Barrel racer Regan Dinsmore, 11, was among the 200 contestants at this year’s Cowgirls for a Cure (Photo courtesy of Fred Wilson).
The horses may be decked out in tulle, ribbons and sparkly pink paint, but the young riders are all business. Spurred on by adults hollering “Push!” they dig their heels into their horses’ sides, willing their fourlegged partners to go faster around the barrels set out in the ring.
Candice Parsley ’12, completely at home in her dusty, well-worn boots and in this setting, watches the action not only with the interest of a rodeo competitor—she’s among the top 15 women in the nation in breakaway and team roping—but also with the intent of a woman on a mission.
A cancer survivor, Parsley is determined to help find a cure, and today’s rodeo—where the signature color pink is everywhere, from women wearing “Survivor” sashes to Parsley in her tiedyed T-shirt—is part of her strategy.
Candice Parsley ’12
Four years ago, Parsley and her friend Brandy Slaughter put their heads together and came up with Cowgirls for a Cure, a rodeo whose proceeds would go to cancer research. Since then, Cowgirls for a Cure has raised $55,000, including $15,000 from this spring’s two-day event at the Meadow Event Park in Doswell. Funding goes to the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation and to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
“The ability to start Cowgirls for a Cure and see it grow as quickly as it has is truly a humbling experience,” Parsley said. “When I was going through my treatment, there were many times that I thought, ‘I don’t know how I will ever be able to repay the kindness and love that has been shown to me and my family.’ Cowgirls for a Cure continues to be the way that I am able to give back to the community that supported me. When Brandy and I planned the first Cowgirls for a Cure, we never dreamed it would get this big.”
When Parsley was diagnosed with cancer, she was in her last semester at Longwood and preparing to get her teaching certification. She took time off to get treatment for her particular form of cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which attacks the immune system and usually starts in lymph nodes.
Today, she’s in remission, teaches math at New Kent High School, is married and has a baby daughter.
Parsley is just one person in the close-knit Central Virginia riding community whose life has been touched by cancer. “We’ve lost several people to cancer,” she said. She gives the community a lot of the credit for making Cowgirls for a Cure so successful, both in the amount of money raised and the number of people competing. More sponsors have signed on through the years as well, with Southern States, Sunbelt Rentals and Red Eagle Creations among the sponsors this year.
Also helping out is another Longwood alumna, Bayley Johnson ’17, who handles social media, posting photos on Instagram and Facebook. Johnson, who started riding at age 5 and was on the university’s equestrian team for two years, is a strong competitor in breakaway, but the vibe is a little more laid-back at the fundraiser. “We all come out to support the main cause,” she said.
'When Brandy and I planned the first Cowgirls for a Cure, we never dreamed it would get this big.’CANDICE PARSLEY ’12
This year, 200 people—mostly girls and women— showed off their skills in events including barrel racing, goat tying and cattle roping. Decades ago, female riders had only a couple of events in which they could compete, but today “women in rodeo are making a name for themselves,” Parsley said. “It’s exploded recently.”
Parsley and Slaughter are already thinking about next year’s event, including expanding it from two days to three.
“We take maybe six weeks off after the event,” Parsley said with a laugh. “Our goal is to be able to add different types of cancer that we support and other causes, like Alzheimer’s and diabetes, that need additional research and awareness.”