Sonna Warvell hesitates to call herself a team roper.
“For me, I have team roped, but I’m a trick roper. That’s my profession.”
Warvell is the daughter of the late Jim and Jan Warvell who created a family act of Roman riding, trick riding, dancing horses, comedy acts and jumping a horse without a bridle or saddle over a car that earned the family contracts in professional rodeo throughout the United States and the world in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. The talents of the entire family contributed to their induction into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2010.
Warvell herself entered the limelight by the age of 4 astride a pony she would lay down, sit atop, and then jump over obstacles, but the entertainment aspect was only part of her cherished upbringing.
“Jim Warvell was a wonderful cowboy and horseman,” she said of her father, who authored the memoir, It’s Been a Wild Ride, who passed just this December at 84. “One of the great bonding moments between father and daughter was the round pen. Dad would often rope a colt and took joy in seeing his daughter do the same. He taught me to throw a houlihan, a throat-latch or an overhand in a way that caught the horse before he even knew it. … Dad also took time to teach me to team rope. It was one of those magical childhoods where I performed with the family in the summer traveling all over and then, in the winters, worked alongside of my parents with colts in the round pen.”
Before she was college-aged, Warvell had traveled the world to places like Japan, Singapore, England and Kuwait as a trainer and performer, and applied her savvy business acumen to her educational pursuits when she was again stateside.
“I was in the Miss Texas line for Miss America, for the scholarship. I was trying to get the money to go through college and my trick roping act always won that event, that category, so I got a scholarship every year for that. And I was Miss Lubbock and Miss Haltom Richland area and Miss Mineral Wells.”
Between 1982 and 1985, Warvell was awarded scholarships three times, which she secured with her trick and fancy roping act in the talent category. As her parents transitioned out of entertainment and into Thoroughbred racing, Warvell continued to earn contracts and training opportunities until 1991, when she auditioned for and was given a role as a principal Annie Oakley in the new Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Disneyland Paris.
Warvell couldn’t help cracking a joke about her start with the show and comparing it to her start as a 4-year-old.
“When I became Annie Oakley, my role was laying my horse down and sitting on top, so I was like, ‘Gosh, I haven’t advanced very much!’”
For Warvell, who remained a principal Annie Oakley since the show’s first production on April 12, 1992, the magic of the show wasn’t because of Disney (though she does credit Disney magic for her never missing a shot when she fired her gun!), but because of the investment the company made in recruiting real and legitimate talent.
“Michael Eisner decided to put in a reenactment of the Buffalo Bill Wild West show and he wanted the Europeans to see something real,” Warvell explained. “So, all the cast were real Native Americans and real cowboys. A lot of them had been to the NFR and just regular working cowboys and then, the beauty of the whole show was everyone was authentic.
“They thought the show would go for five years. Well, it’s gone on for 28 years and they had over 18,000 shows. It’s a dinner theater show and it was highly successful. There was over 400 people that went through the show, so a lot of them were team ropers and a lot of them team roped in Italy. And also, there was an ERCA circuit—a European Rodeo Cowboys Association—and on days off, the cowboys would go and compete in that and, so I was a part of all that, as well.”
These rodeos were held in Germany, Holland, Belgium and Italy and, according to Warvell, the cowboys of Disney did very well winning buckles and saddles in roughstock and roping events. In 1995, she won several buckles and saddles, too, as well as the All-Around Champion Cowgirl title—a feat she accomplished by competing in the barrel racing, breakaway roping, team roping and a relay-type race.
Due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and new laws concerning the use of animals for entertainment purposes, the final Disneyland Paris Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show ran on March 14, 2020. Of the more than 18,000 shows that were produced in that time, Warvell performed in more than 9,000 of them. She was just one of three actors who was awarded a contract for its entire duration.
After so much change in one year—the ending of the show and the loss of her father—Warvell is still deciding what’s next, but when asked to look back at her career, she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to pinpoint what she considers the most remarkable aspect of her journey.
“I think I was aware early on how powerful it was seeing my mom jump a horse with no bridle and saddle over a car. It was in the ’60s and I think I was aware that I was witnessing something akin to history. She jumped that horse over the car a good 18 years, all over the United States in all kinds of conditions. I think the role model that she gave me was very powerful. The combination of being gritty and tough and yet being a lady is, it’s just so admirable.
“My mom always said, ‘Sometimes it takes a couple of generations for a dream to come true.’ And I never knew that, but my life has been so wonderful to me because she blazed that trail. She started going down the road in the late 50s in a homemade trailer and truck, all by herself, going from rodeo to rodeo to trick ride and Roman ride. What a pioneer.”
Unlike her mother, though, who was hesitant to leave the arena for retirement, Warvell, at 59, is looking forward to what lies beyond putting on six shows a week.
“Having performed and traveled throughout the world my whole life, the thought of having a future that includes horses, ropers and great friends sounds like the perfect transition!”