Lee and Dixie Wheaton have five PRCA gold cards within their family. Lee, a former multiple-event contestant, and his wife Dixie, a barrel racer, each […]
Back When They Bucked with Sherry Price Johnson
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
As a young girl, Sherry Price Combs Johnson spent her days on horseback, riding bareback, playing “cowboys and Indians” or “bad guys,” with her bb gun on her family’s ranch near Addington, Oklahoma.
Little did she know the hours spent on horseback would spill over into thousands of hours in her adult life, on horses in rodeo arenas around the nation.
The second and last daughter of John Henry and Lena Price, she was born four years after her sister, Florence Price Youree, in 1938.
The girls were their dad’s right hand men, helping him around the ranch. “It was expected,” Sherry remembers, of helping her dad. He also demanded that his girls do the job right. “He expected us to do it correctly, and if he ever told you something once, you were to remember it.” When they cut cattle out of the herd, he wouldn’t always tell his girls what he was cutting out, “because the first one that was cut out, you were supposed to know by then what was supposed to be cut,” Sherry remembered.
By the time she was fourteen, she was rodeoing in the American Junior Rodeo Association, traveling with Florence and her husband Dale. The girls rode the same horse, with Dale changing saddles for them. Sherry would ask to be up last; Florence would run, Dale would switch out saddles, and Sherry would compete.
In the AJRA, Sherry won five barrel racing championships and two all-arounds, competing not only in the barrels but in the pole bending and flag race.
In high school rodeo in 1955, she won enough points for Oklahoma that they won the national title that year. Sherry won the barrels, the breakaway roping and placed second in the poles to win the all-around on a mare named Pokey.
She remembers that her grandfather, an old-time rancher, did not approve of mares being used on the ranch. “In his day,” she said, “they sold the mares and kept the geldings for ranch horses.” But she fell in love with a pretty little flax maned mare, and told her daddy she wanted that colt. He told her to ask “Big Tree,” her grandfather’s nickname. “I was scared to death,” to ask, she said. But he agreed. “I was the first one allowed a mare on the place. It was such a big deal for me to get her.” Her mare’s name was Pokey, and that horse carried Sherry to her junior and high school rodeo wins, and her daughter Becky later on.
Her dad might have been the prince in Sherry’s life, but her mom was the queen. In addition to her sister, her mom also hauled her to rodeos across the country, doing all the driving before Sherry was 16. “My mother hauled me all over the world. Daddy saw that the car and trailer were ready, and mother took me.”
Her mother was made of steel, but a sweetheart. “Mother was the sweetest person in the world,” Sherry said. “She never raised her voice. She could sit down and talk to you, and it was worse than a spanking. You were sorry if you had messed up.” Lena raised her daughters to be ladies. “She told me, you can do or be anything you want to be, but you will be a lady, doing it. How many times have I thought of that memory?” Sherry reminisced.
After high school graduation in 1956, she headed to Oklahoma State. She competed in one college rodeo, piling into a car with a bunch of other girls and two horses. They headed to Austin, Texas, where she placed in the barrels.
It wasn’t convenient for her to keep a horse in Stillwater, so she didn’t. “I was in a sorority and I was busy being a girl,” she said.
After one year of college, she met the 1955 world champion steer wrestler Benny Combs and married him in 1957. He was rodeoing and she had a condition for their marriage: that she would rodeo with him. At the time, women didn’t travel with their husbands. He concurred, and they traveled together, making Checotah, Oklahoma their home base.
It was while married to Benny that Sherry rode a PRCA Hall of Fame horse and one that carried her to a world title.
Benny and Willard Combs, his brother, bought a horse from the same fellow who had sold the famed steer wrestling mount Baby Doll to the brothers. They bought Star Plaudit, “Red,” for $400, training him in the steer wrestling. When Red was done with his dogging practice, Sherry would work him. He just didn’t train well, she said. “His feet were in the wrong place and he was just clumsy as all get out.”
Sherry had no other mount, so she planned on riding him in Denver. It was the wildest run of her life, she said. The barrels always followed the steer wrestling, so when the steer wrestling was over, they changed saddles and Sherry got on him. “Red came flying out of that alley, and I knew what run was, right then,” she said. “I just picked him up on the right, he saw that barrel, and turned.”
Red won Denver for Bob Maynard, who also rode him in Ft. Worth, as did other bulldoggers. When Bob paid his mount money to Benny, Sherry remembers that he pulled out a $1000 bill, which seemed like all the money in the world. Red was a good financial investment for Benny and Sherry. “With me running barrels, Benny bulldogging, and the mount money, we had a three-way shot (at earning), which was good.”
It wasn’t long and Benny and Sherry bought Willard’s half of Red and owned him outright.
Oftentimes the bulldoggers would gather at the arena fence during the barrel racing, to see what their bulldogging horse was doing, “if I was messing him up,” she said. “And I took care of him. It was my pleasure.” Red preferred women over men, especially Sherry. Benny couldn’t catch him; he’d always ask her to do it. And Sherry recalls a time at Ft. Worth when she asked sister Florence to feed him. Florence stepped in the stall, left the stall door open, put the hay down and Red “politely booted her out of the stall. He didn’t kick her or it would have hurt. He just booted her out. My space,” he was telling her.
Red, inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2017, holds a record that probably won’t ever be duplicated. In 1962, he won two world titles (and helped with a third) for his riders: Sherry as world champion barrel racer, and family friend Tom Nesmith as world champion steer wrestler and all-around champ.
Sherry, the 1962 world champion, had twelve qualifications to the National Finals Rodeo, the most of any cowgirl till Charmayne James came along. She has the distinction of qualifying for the WPRA’s barrel racing world championships in six of the seven cities in which it has been held. Her first qualification was in 1959, at Clayton, New Mexico. She also qualified when it was held in Scottsdale (1960), Santa Maria, Calif. (1961), Ft. Worth (1962-66), and when it was included with the PRCA’s world championship in Oklahoma City (’67-68, 70); and in Las Vegas, her last year to compete (1991). The only location she didn’t compete at was in Arlington, Texas last year. She didn’t compete every year she qualified; sometimes the added money was too low to justify traveling so far.
And barrel racing wasn’t her only rodeo activity. She was part of the group of women with the Girls Rodeo Association (forerunner to the Women’s Pro Rodeo Association) that re-wrote part of the rulebook and asked for ten percent of purse money. At the time, in the early 1960s, committees did not provide equal purse money in the barrel racing. Ten percent “was not equal money but it was a start,” she said.
She and Benny had a daughter, Becky, in 1958. About ten years later, she and Becky moved back to Addington. A house next door to John Henry and Lena was for rent, and Sherry began working for her dad. She would drop Becky off at school, and go to work, with Lena picking up Becky after school and helping with homework.
It was while in Addington that Sherry connected with her high school sweetheart, Sid Johnson. Sid had lent her $10 to become a GRA member at a rodeo years before, and the two had gone to prom together in high school. After talking on the phone and seeing each other long distance, one day Sid was in Addington. The couple had obtained a marriage license and had planned on marrying, just hadn’t chosen a date. One day Sherry said, “let’s get married. My hair looks good,” she laughed. He replied, “Ok, that’s fine with me.” Sherry called Florence, asking her and Dale to stand up for them. Florence replied, “I’m cooking fish,” to which Sherry said, “cook faster.” The preacher agreed to marry them, if they would help him set up chairs for the next day’s speaker.
“It wasn’t romantic, and I don’t think anybody took pictures, but my hair looked good,” she laughed.
They were married in 1980, until Sid’s death in 2007. “It was the best 28 years of my life. We never argued.”
They lived near Snyder, Texas, until Sid was diagnosed with cancer. He was always looking out for his bride; he insisted they move back to Addington after his diagnosis, so she would be near her sister after his passing. She refused to take him from his home, saying it was her home, too. He told her, “I’ll be packed and gone so you can decide if you’re going to follow me or not.”
Now she and Florence live three miles apart as the crow flies, and talk several times a day. Daughter Becky Bradley lives with Sherry and together they manage the ranch. Sherry doesn’t ride anymore; her back won’t allow it. But she still loves her horses.
Sherry was the 1961 WPRA all-around champ, competing in the barrels on Red, and doing the flag race, breakaway and cutting. In 1997, she was the WPRA’s Coca-Cola Woman of the Year. In 2005, she was inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy and Western Heritage Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Five years later, she was inducted into the Pecos (Texas) Rodeo Hall of Fame, and in 2015, she was the RAM Prairie Circuit Living Legend winner. The next year, she and Red were inducted into the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame. She helped design a Sherry Combs saddle, as well, benefitting from its sales.
“She could outride me,” Florence said. “She was a natural on a horse, and that’s what my daddy and husband thought. She was a hand.”
She is grateful for the good horses that have been in her life. “I have been blessed with so many good horses, and I thank God for that,” she said. “I tried to take care of them like He would want me to.”
She loved working with horses; it was her life. “Riding and training was never a job for me. It was something I liked to do. I just plain loved to ride, all my life. Riding was my passion, and when you can make a living at what you love, you’re blessed.”