A legend in the world of barrel racing, Martha Josey’s lasting contributions to the sport live on through the many students she’s mentored over the years.
Martha Josey is a pioneer in the world of rodeo and for the sport of barrel racing. Her accomplishments in the barrel racing arena are record-setting. No other woman has competed at the National Finals Rodeo in four different decades. But aside from her competitive accolades, Martha has paved the way for countless other barrel racers following in her footsteps. And that, ultimately, will be her legacy.
Barrel Racing Beginnings
Martha Josey’s father Henry Arthur loved horses and was a director of the American Quarter Horse Association. He instilled a love of horses in his daughter.
“From a real early age, all I wanted was a horse,” Martha said. “They give you a lot of confidence, they’re your best friend, and you can have a relationship with a horse that will last forever.”
Henry passed away when Martha was 10, and Martha’s mother, Martha Arthur, saved one of her husband’s stallions just in case their daughter wanted to ride him — although she wasn’t riding much in that season. But when Martha was a senior in high school, she went to a rodeo in Shreveport, Louisiana, and became enamored with the sport.
“I saw a girl named Fay Ann Leach, and I had known her when I was little, and she was running barrels that night,” Martha said. “I watched her and said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I actually wrote her a letter and said I wanted to do this.”
She went home, saddled up her dad’s stallion and started barrel racing on him, as well roping and even bull riding.
Martha bought Cebe Reed in 1962. He was the one who got her started, and he’s one of the most special horses she’s ever had.
“I won my first National Finals Rodeo on him, and he was phenomenal,” Martha said fondly. “If I could bring him back today, he would still be in the winner’s circle.”
Meeting Of The Minds
Already hot on the rodeo circuit, Martha met R.E. Josey at a rodeo, and when he asked her out, she thought he was only interested in her horse.
“It was love at first sight,” Martha said.
They quickly became a couple and married in 1966. It was immediately apparent they both desired to share their skills with others. Both were winning in the rodeo arena, and in 1967, they decided to start a rodeo school, on Martha’s grandmother’s property, with 30 students at the first weeklong school.
Martha also held one of her first out-of-town barrel racing clinics in Connecticut. Out of that first clinic, four girls would end up going to the NFR.
“When I first started competing, there really wasn’t anybody to learn from,” Martha said. “Everything I learned was from experience, and it’s a real costly lesson to learn from experience.”
The rodeo schools extended to be two weeks long, and as more students joined their clinics, the couple slowly built improved facilities, such as an indoor arena, two barns and a Western store. The couple loved helping other people, from age 5 to teens to all ages of adults.
For years, Martha and R.E. were still competing themselves and aiming to qualify for the NFR each year, while tirelessly teaching what they knew in their clinics.
In 1980, Martha was competing at the NFR, and to her delight, three of her students were also running — Shayne Mason, Jeannie Davis, and Lynn McKenzie. It was close, but going into the 10th round, she was in the lead to win the world championship, as long as she didn’t hit a barrel.
“That’s just what happened — I ended up winning it, and my student Lynn McKenzie was second,” Martha said. “That has to be one of the highlights of my career.”
Martha’s favorite horse of her career was Sonny Bit O’Both. On “Sonny,” Martha won an American Quarter Horse Association World Championship and a Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world championship in the same year — a record that still stands today.
“He’s very special,” Martha said. Another great horse, Orange Smash, took Martha to wins in Walla Walla, Puyallup and Ellensburg, Washington, all in the same 10 days. The pair also won a National Barrel Horse Association Senior World Championship and Open reserve championship at the NBHA World Championships.
“He loved the big pens,” Martha said. “But he still went to the NFR and did good there, too.”
Martha took a horse named Swen Sir Bug to the 1988 Winter Olympics, where she demonstrated barrel racing to an international crowd, winning an Olympic team gold medal and an individual bronze medal.
After winning the NFR in 1980, a horse spooked with Martha in the saddle, and she was thrown. She broke her pelvis in several places as well as her arm, and the doctor said she’d never ride and possibly never walk again.
Martha was using a wheelchair and worked through months of rehab. After four months, she crawled back on Sonny and began running barrels. She was far behind on the NFR trail that year, but her first rodeo back in the saddle, she won. That year in 1981, she won three big rodeos and made it to her fourth NFR.
In all, Martha qualified for the NFR 11 times over four decades. She was gunning for a fifth decade in 2004 but was injured at a rodeo while running out of the pen. Although she’s hung up her competition spurs now, Martha is always thinking about her times in the alleyway at the NFR.
Martha’s Hall of Fame inductions are numerous — the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1988, the Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame, the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame, and the ProRodeo Hall of Fame — she’s one of just a handful of women in that one. She’s in the ArkLa Tex Sports Museum in Shreveport. Most recently, she received the Tad Lucas Award at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
“I am excited about that one, because Tad Lucas was someone whom I wanted to be like, because I got to do all the things she did,” Martha said. “I wanted to be a trick rider — I didn’t do it much, but I did do other events like bull riding, bronc riding and calf roping. When I heard how much she influenced people in the rodeo arena, helping girls get started, I was so proud to get that award.”
Cierra (Chapman) Nelson is a former clinic participant, Josey Ranch competitor and clinician as well as a talented rider. She says Martha’s impact is far-reaching.
“I think she was one of the first women to really stand out in the industry,” Cierra said. “She always did things just a little differently from everyone else. I feel like she was one of the first true barrel racers, and she set out to make barrel horses.”
Martha broke records in the pen and set trends for her fashion, too. Martha has designed many saddles and tack over the years and continues today.
“I love designing things,” Martha said. “Being partnered with Circle Y makes it easy to bring those designs to life. Circle Y builds all Josey saddles, and we have two new designs for 2023. The first one is called the Josey Patriot. This is an all-around saddle you can use for speed events, breakaway and roping. My second new design is one of my favorites. I call it the Josey Gold Buckle. I’m so excited about this one, because it is made to display your trophy buckles on the skirts and still ride and compete in it. It is a very classy design.”
Josey Ranch now includes a number of trainers and clinicians, and the business has conducted clinics around the world. Although R.E. passed away in February 2022, his dream continues. Today, the team includes Martha’s nephew Gary Arthur, who started riding with Martha when he was 8, some 53 years ago. He began teaching at Josey clinics in the 1970s. Although he worked away from the ranch for a while, he came back and has worked with his aunt for many years. These days, Gary helps run the ranch and the schools.
“She enjoys so much sharing knowledge with somebody who has put enough faith in us to come to us seeking education,” Gary said. “Then, to see them succeed, or even just improve from the beginning to the end of the school – coming out of the arena with a smile on their face and joy in their heart, and their parents excited – that’s by far the most enjoyable thing.”
In addition to the ranch’s clinics, Josey Ranch hosts several barrel races – the Josey Jr. World since 1981, the Josey Reunion for riders who have attended a Josey clinic or school, and now the Josey Gold Cup Barrel Race for barrel racers 50 and over.
Now 56 years after Martha and R.E. started Josey Ranch, the list of Josey Ranch’s students who have gone on to become champions has grown.
Jan Berry attended Josey Ranch’s first clinic when she was 6 years old, and she’s been there off and on ever since. Now 61, Jan was a teacher for 27 years but has always worked with Martha on some marketing.
“I was there as a beginner, and she was instrumental in everything I’ve ever won, because they teach you from the ground up — it doesn’t matter what skill level you have. When you go to their schools, you learn the basics, teamwork and confidence from Martha,” Jan said. “Martha was instrumental in finding two of the greatest horses I’ve ever owned, which helped me win two trailers and 21 saddles.”
Jan ended up in the top 30 in the WPRA thanks to one of those horses. Cierra, a college rodeo champion, attended two Josey Ranch clinics in the mid-2000s. She competed at the ranch’s Jr. World Championship every year until she aged out of the competition at 20 and still competes at Josey Reunion races whenever she’s able. She won reserve at the Reunion in 2009 and won Jr. World in 2015.
“I worked with Martha quite a bit, but I also got to work with Mr. Gary,” Cierra said. “Gary taught me a lot, and R.E. was always really special to me. He always kept everybody positive and upbeat and kept you in a good mental state. It was a good family atmosphere.”
She says she met other competitors like Whitney Bettis — a multiple Reunion winner and clinician for Josey Ranch — and has made many connections that have led to friendships and even sponsorships as she progressed as a competitor. Cierra, too, has taught some clinics and says being on both sides of participation has been meaningful.
Cierra’s fond memories with Martha paired with lessons she learned have stuck with her.
“I always think of red when I think of her — red pants, red lipstick — and she is so welcoming,” Cierra said. “She doesn’t care who you are, she doesn’t care what you’ve won. She doesn’t care who your horse is. She is completely unbiased, kind, welcoming, and everybody can be a winner in her eyes, no matter how young or old. You just have to have a love for it.”
Professional futurity trainer Janna Beam Brown attended clinics with Martha Josey and worked for the Josey Ranch for a time. She is close with Martha and was close with R.E. Janna says Martha’s ability to see the good in the world was the lesson she learned from her and is what makes Martha so influential.
“She’s competitive, but she’s such a positive person,” Janna said. “Everything she does, she finds the better end of it. If something doesn’t go right, she’ll find a way to make it better the next time. She used to tell us when I worked out there, ‘Dress good, feel good. If you didn’t win anything in the arena, at least you looked good doing it.’”
Janna says Martha emphasized health, taking care of yourself and taking care of your horse.
“She was always reminding me to take my vitamins when I worked out there,” Janna said with a smile. “She always found little ways to make everybody feel important. She makes everybody feel like they’re somebody. That gives people confidence.”
Martha’s grit and tenacity, despite challenges in life, has inspired generations.
“I think the hardest part of what we do is the mental game,” Janna said. “That’s where I feel she was so much stronger than other people, because she found a way to make it work. Being around her and talking to her, I think it showed me that if you try hard enough at something and do the right things, it’ll pay off in the end, usually. On every poster she has, and she said it all the time, ‘Never give up.’”
Martha’s own reflection on her legacy is the many riders she’s helped get started.
“So many have come through here that I think I helped them want to win,” Martha said. “I played basketball in school; I was really big into sports. I had a coach once that asked me, ‘Do you like to win?’ I said, ‘I love to win.’ She said ‘OK, you’re going to make 100 free throws before you go at night. So that was one thing I learned — practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect.”
Martha’s positive mindset and motivating methods flow throughout the program, and into the students.
‘Tm a real goal-setter, and if I made a goal, I knew how to go after it,” Martha said. “If you want to go for it, stairstep those goals. Don’t say I want to go to the NFR tomorrow, because that can’t happen. But write down everything you want to do, and what it will take to get you there. A good horse, enough money, a lot of dedication – write it all down and look at it every day. Shoot for the stars, and follow your dreams.”
Four-time WPRA World Champion Barrel Racer Sherry Cervi attended several Josey Jr. World competitions before aging out of the youth range. She said the atmosphere inspired her to create something similar in her area.
“It was a great experience with my parents, coming from Arizona,” Sherry said. “I got to be around kids from all different states, and it was a big deal. I got to meet some kids that still, today, I have a relationship with, and moving forward later in my career, I thought about what an impact that had on me. I wanted to start something on the West Coast like that for kids.”
Together with Shane Parsons of Diamond Bar Arena, Sherry started the Sherry Cervi Youth Championship in 2008, which has expanded to three youth championship races across the U.S. and a fourth coming in 2023.
“Her races have influenced my passion for kids and to give back to the Western industry,” Sherry said. “She has been an inspiration to a lot of people. She is always willing to help kids, up-and-coming competitors, and even competitors running against her. She is a great competitor, and I cherish the friendship we have. She’s a great role model and an icon for the industry.”
Cierra says Martha’s clinics have stood the test of time, and the proof are the champions who got their start at her clinics, including herself, WPRA Rookie of the Year Jimmie Smith-Tew, NFR qualifier Cassidy (Kruse) Deen, and many others.
Jan says some of the many riders who have learned from Martha – such as Jimmie – come back to the ranch to meet students, which means a lot to the clinic participants.
“All kinds of rodeo girls stop by; they’ll stop in on their way from one rodeo to the next, and they’ll visit with the kids,” Jan said. “It’s really cool, because you never know who’s going to show up. That’s the fun part.”
Janna says Martha’s legacy is introducing thousands of people to the sport of barrel racing and encouraging them to be better.
“There’s so many of her students who have gone on to win world titles and everything you can imagine,” Janna said. “For someone to have that influence on so many people, she leaves a strong impression that if you work hard at it, it will pay off. She’s timeless. She doesn’t let anything slow her down. So many kids look up to her, and she’s just so positive.”
Today, Martha still spends a lot of time at the clinics at her ranch. Clinics are booked up in advance, with a waiting list. The atmosphere at the ranch is one of community, fun and a safe haven for kids.
“A lot of people say when they drive through the gate they feel like they’re in heaven,” Martha said. “It’s kind of a special place.”
Jan, who works closely with Martha as the sponsorship coordinator and with public relations for the ranch, says her mentor is always setting goals and making plans.
“Her mind never stops, and that’s the way she instills that in her students,” Jan said. “To never give up, to always be positive, and to always make a plan and a goal.”
Whether she’s teaching or riding at the ranch, traveling, or speaking to groups, Martha is a bundle of energy, even at age 84.
“There’s no plans to slow down,” Martha said. “A lot of people say I’ve done this long enough, but I don’t think so. I still love what I’m doing, and we still have little girls calling us every day.”
This article was originally published in the June 2023 issue of Barrel Horse News.