By Michael Buhler
In a time when riding as a jockey was predominately a man’s sport, Joyce (Riggs) Church made her mark in the riding world.
Now, those exploits have been profiled in the book The Boys from the Bushes, by Lou Dean.
Church began riding as a five-year-old in the mid-to-late 1930s and as she said, practi- cally “grew up on a horse.”
“My dad bought some race horses from down in Fairfax, Okla.,” Church said. “He had to have someone to ride those horses. I was small and he want- ed to race horses. At the time, women and boys under 16 could not get a license. When it came time for the young bush track riders to move on, I could not go because I was a woman and I could not get a license like the boys could.”
Back when Church was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, girls and women could not ride in more mainstream horse races, so girls, women and boys would race in local and area races.
“Bush jockeys rode from the age of 10 on,” Church said. “They were farm boys and girls that grew up on horses. When World War II was over, things began to expand and a lot of the farmers had better horses, including race horses.”
||Church on one of her horses in 1953.
Church was not the only member of her family to ride. Her younger sister, Nelma, also rode and married a man who had horses. Nelma eventually got to ride at Churchill Downs.
Church won her first purse race as a 14-year-old in 1946 at the Ted Yocham Race Track in Wichita and made the front page of the Coffeyville news- paper in 1948. She also set a record for a 330-yard race in Meade. During her career, she rode throughout Kansas and Oklahoma, and also competed in races in Nebraska, New Jer- sey, Illinois, Arkansas and Ohio.
By the time she was 19, Church had ridden in more than 900 races and won almost half of them, and even when she didn’t, she often finished in the money.
“You just don’t keep track,” Church said. “I won a lot. That’s the way I made money to go to college.”
However, that’s when things began to change. While attend- ing Friends University, she said that she became more inter- ested in college life and weaned herself away from riding horses, ultimately obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Friends and a mas- ter’s from Texas Women’s University. However, she rode on and off until 1961, when she competed in her last race in Newkirk, Okla., at age 29. When asked what stood out the most to her from her rid- ing career, Church said that the family aspect of riding stood out the most. “It was a family affair,” Church said. “Mother and Dad would not allow my sister and I to go out among the barns where a lot of rough talking and alcohol was prevalent. We were well protected. Dad would have to okay a horse be- fore we could ride it. The most important thing was that we knew we were safe.”
But when push came to shove, Church showed that she could stand up for herself.
“One jockey out at Liberal took hold of my horse’s reins and wanted to pull them back,” Church said. “To get him to turn loose, I just stood up in the saddle and whacked him on the back with my bat.”
||Church is profiled in The Boys from the Bushes.