With roots in agriculture and horses, Charlene Jespersen evolved into barrel racing when she fell in love with the sport. The Hanford, California, resident deals gracefully with aging as she continues to win her barrel racing share.
At 76, Jespersen admits to a few aches and pains and moving a tad slower than she’d like, but her competitive persona is not ready to give up turning barrels just yet. Being atop a horse remains a most comfortable perch.
“I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t run barrels anymore,” Jespersen said thoughtfully. “I’m not ready to reach that point just yet. I’ll worry about that when I get there. Right now, as long as nothing hurts and I still have that real strong drive to ride and win, I’ll keep going. Even if I’m 82.”
And Jespersen just might see that prophesy through. Her mother, Alma Evetts, was inducted into the Senior Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame after her death in 2001. Alma ran barrels at the Cow Palace when she was 83, in spite of the crippling arthritis in her hands.
Alma was raised in Canute, Oklahoma, where she met Hoke Evetts. According to Charlene, her parents had been going together when they abruptly took off for California during the 1930s. His ambition and entrepreneurial mindset helped Hoke succeed in several business endeavors.
“Mom told my grandma that she and Dad wanted to go off for the weekend or something,” said Jespersen. “Grandma didn’t see mom for 20 years. They got married, jumped in the car and landed in Los Angeles. Mom worked in the fish factories and dad in the dairies.”
Hoke continued milking cows after moving he and Alma north to Bakersfield. As he hand-milked cows by the hour, Hoke practiced being an auctioneer. Alma also had a head for business. She opened and ran a dry cleaner store in nearby Pumpkin Center.
“Dad did a lot of stuff building up his career,” Jespersen remembered with a chuckle. “He started a chicken ranch and I guess he hated that. He always said, ‘Don’t ever get into business with anything that scratches backwards.’ Then he owned a service station for a while. After that he got into the dairy business with several big dairies in Bakersfield. All this time he was starting to do little auctioneering jobs around.”
The Evetts were also raising three very active children during their years in Bakersfield. Charlene and her younger brother, H.P., were involved with raising and showing livestock, rodeo and roping. Tonja, who now lives in South Carolina, was more on the artistic side with a wonderful singing voice and a flair for songwriting. She has written children’s books and enjoys entertaining people. The girls, both very athletic, also took a variety of dance lessons.
“I’m very limber,” noted Charlene with a laugh. “I think I could even do the splits now, but I don’t think I’ll try. I was limber in my legs, but my sister was limber in the back and could actually sit on her head. We took acrobatics, we took tap and I did some adagio, where you work with a partner.”
At 18, and right out of high school, Charlene married and moved to Northern California. At 20, she had a son and the family moved south to be near her parents. Around 1957, Hoke was partnered on a sales yard with Pete Belezzuoli. Livestock sales proved a competitive trade at the time and after a mysterious fire wiped them out, they relocated to Hanford and bought Overland Stockyards. Charlene and her family moved right along with them.
Charlene divorced in 1964 after 10 years of marriage. Her son became a firefighter, but sadly died of lung cancer when he was about 40. His passing is one memory she prefers not to dwell on.
Charlene found a secretarial job at Hanford High School in the adult education department where she ultimately worked for 37 years. The hours allowed her time to ride in the mornings, which fit right into her rodeo lifestyle.
Jespersen met her current husband, David Mueller, at the high school, where he worked as an electrician. They were married and both retired during the early 2000s. Until then, horses had only been a mode of transportation for David – packing guns and fishing poles into the mountains on hunting trips. However, he loves the barrel crowd, helping daily with the horses and chauffeuring Charlene and her horses to events.
Racing, Roping & Rodeos
During the years in Bakersfield, Alma may have been taking Tonja to music lessons, but she and Hoke also hauled Charlene and H.P. to livestock fairs, team ropings and rodeos. Hoke always had horses so it was a given the family would be well mounted.
Hoke had a passion for racehorses and really enjoyed attending match races in Bakersfield when the family lived there. Charlene remembers a trip to Oklahoma to buy racing stock.
“He bought two stud horses – Oklahoma Red and Cloudy Boy,” she recalled. “Coming back there was a wreck and the trailer broke loose. It really crippled the red horse and he never got over it. Cloudy Boy was OK and Dad match raced him for a long time. In those days some people doped horses and – in spite of having someone guarding the stall – someone drugged Dad’s horse and that finished he and the horse with racing. That is when Dad started team roping.”
Charlene stood in as Hoke’s boy for 16 years until H.P. came along. She raised show cattle and lambs. Hoke was also an auctioneer and a cow trader then, so Charlene milked cows every morning. Alma’s parents had moved out from Oklahoma and Charlene’s grandma rewarded her work ethic with a huge breakfast before she cleaned up and left for school.
“Biscuits, gravy, eggs and, oh man, she was a good cook,” Charlene said with a laugh. “It’s a wonder I didn’t get to be 10 by 10, if you know what I mean.”
During this era, Charlene began roping.
“Dad always team roped, so I roped,” she said. “I roped a couple of different years at the California Rodeo in Salinas before the girls really started. Sammy Fancher Thurman [Brackenberry] was of my era. She and I ran barrels together and we both roped. She was a better roper than I was.”
No Longer the Spectator
By the mid-1950s Alma had enough watching the kids compete and decided to join them. She was 40 before she started running barrels, which never stopped her from being good and winning some money.
“Starting that late her balance was never the greatest, but she always stayed on,” Charlene said. “She started out on a couple of Dad’s rope horses and then he bought her a really good horse from Sam Edmondson’s wife, Mary Jean. It was a fabulous horse she called Lucky and they were a great pair.”
Alma also rode a big Thoroughbred horse named Cocktail Bars. According to Charlene, Frank Ferreira, from Fresno, would coach Alma to “just black out and let the horse do it.” She finished up her career on a pair of black mares, Sandy and Beauty, that were nearly identical looks-wise. Beauty died not long ago at age 32.
Alma was every bit the entrepreneur that Hoke was. When Highway 198 cut the Evetts’ Hanford property in half, Hoke purchased additional ground on the south side of the thoroughfare to allow enough room for the sales yard operation. The Evetts bought out the acreage remaining on the north side of the freeway from their partners.
“When they moved to Hanford in 1957, produce dealers started selling along the edge of our driveway under these little sheds,” Charlene explained. “Then on one side Mom put what I called junk dealers. You could bring boxes of stuff and she had an auctioneer that would sell like the old horse and tack sales. When the sales yard moved it just mushroomed and she turned the entire 13 acres into a flea market.”
Today the Monday Swap Meet looks something like a Medieval Fair with tents, flags and streams of traffic. Charlene runs the enterprise now. She became involved after Alma had some foot surgery and asked her daughter to help drive her around one Monday so she could collect fees from vendors. Charlene has been running the show, along with some great help, every since. David and H.P., who lives just up the road, pitch in as well.
“My girl, Trois Harmon, is a complete jewel,” Jespersen verified. “It is a huge job collecting and taking reservations and getting everyone in; we get long traffic lines. I don’t know what I’d do without Trois, she does everything I don’t feel like doing anymore. She even runs the little café we open one day a week, The Burger Shack.”
And, getting home from a long weekend of barrel racing for a day of working the flea market has been a test at times. There have been all night drives and a few “rough Mondays” working, but Charlene is always on site – barrel weekend or not.
Horses that Fit
As barrel racing grew in prominence, Charlene grew with it. She loved the speed of the sport and the fact that it was just she and her horse, usually a rope horse she had patterned. One of her earliest barrel horses was the 1951 stallion Lotta Dollar by Catechu and out of Jackie Guinn by Jack Pot.
“I’ll tell you what, that was the neatest little horse,” Jespersen recalled. “He really got me into it. I went to the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City on a really good mare by him in 1974. That was the year H.P. won the team roping championship.”
Charlene doesn’t remember many of the horses she’s had over the years, but can recall a few she’d rather forget. There is one horse in her barn, now retired, that she is probably most remembered for riding. Blue Neon Rainbow, the grey gelding Hoke dubbed “Blue,” is 20 now. Bred in Texas, Blue is by Watch Bobby Joe and out of Another Rainbow by McLeo Bars. But to his owner, Blue is simply a great barrel horse.
“Blue put everything into it,” Jespersen recalled. “He’d nail that first [barrel] every run.”
“Blue was an exceptional horse, but I don’t think I learned how to ride him really properly to get the best out of him,” Charlene added modestly. “I hit a lot of barrels on him when I should have been winning everything. I’m sure it was from something I didn’t learn to do correctly.”
Charlene now pilots a Frenchmans Guy 12-year-old gelding that she is having fun on. NF Frenchmans Brucey is out of BHR Shaka Captain by Shaka Tail Feather. His barn name, Harley, came courtesy of his hometown, Sturgis, South Dakota, where the Harley-Davidson Rally is held each year. She purchased Harley from Katie Varian late in 2008.
“He’s real low keyed, but when he gets ready to run he gears up,” said Jespersen. “He doesn’t put everything into his runs like the grey horse, who always just ran as hard as he could. Harley won’t fire all the time.”
But Harley did fire the first weekend of this past November. At the Spurr Ranch in Shandon, California, Jespersen challenged over 300 barrel racers to finish sixth in the 1D. She then drove up the road to win the ACBRA 1D in King City with a 16.426 second run against 150 entries.
“It’s like all of a sudden he fired,” Charlene said with a smile. “I’m not doing anything different, but that kind of encouraged me. I’ve always said he wasn’t the fastest thing on four and I accepted that, but I know he’s got it.”
“Harley and I have never perfected the first barrel, if you can get perfection,” she added. “But we’re getting better – we have our days. I’ve mellowed and think, ‘Okay, what comes, comes.’”
As handsome and sweet as Harley is, he hasn’t always been totally accommodating. At first Jespersen had a problem with her sorrel ducking off at the second barrel. She sent Harley to Pam Ross in Hilmar, California, with instructions to fix him or sell him. He came home fixed.
“All of our horses that we had problems with or needed help with went to Pam,” explained Jespersen. “She’s helped mom and I all these years and found or sold horses for us too.”
Fit to Ride
Jespersen sold a young horse last year, because it was just too time consuming. Harley is all she needs to keep her busy as she paces herself and conserves energy for other important things. She feels fortunate to have avoided any really bad wrecks over the years.
There have been twisted knees and soreness from horses falling, of course. Just last year Harley spooked at a white banner behind the third barrel at Fresno State. Jespersen was in full forward when he made a U-turn, grounding her. Fortunately, a sore knee and getting “really dirty” was the worst outcome.
“I’ve always been so active; this [getting older] just drives me crazy,” Jespersen said. “My knees aren’t good, but when I ride, nothing hurts, thank goodness. It is getting on, getting off and walking far.”
Charlene and David haul a small four-wheeler to ride around during events in order to conserve wear, tear and energy. And, even though Charlene does not like exercising, she tries to work out at least four days each week.
“I go to Curves,” she said. “I know it is low keyed, but it is movement and I love the music and stretching. Then I go to a physical therapy gym and use several different machines. I pulled a hamstring a couple of times and I work on strengthening that. Basically I’m lazy; I don’t want to work out until I sweat. I just kind of want to maintain if I can.”
After her workouts, Charlene spends time with Harley, keeping him legged up and aired out. He doesn’t take much training, but gets his laps around her half-mile track. Charlene said she’s pretty sure he enjoys getting out as much as she does. She might jog or lope the pattern in the arena, or lope circles around a barrel and do a few easy drills occasionally. She does make sure Harley is ready to win when she gets to a race.
Jespersen has won California State Finals Championships and many saddles over the years. She only goes to a few rodeos now. As she reminded, “They don’t pay any 4Ds in the rodeos.”
“I don’t mind winning the 2D; I don’t even mind winning the 3D,” she said with a laugh. “A win is a win. Of course, I want to win first. I always go out there to win. It is my competitive spirit I guess, so the faster the better.”
Annie Lambert is an avid horsewoman and veteran journalist based out of California. Email comments on this article to [email protected].