Every January, members of the Western apparel and tack industry brave the cold and snow in Denver to display their wares at WESA, the Western & English Sale Association’s annual trade show. It is a gathering of designers, influencers, media, spokespeople and sponsors. It is where the folks at COWGIRL explore new products and meet with the people behind the brands. Industry parties take place all over the city and in the showrooms where professionals from all sides of the spectrum gather, meet and mingle. One such event is the annual Wrangler party where thousands gather to catch up and have a great time. This particular party attracts the “who’s who” of the Western industry and is one of the great gatherings where superstar rodeo athletes mingle with the horse industry’s top trainers and clinicians, while famous music and TV stars chat it up with brand leaders and media executives. This is where we first met Sharon Camarillo. After a brief introduction, we began to get to know the Cowgirl Hall of Famer and long-time barrel-racing instructor, who cut her teeth in the early seventies as a champion NFR barrel racer.
In addition to her beauty and poise, her signature white hat and pure Western attire, we noticed a respect from literally dozens of industry leaders who had to say “hi” as we discussed her mission to promote the Western industry—especially women from the sporting and business sides of the aisle.
It’s no wonder sponsors like Wrangler, Ariat, Reinsman and Priefert, continually support her efforts and annual barrel-racing events. This lady of the Western industry has earned its respect by consistently sharing her lifetime of expertise, enthusiasm and grit as a Western lifestyle advocate.
As a Southern California raised “cowgirl at heart,” Sharon was always attracted to horses.
“My dad was an aeronautical engineer and my mother was a homemaker who had dinner on the table every day at 5:15,” Sharon remembers. “My dad knew he was raising a proper lady and didn’t allow jeans in the house. I wanted to emulate Dale Evans, loping across my front yard, pretending I was riding Buttermilk.”
The family was adventurous and traveled around the country visiting the national parks where Sharon would hang around the pack stations hoping horses would come by.
She remembers that when she was a little girl her dad would take her down to Redondo Beach where she rode ponies.
“Not far away from where we lived was a railroad track, and across the railroad track were some boarding horses,” Sharon recalls. “I would go by the grocery store, buy carrots and feed these horses. Eventually I got to clean stalls for a little ride.”
At a family friend’s sales yard, Sharon got to ride the horses and chase the cattle into the ring.
“Then my dad made the mistake of taking me to the National Finals Rodeo when it was in Los Angeles and I saw the real cowgirls,” says Sharon. “They were running barrels, they were carrying flags in the grand entry, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”
Impressed by the barrel racers, back at the sale yard and after the sale, Sharon would set up trash cans and play around the barrels. Before long she began to hone her skills not only as a barrel racer, but as a cowgirl. Although her father thought she should earn secretarial skills in college, Sharon had other ideas.
Sharon learned about a community college (Pierce College) nearby that had a rodeo team. She took her secretarial courses and electives in agriculture and got really good at roping and goat tying.
Sharon earned her associates degree and then got drafted by California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.
“At that time they were a rodeo dynasty,” she says. “So I took my roping and goat tying skills to Cal-Poly, changed my major to agriculture business and economics, and traveled in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo circle.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Sharon ended up as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines, a job that afforded her time to maintain her horse training activities and her pursuit of barrel racing and horsemanship skills. These efforts lead to her meeting PRCA world champion team roper, Leo Camarillo.
The couple traveled together, competing at rodeos throughout the western U.S. and were eventually married. During this time, Sharon stayed competitive in the top 15, qualifying four times for the National Finals Rodeo and becoming the Women’s Professional Rodeo Champion.
After adopting their daughter, Stormy, and twelve years into their marriage, Sharon became pregnant and decided to stay home to raise their son, Wade. “I felt like I invested my time on the road and I wanted to give Wade a more secure upbringing,” says Sharon. “I also wanted to pass on some of the skills that I learned in the horsemanship aspect of competition and put it in a formalized training program.”
Sharon dug in deep into the development of her barrel-racing training program based on proven principals of horsemanship, combined with what she learned in her years as a champion barrel racer. Although her marriage to Leo ended in divorce after 27 years, her training program continued to flourish and expand.
Her program, Better Barrel Racing through Horsemanship, has now grown to become one of the most important barrel-racing teaching programs in the country.
In 2016 alone, Sharon, with her team of equine professors, including her daughter, Stormy, presented more than 20 Better Barrel Clinics at her Acampo, California, facility and at a number of fairs and horse expos. Her clinics, drawn from her years of experience and compiled into her book The A.R.T. of Barrel Racing, have become an industry standard, teaching students the fundamentals of performance horsemanship.
Sharon’s philosophy of the Classical Training Pyramid focuses on six building blocks: Rhythm and Forward, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness and Collection, all essentials necessary to complete and efficient barrel-racing performance. Thousands of young women have passed through this program in pursuit of barrel racing excellence. In addition to her hands-on clinics and A.R.T of Barrel Racing book, Sharon has also produced a three-part series of training DVDs and the book, Barrel Racing for Fun and Fast Times.
“The books, manuals and DVDs complement what I teach at my Better Barrel Racing programs and I leave each student with a Cliff’s Notes-version of the whole philosophy,” says Sharon. “It’s hard to learn the amount of information we give in a two-day period, but they can refer back to the books, tapes, DVDs and the workbook they take home with them.”
In addition to her Better Barrel Racing programs, Sharon works with Black Hawk community college and one of its equine professors, Donna Irving.
“Donna believes, on the same scale as I do, that horsemanship never goes out of style and the power of good horsemanship in constant performance,” Sharon says. “It’s not that every horse we ride or train will be a champion horse, but it gives every horse we ride or train an opportunity to fit in someone’s good program.”
Just this past July and October, Sharon put on her 25th anniversary of the Sharon Camarillo Western Classic in Corning, California, and 15th Annual Eastern Classic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. These annual events open to clinic graduates are designed to showcase and reward consistent performance with prizes, pageantry and competition. Over the years, these Classic programs have distributed close to $2 million in cash and awards, while also supporting the National Patriot and Tough Enough to Wear Pink programs through contestant donations.
For more than 40 years, Sharon has played an integral role in the development and design of products to enhance the sport. Among her signature line of saddles for both Reinsman and Court Saddlery, Sharon has lent her name and design efforts to a vast line of products and tack, earning her respect in the retail marketplace. Items including bits, headstalls, reins, and saddle pads, have been developed closely with manufacturers to meet the needs of the competitive horseman.
“I like design. I like a better saddle. I wanted a saddle that was a western lifestyle saddle, kind of an all-around looking saddle with what we needed in the barrel race—lightness, balance—a tool to help stay balanced on my horse.”
“I live by example–I’ve always strived to keep my reputation clean,” says Sharon. “I’ve always aspired to be a mentor and, when I was a young cowgirl, I focused in on the people I wanted to follow.
When I became a young professional rodeo competitor, it was Sharon Shoulders, the wife of the great Jim Shoulders and Liz Kesler, rodeo secretary, timer and wife of Reg Kesler, and Donna McSpadden, wife of Oklahoma Senator, Clem McSpadden, who was also general manager of the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma. They were businesswomen, they were leaders of their families, they were organized, they were talented, and that’s whom I wanted to follow.
If I could pull that together with the skills in the arena, be able to ride a horse balanced and gain the respect from my peers not just in the barrel-racing industry but in the whole Western lifestyle and horse industry…that was my big goal.”
Sharon Camarillo is a Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee and a National Cowboy Hall of Fame recipient of the prestigious “Tad Lucas” award.
“Standing at the podium at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2006 with a thousand people there to join me—my father and my son—my family and friends—you think…How in the heck did I get here from the beaches in Redondo Beach? she reminisces. “I wasn’t raised on a ranch—and here I am being recognized as one of the top cowgirls in the country. I don’t know how you get there, but again, I think it’s just a having a vision—and I think we’re so blessed if we can have a goal in mind or a vision because then we start making decisions to accomplish those. My decisions have always been based on following my passion.”
WHAT IS A COWGIRL?
“That may be a little difficult to define,” says Sharon. “I wouldn’t necessarily say a cowgirl wears a hat, boots and drives a dually and pulls a horse trailer around—maybe owns some cows. In today’s world she might drive a BMW, and do her business on a cell phone. She might run a bank. But what we have in common is we live by our own set of rules. We’re pretty confident in ourselves. And if we’re not, we act as if we are. We value friendship, true friendship. We’re not afraid to watch a friend’s back and I think the true value of a cowgirl is she’s an American icon—she’s an American girl.
“Whether she’s educated or not, she is usually successful because she’s not afraid to step out and fail. And try it again and pick herself up. Resiliency is a key word. We learn the biggest lesson from the biggest disappointments and so many people are afraid to invest in that.
“So I think a cowgirl is a woman with spirit. She defines herself with her own set of rules, regardless of what they are, and she believes in herself.”
Sharon Camarillo continues to travel the country putting on clinics, promoting events, serving her sponsors and advocating the Western lifestyle. She also hosts her own radio show, Fun and Fast Times, on the Better Horses Network. About hitting the road and traveling these days, she says, “If I’ve driven by an airport, I’ve driven too far.”
Story and Photos by Ken Amorosano