Bible before the worshippers. He opens the service with a prayer request for a little girl who’s broken her arm. “Bless her heart,” a nearby woman remarked.

A big black horse softly neighs at the rear of the bleacher pews as the praise singers conclude the service with the beloved hymn I’ll Fly Away. On the horse’s back is a teenage girl who has just opened her eyes from prayer. There’s no doubt about it. This is Cowgirls – Cowboys for Christ.

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