360 West — January 2013
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Gail Bennison


It’s a cold sunrise on the Rocking W, and young horses are already out and about on the property. Alice Walton’s ranch in western Parker County is one of the places where she is most comfortable.

That’s what those closest to one of the richest women in the world call her. She’s fiercely private but openly passionate about the things that mean the most to her: art, family and, of course, horses.

Look At this view. Isn’t it just beautiful?” It’s late November and a warm, sunny day on the Rocking W Ranch in western Parker County. On a hilltop patio overlooking miles of forestland and the Brazos River, Alice Walton is grilling salmon for her ranch family’s lunch.Everyone who works on the 3,200-acre horse ranch calls her Alice. She likes it that way. She considers them all family.

Cutting horse breeder and competitor and heiress to the Walmart fortune, she is one of the wealthiest women in the world, but she is neither pretentious nor vain. Her long brown hair is silver-streaked naturally and pulled back in a simple ponytail.She doesn’t like to shop, and she pretty much lives in jeans and boots. At 63, her face is tanned, with no cosmetic enhancements. She smiles and laughs easily and often and speaks in what we’ll comfortable. call down-home Arkansas.

Alice lives in a one-story stucco house of about 4,200 square feet designed by Aledo architect Richard Wintersole. The interior is composed of natural wood and stone, with comfortable furniture in hues of blue and yellow. She was involved in every aspect of the home’s creation, from selecting paint colors to the native grasses. Stunning works of art, many contemporary, hang on the reproduction of Picasso’s Blue Nude she got from her father’s pre-Walmart Ben Franklin store. She points out large natural crystals on the tables and notes that they are a daily reminder of her beloved Arkansas. Alice has no live-in domestic staff, and she does her own cooking. It’s private and peaceful, which is exactly how she wants it.Alice is no longer married, and has no children. Her horses are her children.

One of the constants in her life is Joan Evans, an efficient, no-nonsense but cheerful woman who’s been the office manager and “gatekeeper” at the Rocking W for over a decade. If you want to know anything about the ranch, its champion horses or Alice, Joan is your first call. The ranch office is a busy place this afternoon, with the phone ringing constantly. “Excuse me for a minute. It’s always this way,” Joan says.

Joan sees sides of Alice most people never do.

“She pitches in when a job needs ranch a group effort.” Alice is thrilled this afternoon when a new owner sends a picture of one of her mares.She’s careful when she sells a horse to the horse and for the people who are buying it. It’s not a case of “I want to sell this horse”; it’s a case of “I want to sell this horse to the right person.” If it’s a show horse, she wants to know that it will have good trainers and that up with the horse’s earnings and who’s riding it. It’s like a child who’s gone off to school. She has that connection.

In her personal life, Alice is private.“She tries to maintain anonymity so she can be out in the public as an ordinary It is, but it’s not easy being Alice Walton.” Joan says. “People may think it is, but it’s not easy being Alice Walton.”

Alice’s ranch family: Kneeling is Patti Haney, broodmare manager with Buster and Kate, the border collie. On the back row is ranch manager Mike Madzia; loper Kaily Sherrard holds Friday, the rat terrier. Alice is holding The Boon, and next to Alice is her trainer, Jesse Lennox, and Joan Evans, the office manager.

Alice it is, but it’s not easy being Alice Walton.” Alice is most passionate about two things: cutting horses and art. While she recently celebrated the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, located in the center of Bentonville on the land where she played as a child, today, it’s all about the horses.

She drives her Polaris six-wheeler down the hill from the house to the barns this afternoon, her rat terrier dog Friday by her side. Wearing a persimmon leather jacket over a silk blouse, with printed skinny jeans tucked into her cowboy boots, she looks for wardrobe affirmation. “Do I look OK? I’ve had this jacket for 20 years; forgot I had it. These boots don’t match my outfit. Should I wear my hat?” Friday’s dusty paw prints are on the hat. She brushes them off with her hand. “All right then, let’s go see the horses. This is going to be a lot of fun!”

Alice is renowned for running one of the finest and most profitable broodmare programs in the cutting horse business. “My horses have had the same genetics for eight generations. I’m real proud of that,” she says. “We just had X-rays done of all our 2-yearolds, our show horses and our yearlings. We didn’t have one flaw out of many head of horses, and that’s unheard of. It’s because we consistently breed for balance, bones and brains.”

It’s difficult if not impossible to figure out which horse she loves the most. The Boon, definitely a sentimental favorite, is a red roan stallion out of one of Alice’s great mares, Boon San Kitty, and leading cutting sire Peptoboonsmal. The Boon is smart, quick, aggressive on a cow and strong, which is exactly what Alice looks for in her cutting horses. And she’s proud of Rockin W, the 2009 National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) open champion and namesake of her ranch. Beautiful mares, descendants of her champion stock, and four new babies graze near a fence line. Alice recently sold two of her mares to spend more time on the next generation.

While she spends as much time as her busy schedule allows at the Rocking W, she hasn’t been riding much lately, Lennox to work the horses.baby-faced 23-year-old who has been with the Rocking W for two years. He is a treasured member of the ranch family, as evidenced by the fact that Alice talked about
“His nickname is ‘Sunshine,’ and he’s a joy to be around. He loves these horses. He gets into their mind.” horses. On this day, he has saddled up a couple of horses for an afternoon training session.

Jesse lives on the ranch and trains 17 of Alice’s horses. On this day, he has saddled up a couple of horses for an afternoon training session.He and Alice talk about recent breedings, the possibility of getting another cutting practice horse and the upcoming NCHA Futurity. “We’re like a family out here,” says Jesse. “I’m really lucky to get the opportunity to work for Alice.

The fact of the matter is you can’t ride horses like hers anywhere else.” Jesse also credits her for being a bit of a ranch mom. “She watches me and keeps me on track. She cooks good food, too, and keeps weight on me.”

Inside the cutting arena, Alice decides to ride The Boon, mounting the strong-willed stallion with ease and putting on a brief cutting display.

“Isn’t he something?” she asks.

The early years

Born in 1949 and growing up in Bentonville, Alice says she always has been a tomboy (she had three brothers and was the youngest of the children) and was into horses from the day she was born. Granddaddy Robson, her mother’s father, was a cattle rancher in Oklahoma. He gave the Walton kids their first horse as a Christmas present when Alice was in the third grade. “The only time I could get out of school was to go to Oklahoma and ride. I got to brand with the cowboys, and I thought I was cool. That was my favorite thing.”

She learned to drive at an early age, because her father was a St. Louis Cardinals fanatic. “Daddy would drop me off at horse shows, and he would go out looking for stores,” Alice says. “We never told my mom this. Then he’d come back to watch me [compete], and we’d drive back home. Dad would listen to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball games while we were driving down these little two-lane roads in the Ozark Mountains, and he would get so excited when the Cardinals got a home run, he’d go off the road and throw my horses around. So I got to start driving the car and trailer when I was 12,” she says, laughing.

Her father’s influence continued. “Daddy used to always tell us you can do anything you think you’re big enough to do, but you better think it through first.” She worked at her father’s Ben Franklin store selling popcorn and was paid in little china horses.

“I learned a lesson about money at an early age. I had a gazillion trophies from AQHA [American Quarter Horse Association] horse shows. If a horse could do it, I rode ’em. I got some checks that were maybe $80, which was a lot of money in the late ’50s. I was so proud that I put ’em up on my bedroom wall. I didn’t know you had to cash them at a certain time. They closed the account before I got my money.”

She also worked at various Walmart stores in the summers and after school. “When I was in high school, I helped the guys make the displays. I did every job there was to do. I wrapped presents for Christmas, but I never was good at that,” she says. “Daddy told me that I’d learn more if I’d be a waitress, because you learn about people, and that’s one job I wish I’d done. Of course, it’s never too late. I could still do it.”

From her mother, Alice says she learned generosity. “Sometimes I’d come in and say, ‘Mom, what can I give so-and-so as a gift?’ She’d say, ‘Alice, you give something that you love the most.’ My mom really was special. She had a stroke while she was driving and was left with brain damage and very limited mobility. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with her for her last eight years. She cherished the time, and it’s some of the best time I’ve ever spent in my life.”

Local friends, local causes

Fellow cutting horse breeders and competitors Stacie and David McDavid own a ranch in Weatherford and have been close friends with Alice for 20 years. “Alice feels a strong kinship to Arkansas,” Stacie says. “But she cares deeply about what happens here. She gives so much anonymously that few people really know how generous she is.”

Weatherford cutting horse rancher Sherry Chamberlin is another close friend — and a she echoes that sentiment. Sherry says that the biggest misconception about Alice is that she’s a snob. “She is not at all. Alice is a very positive and Because of her money, it’s hard to trust people and hard to have relationships, because you don’t know how genuine their friendship is or if they’ll take advantage of you. She is extremely generous with so many organizations, and she does so much for her hometown and her community.”

Alice’s support and work with Fort Worth’s National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame earned her the Fern Sawyer award in 2007.She also serves on the board of its Cultural District neighbor, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

Young people have a special place in her heart, who lives in Southlake, is a co-founder of NCHA Charities Foundation Cutters in Action and longtime friend. “Alice has been very generous in giving annual scholarships to many kids through gentle and caring with those kids who show in the arena. She treats them like they’re her own children.”

Alice’s primary philanthropic activity is as a board member of the Walton Family Foundation, which focuses on education reform, economic development in the Mississippi Delta region and in northwest Arkansas, and environmental conservation. She also founded Camp War Eagle on Arkansas’ Beaver Lake, a non-denominational, faith-based sports, adventure and recreation summer camp for boys and girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Children earn needsbased scholarships by making a commitment to community service and improving grades in school.

“When it’s all said and done, I really hope that I have given more than I’ve received, that I’ve given enough to make a difference in people’s lives,” Alice says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with money.It has to do with helping give others a better life. It’s just that simple.”

Grounded and grateful

Stacie and husband David get to see the side of Alice we only caught a glimpse of during our afternoon visit. “My favorite thing is to go to her ranch and watch the amazing connection she has with her horses,” says Stacie. “And she is a great cook. went to her house for dinner.It was touching watching Alice Walton in her bare feet and jeans cooking dinner.”

“What’s unique about Alice is that although she’s one of the wealthiest women in the world, you would never think that or know that, because she’s just a very normal person,” David says. “She’s attached to her horses like you get attached to a little dog that lives in the house.It’s more than an animal; it’s a relationship.”

This day, she strokes The Boon’s muzzle, smiles, leans in to kiss him and wipes away her own tears. She and The Boon have been through a lot together. The horse had a serious torn leg ligament last year that required him to be in a cast for months. “We almost had to put him down,” Alice says. “The veterinarian calls him a miracle horse.”

She had her own health scare, too. Alice smoked cigarettes for many years and was treated for lung cancer two years ago. She has never talked about it publicly until now but says if disclosing this part of her life encourages someone, then it’s worth telling.The doctor told her that only 5 percent of people diagnosed with her type of cancer survive two years. She attributes her survival to early diagnosis. “So, I’m in the 5 percent survival club, and I’ll tell you, I was very fortunate I got annual checkups and CAT scans. They caught it early,” she says. “To go through something like this does two things: It makes me incredibly grateful to have made it through, and it makes me want to spend my time in the most positive way. It gives you an amazing sense of the value of time, and I’m very fortunate to have time. I want to use it wisely.”

She lives life to the fullest now.Aside from training her horses and helping out with anything that needs doing on the ranch, Alice practices yoga several times a week and enjoys kayaking, tubing and fishing on the Brazos.An avid sportswoman, she and several close friends fly to Canada for salmon fishing. She hunts duck and wild boar on the Rocking W and on family land not far from the Mexican border.Her constant companion, Friday, is her duck retriever.

Alice will be the first to tell you emphatically that age is all in your head. She often swings on a rope out of an old oak tree into the river. “Just because I can,” she says, laughing. “Somebody said to me once that you don’t have much to look forward to in your 60s. Well, I’m having the time of my life.”