It Started With a Horse

Joyce Gibson Roach, still blazing trails at 80

Joyce Gibson Roach, a charming, silver-haired, fifth-generation Texan storyteller, answers most questions with a winding trail of magical stories about her beloved West Texas, horses, cowgirls and talking horned toads.

Roach is a retired Texas Christian University adjunct English professor, author of non-fiction books, short fiction and juvenile fiction, a folklorist, grassroots historian, rancher and naturalist. Her writing accolades include a three-time Western Writers of America Spur Award winner for both fiction and non-fiction.

She is a lifetime member and Fellow of Texas State Historical Association and of Texas Folklore Society, a member of Texas Institute of Letters, Philosophical Society of Texas, lifetime member of West Texas Historical Association and of Horned Lizard Conservation Society, of which she is a past national president. Roach is a 2010 Honoree in Fort Worth’s National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

Her induction into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame touched Roach to the core, she says.

The Cowgirl counts Roach’s first book, “The Cowgirls,” as a foundational text that is used to explain cowgirls and what they are about. “They had my quote on the wall and in the membership book that they published for the first time. I believe this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Roach says.

The quote reads: “The emancipation of women may have begun not with the vote, nor in the cities where women marched and carried signs and protested, but rather when they mounted a good cow horse and realized how different and fine the view. From the back of a horse, the world looked wider.”

“Joyce Roach writes books, but to me she is the type of woman that books should be written about,” says Pat Riley, executive director of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. “Her life is fascinating and rich in history that is so distinctly Texas.” Riley describes Roach as “a strong Texas woman that can run a ranch, travel as easily on horseback as in a car, dance the two-step with lightness and grace and tell a story that is bawdy but made elegant by the sweet sound of her voice.” 

Roach’s latest book, “The Land of Rain Shadow: Horned Toad, Texas,” was published in June 2015. The book is a collection of eight short stories linked by place. The setting is the tiny, fictional town of Horned Toad.

“I know the exceptional talent, and I have read most of the stories as well as most all of her writings in other genres,” says Bob J. Frye, emeritus professor of English, TCU. “This latest collection evokes an authentic sense of Texas place and includes perhaps the best short story ever – ‘Crucero.’ It is a gem.”

Her children's book, Horned Toad Canyon, is a fantasy where talking horned toads live on a ranch. A tie-in was her audio column for the Star-Telegram in the 1990s where people could dial a number, and she would tell them a short story about Horned Toad, Texas. "I actually had people write and ask where it was,” Roach says. “They wanted to visit. I had to tell them it was a fictional town.”

Horned toads, horned lizards and horned frogs, all figure in several of Roach’s works. Of course, TCU is high on her list. “People ask me why I went to TCU, and I had to say because the colors were purple and white like my high school colors and because I knew a whole lot about horned toads and played with them all my life. I thought any school that has a horned toad for a mascot was bound to be a place for me."

Roach’s husband, Claude, played football for TCU. He passed away in 2005.

As an adjunct professor of English at TCU, Roach taught the Western Novel and reintroduced Literature of the Southwest as a part of regional studies.

Fred Erisman, a colleague at TCU, says that no classroom can limit Roach. “She enters the room bringing with her a vision of space and place, and first to go are the walls,” Erisman says. “Desks and chairs give way to landscape, flora and fauna. Finally comes the heart of the matter – the people. No longer cardboard figures on a printed page, men and women move through the scene, going about their daily affairs and carrying out all the deeds that make the human animal so fascinating,” he adds. “And all this derives from two things: the text at hand and the abilities of Joyce Gibson Roach.”

Born in Cleburne and raised an only child, Roach’s family moved to Jacksboro when she was about a year old. It was in Jacksboro where she fell in love with horses and land. She never had a horse of her own, even when she was riding barrels with the TCU rodeo. Growing up, she spent every minute possible riding as much of Jack County as she could cover on the Lupton’s Coca-Cola Ranch with the Gustin boys, Loyd and Lewis. She learned to ride on a “mean-tempered, stubborn son-of-Satan” horse named Billy that belonged to Kit Moncrief’s family.

“It started with a horse. A hunger for horses and my own land remained all my life,” she says.

Since she didn’t have a horse, she decided to write about them.

“It’s something I carry inside me, and there’s nothing in the world that thrills me more than the idea of the horse and all that it’s meant historically—even historically with women,” Roach says. “It was a woman’s first use of early technology. There are many historians that will say that the horse was the finest technology the West had.” 

Fort Worth has always been important to Roach. “It was then, became, and still is, the center of my universe in the way of a wider world,” she says. “Of course, TCU was a part of that. I've always been proud of the fact that it is the beginning of West Texas. Truly, from a geographical point of view, it is West Texas. It may be the very eastern edge, but it still is West Texas. My viewpoint has always been in that direction.”

As to her legacy, Roach says, “If there’s any contribution that I’ve made in writing, it’s maybe to tell a different kind of story about the West, about Texas and the cowboy story. The cowgirl story would never have been told if we had not had the cowboy story. I always make that point. I don’t like this ‘We stand alone. We stand apart.’ No, a man had to blaze the way for you. They had to open the door for you and your chance to get on a horse because they needed you.”

Roach’s two children, Darrell Roach, and Delight Justice, both hold degrees from TCU. Grandson Trey Roach is a senior at Texas Tech, and granddaughter Hollyann Roach is a senior at Keller High.

Roach has a home in Keller that she shares with her very large and much-loved rescue dog, Daisy.

The family ranch, Crosswinds, is located in the Western Cross Timbers in Wise County, Texas, where she has established the Center for Western Cross Timbers Studies dedicated to communicating about and conserving the region.

As for the future, Roach says, “You know, you get to a certain age when you’ve got to get over yourself. I’ve gotten over myself. I’ve done my best, and it’s time for me to settle down in these last years to something that’s useful at home. What I have done is turn my attention to Keller and its history. Two other ladies and I have organized a foundation to preserve the history of Keller. We moved an old house and opened the Wild Rose Heritage Center. I am about to be the board chairman.”