Fort Worth Press – Robert Francis 
Connie Sparkman, area representative for the Cowboys & Kids organization, wants students to learn the ropes.
Not just about the ropes used in the sport of rodeo, but the ropes of life, too.

Holding a rope above her head in the auditorium at Mary Louise Phillips Elementary on Fort Worth’s westside, she asked the more than 200 students assembled what she had.

“A rope,” several said.

“A lasso,” said others.

“That’s right. A rope, a lasso, but cowboys most often call it a lariat,” said Sparkman.

Teaching students about rodeo events such as bull riding, team roping, bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding and barrel racing is a key component of Sparkman’s presentation, but her larger message was about learning the ropes in life.

“We teach about learning some life lessons,” said Sparkman, who presented 12 programs in four days to elementary students at the Fort Worth and Keller Independent School Districts.

The program is organized by Cowboys & Kids, a nonprofit company based in Payson, Ariz., that teaches students cowboy traits such as freedom, honesty, hard work, courage, etc. The program was founded by Penny Conway, an educator who felt fewer and fewer students understood that way of life. It promotes values such as “making your own path” and “cowboy up.” “Making your own path” steers children away from peer pressure decisions such as joining a gang.

“In the 1800s, the settlers came out West and they didn’t have roads, maps or anything like that. They had determination and they had to make their own path. Sometimes that’s what we have to do in life as well, we have to make our own path,” she said.

“Cowboy up” promotes making tough decisions in life or preparing for tough assignments, such as riding a bull.

“What do you think a cowboy does when he’s told he has to ride a really tough, mean bull the next day? He gets ready and he does it; that’s what ‘cowboy up’ means,” said Sparkman.

Having to “cowboy up” is what led Sparkman to the Cowboys & Kids organization in the first place.

After her husband was killed in an automobile accident, Sparkman, a champion barrel racer, was left to raise two daughters on her own.

“I had to get back on my horse and make my own path. All through life we’re going to have to make our own path. Now I have one daughter in college and another about to graduate high school. They never let anything stand in their way,” she said.

Sparkman has traveled all over the country doing the program.

“I’ve done it in inner city schools where they’ve never seen a real cowboy. But you know what? Everybody loves a cowboy, even if they’ve never met one,” she said.

The program also teaches respect for the flag and encourages students to attend the rodeo.

While part of the program is a serious lesson in values, the interactive program demonstrates key aspects to rodeo competition.

“It’s the only sport that comes from a working occupation – ranch work,” she told the students.

To demonstrate saddle bronc riding, one student was selected to saddle up on a makeshift horse. Sparkman then showed the student how to sit, hold the saddle and where to place his feet. The student sat precariously balanced on the makeshift saddle, steadied by Sparkman’s hand.

“Now imagine if that horse was bucking. It’s harder than it looks, isn’t it. That’s why I stick to barrel racing,” she said.

The cowboy lessons were part of an outreach program sponsored by the Fort Worth Stock Show.

“It’s the first time we’ve done something like this and I think it’s worked out very well,” said W.R. “Bob” Watt, president of the Stock Show.