By Jolee Lautaret
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO — A ranch known for raising bucking stock is an unlikely spot to find a champion barrel racing horse; the Sutton family in South Dakota has raised numerous PRCA Bucking Horse of the year winners but their ranch also produced an AQHA/WPRA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year.
The accolades for the horse registered Sparky Impression were possible only due to a lucky pairing between the son of Barnone Impressive and veteran barrel horse trainer June Holeman of Arcadia, Neb.
Sparky had flunked an attempt to make him a kids’ horse when he came to Holeman’s friend, Sheryl DeGroff.
“Sheryl spent a year rehabbing him and eventually made him a breakaway horse,” says Holeman, adding that DeGroff also got the mighty little sorrel started on the barrel pattern. “She called me and said she had this really fast little horse who could outrun a four-wheeler and I should come look at him.”
Sparky stood just 14.1 hands but Holeman found an instant fit to her style of riding.
“I got him the end of June 2001 and by the Fourth of July, we were placing at the amateur rodeos,” Holeman says. “He was real green but he just took to it well.”
For the better part of the next decade, the duo lit up the world of barrel racing, inspiring thousands and setting records. The Holemans lost a member of their family when Sparky passed away October 14, 2016 at the age of 27.
“He was doing OK,” notes Holeman. “He was still quite healthy.”
Holeman and husband Donnell spent Sparky’s retirement years enjoying watching him from their kitchen window.
“There was a spot he would always come stand and wait for the sun,” notes Holeman. “We would watch him during breakfast and then Don would go do the chores.”
Sparky died of natural causes during the early morning hours, just before the Holeman’s morning routine began. They found him laying in the spot where he usually waited on the morning sun.
“We didn’t expect it,” a shaken Holeman says, adding that the couple is happy for the peaceful way the gelding went. “But it doesn’t mean we’re not still looking for him every day.”
When Holeman and the gelding first paired up, Sparky was 12 years old and Holeman was 58. At a point when others were contemplating retirement, the duo began burning up the road, winning first at local jackpots and amateur rodeos before beginning to dip their toe into the waters of professional rodeo.
By the end of the 2002 season, Holeman had shared the win at the WPRA’s Divisional Tour Finals with Wrangler National Finalist Terri Kaye Kirkland, running the fastest time of the event, and had made the Prairie Circuit Finals, where the barrel racers voted Sparky the Horse of the Year.
Soon Holeman and Sparky were on the road full-time, finishing 16th in the WPRA World standings in 2003 and 18th in 2004.
The latter was a big disappointment, given that Holeman had been kicked in the warm-up pen at San Angelo that winter, suffering a fracture that wasn’t immediately discovered and eventually landed her in the hospital in the middle of Rodeo Houston. After nearly being forced into an amputation, doctors were able to repair the leg but the lost time proved insurmountable in that year’s standings.
Nonetheless, Sparky made his debut on the big stage in Las Vegas, without Holeman, as one of Molly Powell’s one-two punch at the 2004 Wrangler NFR. Splitting runs between Sparky and Shali Lord’s Slider, Powell won the average that year and finished second in the WPRA World standings.
Holeman’s breakthrough season came in 2005. Finishing eighth in the regular season standings, Holeman and Sparky won over the crowd in Las Vegas, garnering standing ovations on nearly every run. At 62 years young, Holeman set a record as the oldest qualifier in Wrangler NFR history.
That year, Sparky was voted the AQHA/WPRA Horse of the Year. After placing in a couple of rounds as well as the average, Holeman won $77,246 to finish 12th in the WPRA World standings that year.
Though the fates never lined up for a return trip to Las Vegas, Sparky and Holeman had other big wins including the Washington State Fair in Puyallup in 2006 as she made a late season push for the Finals.
The duo also tied for the win in the Calgary Stampede’s $100,000 round that summer—the first year the rodeo went to its current, tournament format. Stampede rules require that ties be broken by a run-off and Holeman’s 17 year old partner did not fare well in his third run that afternoon, losing to Joleen Seitz.
“I felt bad and didn’t push him. We ended up hitting a barrel,” Holeman remembers. “But if Calgary had counted, we would have made the finals that year too because he placed in all four rounds.”
Sparky ran for 10 years in egg-bar shoes, shoes with metal going around the entire hoof. The move protected his heels which got sore if left in conventional shoes. And Holeman noted, he loved the mud. In fact, two of his Calgary round wins came in the mud.
“It’s amazing when I got to looking at what he did,” notes Holeman, who pulled Sparky’s records in light of his passing. She noted he picked up nearly 100 checks at both pro and amateur events in 2002 and surpassed that in 2003 and 2004.
“That’s a lot of runs,” she muses. “Big, big, big heart.”
Though small in stature, nearly everyone agreed about the size of Sparky’s heart and try.
“He ran everything,” says Holeman, noting that no size pattern or ground was too difficult for him. “He was one of the smallest horse to make the NFR . . . he was just amazing.”
One of Holeman’s favorite runs, apart from her Wrangler NFR trip and the round-tying run in Calgary was a run on the famous Green Mile in Pendleton, Ore. The largest pattern in pro rodeo, it wouldn’t seem like a good fit for the short legged Sparky.
“He did great, we won third in the long go,” says Holeman.
Holeman won two Prairie Circuit titles in 2003-2004. Though Sparky did not win first a lot, he placed on nearly every run with the super consistent gelding.
One of her most memorable wins came at the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo, a special win because the rodeo is produced by the Sutton family.
“They were very proud when he won Rapid City,” notes Holeman. The Suttons actually posted condolences on the loss of Sparky on social media.
In fact, Rapid City was one of Sparky’s favorite pens. He actually won second there in one of his last pro rodeos in 2010 at the young age of 21 years old.
Holeman and Sparky continued to campaign until his retirement in 2010. A fractured leg suffered in Austin in the winter of 2009 was the ultimate end of his years in the arena. Though he returned from the injury, winning in Rapid City and other places in late 2009 and early 2010, complications from the injury ensured that his competitive days were done.
Though no longer competing, Sparky still enjoyed getting out; his last public appearance came at the June Holeman Classic held two weeks ago in Broken Bow, Neb. Don and Sparky carried the flag for the grand entry while June sang.
“The barrels were out in the arena [while he ran the flag] and he almost tried to turn them!”
Sparky left big shoes for Holeman to fill once he retired.
“I looked for five years to replace him and I couldn’t,” she says. “He was a grand ole guy.”
Sparky is buried in his pasture at Holeman’s ranch.
“We haven’t buried one of our own here . . we always try to sell them,” Holeman says, noting that she had offers over the years to buy Sparky. “We wouldn’t ever sell him.”
Though Holeman has had continued success in the arena with other horses, including making a return trip to the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo, Sparky will continue to be the gold standard for her.
“I miss him terribly.”
Courtesy of WPRA