Roy Wentz was no “Rhinestone Cowboy” — my godfather was the real deal, living the cowboy way, every day. He was a man of few words yet every one uttered worth absorbing until Alzheimer’s disease stole them in the last few years. Growing up in Sacramento, Roy received his diploma in the school of hard knocks and moved almost 70 years ago to Santa Barbara, where he worked handling and caring for horses, tack, and riders at Vandever and Handerhan stables. To see him relate to any and every animal was a constant reminder of the bond that can and should be shared between all creatures.
Roy volunteered as an outrider in more than 50 annual Fiesta parades and was honored by Old Spanish Days and his fellows in the Los Padres Trail Riders group for his expert horsemanship. His 28-year marriage to the love of his life, Peggy, was tender and devoted. A member of the Spiritualist Church of the Comforter for decades, Roy was physically strong yet compassionate, caring, and truly resilient — as evidenced by the still-unsolved horseback tale of his survival 15 years ago that we’ll never forget.
It was just a few days after Roy had once again skillfully handled his volunteer outrider duties in the annual Fiesta parade astride Gillie, a light-gray Connemara pony. On August 14, 1998, about 3:30 p.m., Roy finished his chores at Handerhan Stables and decided to take a quick solo ride into the nearby Los Padres National Forest on the spry 20-year-old Gillie. When he hadn’t returned three hours later, concern mounted from Peggy, our family, and friends. Darkness had fallen, and it was time to call in the “cavalry” and declare a formal search-and-rescue effort. Over the course of the next 18 hours, more than 60 volunteers from all over California began an organized reconnaissance of the backcountry by foot, ATV, four-wheel drive, and helicopter.
After a sleepless night, we heard the radio crackle at the stable’s command post at 9:38 a.m. “SUBJECT IS ALIVE AND ALERT!” Dehydrated and dusty, Roy related that his saddle had slipped and he was walking Gillie back to the stable, and then the next thing he recalls was waking up with a lump on his head, missing Gillie, her silver tack and saddle, along with his hat, spurs, and gloves. Roy survived in the wilderness for 18 hours but kept searching for Gillie for weeks afterward. To this day, Gillie and all the tack have never been found — still one of Santa Barbara’s equestrian mysteries, yet Roy couldn’t wait to cowboy up again.
Roy’s many friends in Santa Barbara’s “horse community” have told plenty of tales (and probably more than a few remain yet untold) of his prowess in the saddle — from reining in runaway carriages during the Fiesta parade or making two round-trips of the route to serving at the annual Rancheros Visitadores (Visiting Ranchers) confabs in the Santa Ynez Valley or helping out at the Santa Barbara Polo Club in Carpinteria, where his quick thinking and running to shut a gate prevented a prized polo pony from galloping onto Calle Real to danger. Roy loved attending the annual Los Alamos Old Days Parade in September and the Vaquero Show & Sale at the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum every November.
From 2002-2011, Roy rode at Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center, and despite his long battle with Alzheimer’s, his connection with the horses and staff there brought him much peace. Our family has established the Roy Wentz Memorial Scholarship Fund to allow other riders in need to experience the help and hope at Hearts. If folks want to honor Roy, we hope you’ll do so at heartsriding.org.
One of Roy’s most prized animal friends was his English mastiff dog named Tina, who saved his life on a nightly basis. Tina was so attuned to Roy’s rhythms that she would nudge him awake during his bouts of sleep apnea to get him to breathe and live. Living one day at a time was very important to Roy as a friend of Bill Wilson’s for more than 41 years, and he loved reciting the Serenity Prayer, which asks, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Roy had many favorite hymns, such as “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and songs, yet the lyrics of “Happy Trails” really seem to capture his spirit.
Some trails are happy ones,
Others are blue.
It’s the way you ride the trail that counts,
Here’s a happy one for you.
Who cares about the clouds when we’re together?
Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.
Happy trails to you, ’till we meet again.
A celebration of Roy’s life will be held on Sunday, August 4, at 4 p.m. at the Spiritualist Church of the Comforter, 1028 Garden Street, in Santa Barbara. All are welcome to attend. Casual western attire is encouraged, and a reception will be held following the service. Rest in peace at the eternal rodeo, Cowboy Roy Wentz.