Grit & Grace

National Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee Sherry Cagan has found joy, healing and fulfillment through her passion for cutting horses.

Abigail Boatwright

When you’ve lived your life steeped in cowboy tradition, that perspective can be a powerful catalyst for both creative expression and activism. Such is true for Sherry Cagan. Whether she’s advocating for Lyme disease research, creating distinctive Western sculptures or filming a documentary highlighting women of the West, Shery is devoted to the task and determined to inspire others.

Emulating Her Role Models

Sherry grew up caring for horses at her family’s farm in Kentucky. Her stepfather, Glen Wooldridge, was a cutting horse trainer, so Sherry’s been around horses since she was a child. She says that environment helped develop her character.

“I learned to be tough because you get up at wee hours of the morning, gather cattle, work horses all day, care for horses, doctor cattle and foal out mares,” Sherry said. “You learn not to have any quit in you growing up on a farm. You learn to be conscientious about everything, and you learn to be thoughtful.”

She met Helen Groves of the King Ranch in 1973, and says the iconic horsewoman became her mentor. The two developed a lifelong friendship.

“We talked on a regular basis until she passed away last year,” Sherry said. “She was helpful on every aspect of my life, from personal to horses to business advice—you name it. She was amazing.”

Sheila Welch, a cutting champion and the wife of legendary horse trainer Buster Welch, was another mentor to Sherry when it came to showing cutting horses.

“I thought she was a beautiful rider,” Sherry said. “I grew up emulating her style, which I thought was tough, but graceful. She always had an elegance about her that was beautiful to watch and inspiring.”

Long before Beth Dutton of Yellowstone, Sherry loved Victoria Barkley on the Western TV show The Big Valley, played by Barbara Stanwyck.

“She was my role model—Helen Groves and Sheila Welch, they were much like Barbara Stanwyck in the way they ran a ranch,” Sherry said. “Tough as nails, but very feminine, beautiful, graceful and gracious. I still love that character, and I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be one of those women who made things happen.”

California Dreams & Nightmares

Sherry won a National Cutting Horse Association world championship in the mid-1980s before she moved to Malibu, California. There, she introduced several in the Hollywood scene to the cutting horse world, including Steven Spielberg and Michael Keaton.

After marrying Laird Cagan when she was nearly 40, the couple moved to Northern California, where they raised their daughters Kyla and Kiana. In 2004, the family purchased property close to Palo Alto, California, near Stanford University, and began building a home. During that time, they often spent days working on the house and nights camping and exploring with the kids on their land.

“The girls would be building forts and catching lizards,” Sherry said. “We weren’t even thinking about Lyme disease-infected ticks in California.”

But all three of the Cagan women became very sick with what was eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease. Originally, neither the Cagans nor medical professionals were sure what was causing their severe symptoms that mimicked muscular sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, and they went years without accurate diagnoses. At the time, Lyme disease was unheard of in California—it was thought to be an “East Coast” disease. Unfortunately, that meant the Cagans also went without effective early treatment. When caught early, Lyme disease can often be effectively treated with antibiotics; as it progresses, symptoms become more difficult to treat.

It was five years before Sherry and her daughters were properly diagnosed with the disease, and the Cagans went through a decade of illness and extensive treatment. Even after treatment, Lyme disease leaves behind lasting damage to the body, requiring long-term management. Motivated by the struggle she faced finding reliable treatment options, Sherry took action.

“What I found is millions remain debilitated from Lyme disease, and there were few treatment options for late-stage Lyme disease,” Sherry said. “But we lived by Stanford University. I made an appeal to get some researchers to help me. I was fortunate that the dean of the medical school really understood the problem, and he helped me.”

Working with Stanford, Sherry started a charitable organization called the Stand4Lyme Foundation and has helped catalyze research on Lyme disease. Working with Stanford, she initiated the Stanford Lyme Working Group, facilitated Stanford’s collaboration with several other medical institutions on Lyme disease and started the first continuing medical education conference on Lyme disease at Stanford.

“One of the first studies we did through Stanford was to prove there is Lyme disease in California, to alert the medical field and bring awareness to the importance of early treatment,” Sherry said.

Sherry viewed her mission as an accelerant to enable cutting-edge scientific discoveries to more quickly benefit patients.

“What I really looked at was the big picture: How can I speed up solutions for this disease? How can I eliminate roadblocks and time barriers? How can I get insurance companies to cover treatment for Lyme disease?” Sherry said. “Philanthropy alone was not going to be enough; it required disrupting the conventional research model.”

The foundation has helped many suffering with Lyme find innovative, improved treatment options and more comprehensive coverage from insurance companies.

In 2018, Sherry created a documentary called Taking a Stand 4 Lyme when she brought together a dozen department heads from Stanford University. The film addressed the serious consequences of Lyme disease, and Sherry submitted the film to the U.S. Congress to increase the National Institute of Health’s funding for Lyme disease research.

“It was successful, thankfully. We have moved the needle of understanding the mechanism of that disease and raised global awareness,” Sherry said.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2023 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.