Legend: Grey Lark

Legend: Grey Lark

One of the greatest rope horses of all time was owned by actor Ben Johnson and was bred to run.

Five-time world champion Grey Lark was from racing bloodlines, but he loved to rope. (Journal file photo)

text size

By Larri Jo Starkey

A rope turned a running-bred horse into a world champion. His endurance and athleticism turned him into a legend.

Grey Lark, a five-time AQHA world champion in roping, was from racing bloodlines.

His dam, Neat Land, was by Lanolark (TB), and in eight starts, she had a top speed index of 85. Her dam, Neat Folks, was by Tonto Bars Gill, the 1952 world champion racing 3-year-old colt.

Neat Land went to the court of the 1965 Thoroughbred stallion Thermos, whose gray color matched his dam, the 1959 Thoroughbred mare Arctic Royal. Thermos also sired the 1978 racing world champion 3-year-old, Miss Thermolark.

So Grey Lark, Neat Land’s 1975 son, could have been a racehorse. But his athleticism was harnessed in a different direction. Breeder Ronny Schliep of Grove, Oklahoma, sold the gelding as a weanling to actor Ben Johnson.

Ben liked rope horses.

Ben grew up roping on the Chapman-Bernard Ranch in Oklahoma, but when a movie producer bought a load of horses in 1940 from the ranch for the movie “The Outlaws,” Ben went to California, got a job as a horse wrangler and eventually became an actor, starring in Wagon Master.

In 1953, Ben spent a year touring on the then-Rodeo Cowboys Association circuits, trying to become the world champion team roper. He achieved the title, but he told the Journal in 1972, “When I finished up that year, I had a worn-out pickup, a mad wife and exactly $3 in my pocket, so I went back into the movie business where the money was a little better.”

Three years after Ben won an Academy Award for “The Last Picture Show,” he bought Grey Lark.

The horse was a bucker, said Dwayne Ramey of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, who started Grey Lark.

“I drove him for a couple of weeks before I ever rode him,” Dwayne told the Journal in 1995. “Those first three days I got on him, he bucked like you never saw. It was all I could do to stay on. Then that fourth day, he just rode off, no problem. He’d slide to a stop, and he could turn so quick, he’d nearly turn out from under you.”

Oscar Crigler of Arizona showed Grey Lark in AQHA roping competition, winning world championships in junior heading and heeling in 1978. Grey Lark was world champion in senior heeling in 1982, world champion in senior heading in 1985 and world champion in senior heading in 1989.  

In 1982 and after, Ben’s nephew, ProRodeo Hall of Famer John Miller, showed Grey Lark at the World Show.

“He was as pretty a horse as I’ve ever seen,” John says. “He was stout, pretty, fast and strong. He was by far the most athletic horse I’ve ever been around. And he was really, really smart. He knew when he was showing and when he wasn’t.”

Grey Lark was ahead of his time as a header, feathering a steer across the arena, instead of jerking it, keeping a consistent rhythm for the heeler. John was based in Oklahoma at the time, and so he tried to get the stout gray horse qualified for the World Show every year.

“One year, I qualified him on two steers,” John says – one in heading and one in heeling.

In addition to being a world champion, Grey Lark was one of the top “help” horses of the era, setting the standard for that discipline.

“We hauled him to all the shows,” John says. “We didn’t compete hard on him, but we used him to help on (the other side in team roping). I helped a lot of people on him.”

In 1988, John’s son, Trey, was 12, and he climbed aboard the 13-year-old Grey Lark for the first time.

“That was a big scary thing, I remember,” Trey says. “He was so fast. He’d get out from under you.”’

Trey was one of the few who could get along with Grey Lark, John says.

“Grey Lark knew what he was doing,” John says. “You didn’t have to ask him for more.”

In 1993, Trey and Grey Lark were youth reserve world champions in heading. 

“I’ve got the video of it, and I think about it often,” Trey says. “He was just a dynamic animal. He taught me how to ride better. He was an all-around athlete from a horse perspective.”

Trey went on to rodeo in college, placing in the College National Finals Rodeo in team roping four years in a row. Today a successful banker in New Mexico, he says that Grey Lark set the bar for athleticism and what a rope horse should feel like.

In all, Grey Lark earned 849.5 AQHA points, five world championships, four reserve world championships, an AQHA Performance Champion title and two Superiors. He was a consistent finalist in roping classes, and he was in the top 10 in reining at the 1979 and 1980 world shows.

Grey Lark’s first World Show appearance was in 1978. His last was 17 years later in 1995, when he and Trey were finalists in heading.

In 1979, Ben was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. In 1982, he was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. In 1992, John became Grey Lark’s owner. Ben died in 1996 – one year after Grey Lark’s last World Show appearance.

“He was a character,” Trey says. “He had to be grained at a certain time and if certain things didn’t happen the way he wanted, he would pout.”

Grey Lark thought he was the star of every show, John says.

“He had his own way of doing things,” John says. “If you were going with a load of other horses and weren’t taking him, he’d be mad.”

He was strong until the end, and John and Trey, who had moved to Arizona, rodeoed around the state on the gelding after his retirement from the show ring.

“You could still go rope 20 head on him,” Trey says. “He could jump out from under you in a heartbeat.”

A pasture accident finally took the gelding; he was euthanized in 2004.

“He’s buried right behind the heading box on our place,” John says. “He was one of a kind.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of The American Quarter Horse Journal