Even seasoned cowboys—those who have seen men gored by bulls and busted by broncos, those who have lassoed calf after calf and driven cattle through blizzards—go wild when the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls enter an arena. The first horse gallops by. The rider stands on the horse's back, her head held high, her arms spread wide. Another horse gallops by. Its rider hangs upside down along the horse's side, her hair brushing the dirt. The third rider does a shoulder stand on the withers of her pounding steed. When the fourth horse thunders past, the rider performs a back-bend over the horse's spine. Cowboys whistle. Their wives cheer. And little girls grin from ear to ear.
Some girls want to run track or play soccer. Some want to edit yearbooks or act in school plays. Some want to shop or party. And a few want to be trick riders. The lucky ones will study with Tommy Maier and trick-ride their way around the world.
Maier, a former calf roper, stunt rider and bulldogger, owns the 28-acre Riata Ranch in tiny Exeter, Calif. In the 16 years since he established the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, he has trained 285 girls to do astounding riding tricks—such as the fender, the crouper and the suicide drag—and he has taken the act on the road. The Cowboy Girls have performed on network TV morning shows and in rodeos, Olympic exhibitions, horse-driving competitions and NFL halftime shows. They have traveled to 15 countries, including Mexico, Holland, France, China and Japan.
Trick riding—half gymnastics, half horsemanship—began in Russian Cossack circuses. Until the 1930s trick riding was a standard competition at rodeos. In the '50s, however, rodeo organizers demoted it to an entertainment act, and the sport began to die out.
Maier, a former Hollywood cowboy as well as a real cowboy who knows a good show when he sees one, vowed years ago to keep trick riding alive. Today this white-haired, leather-skinned, bow-legged, slightly gimpy 65-year-old owns the largest collection of trick-riding saddles—26—in the world. His Cowboy Girls remind old-timers of the great female riders of the '40s: Edith Happy, Faye Blessing and Mabel Strickland. And Maier himself is pleased to have preserved at least one piece of the Wild West.
In a small, dusty yard at Riata Ranch, six girls, aged 10 to 20, are about to practice vaulting onto and off a standing horse. They place a small trampoline by the horse's side and line up 25 feet away.
The first girl runs. She bounces. She lands on the horse's back.
The next girl runs. She bounces. She does a flip off the horse's back.
Another girl runs. She bounces. Thud! One leg slams into the horse's neck. She groans. The horse grunts. Maier, who is courtly until he gets mad, gets mad. "C'mon!" he shouts in a rough voice. "You can do better than that! Ya big luppy!"
Maier builds his athletes from the ground up. He begins with local girls as young as three years old and gives them basic riding lessons once a week. Even at this early stage Maier is looking for Cowboy Girl potential, indicated by what he calls "mental fire" or "dedication, a willingness to work hard for what you want." Athletic ability and self-confidence help, but Maier also chooses girls who are shy and who aren't stellar horsewomen—if they have even the smallest spark of fire.
Eleven-year-old Lacey Coelho, granddaughter of former rodeo team roper Al Coelho, is a good example. At four feet and 58 pounds, Lacey barely reaches the shoulder of her horse, Rosser. She is bashful; she keeps her eyes averted beneath her cowboy hat and rarely smiles. But she's one determined cowgirl. Despite the heat, the dust and a burgeoning case of the chicken pox, Lacey scrambles onto Rosser. She curls over, bracing her head on his shoulder, steadying herself with the strap that circles his chest. Then, as Rosser charges around the arena, his tiny rider swings her feet up over her head into a shoulder stand—and stays there.
The first time Lacey performed this trick, at the 1992 Ventura (Calif.) Rodeo, Rosser galloped around the ring and then stopped, as trained, at the end of his run. Lacey, who had forgotten about the stop part, tumbled into a fence—and received a standing ovation.
"I told her, 'That's it, no more shoulder stands for you,' " says Maier. "But she insisted on trying." He slaps his thigh. "By god, she's never fallen off again."
Girls picked from the beginners' classes become Cowboy Girl "rookies." They come to the ranch two afternoons a week and on weekends and are assigned a horse and a stall to maintain. They learn more about Western riding and horse husbandry and begin spotting the trick riders and practicing elementary vaulting. Only then do the girls learn tricks—first with the horse at the stand and then at the walk, the trot, the lope and finally the gallop.
In keeping with tradition, the girls also learn trick roping routines. Using classic Samson Spot Cord—made of tightly woven cotton—they learn to do flat loops (twirling the lasso by their sides) and wedding rings (bringing the swirling loop up and down their bodies). They spin one rope while jumping another, and they go "around the world" by placing one hand on the ground and walking around it while spinning a rope with the other hand.
Developing nerve is as important as perfecting technique because trick riding is dangerous, and the pressure of performing is strong. "It's the emotions that really count," says Jennifer Welch, 31, the oldest Cowboy Girl and Maier's right-hand woman. "The girls have to stay calm, even when they are really nervous. Most of them can do a trick once. We want them to do it five times in a row."
Despite the rigors of the program, few girls quit. "I hated it when I first came," says Louise McGee, 14. "I had side pains. I cried. I freaked out when we learned to gallop. But now I love it." Kansas Carradine, 16, the daughter of actor David Carradine, agrees. "Sometimes in the heat of the moment, you want to walk away. Like when you fall off. Or miss a trick. But it's all worth it."
Maier eschews aerobic and weight training for the girls. Cleaning stalls, stacking hay bales, catching horses and riding practice, he says, do more than workouts on StairMasters and Nautilus machines because the girls gain a sense of accomplishment. Maier does bring in outside coaches, however. Legendary trick roper Montie Montana teaches rope skills; Mark Sellers, a Star Search dancing champion, helps choreograph roping routines. And harking back to an ideal of femininity from the heyday of trick riding, Maier hires charm school professionals to show the girls how to apply makeup, get out of cars gracefully and use proper table manners.
Girls run when Maier calls, and there is no tomfoolery or idle chatter during working hours. They are expected to dress neatly, be prompt and shake hands firmly. Maier keeps records—complete with school report cards and riding performance scores—on every girl. He also gives grades on stall maintenance, awarding points for clean sawdust and filled water buckets and demerits for cobwebs, dusty water pipes and sloppy raking.
"Part of our strength is that we have to do everything," explains Lori Alva, 25, a top rider and another of Maier's assistants. "If a tire goes flat, we change it. If a fence falls down, we put it up. If a horse gets out, we catch it. We think, react, fix the problem."
"Especially before Tommy gets back," Welch adds with a smile. "Riata does what families or schools aren't doing. It teaches girls self-discipline."
Verbal abuse—a kind of equestrian version of trash talk—underscores the lessons. "Luppy," "lazy" and "sack of wheat" are common epithets. "Don't just be gentle!" Maier shouts at girls who can't control their horses. "You gotta be over and under that sow." Or, "Take your place! Help that girl!" Or, "Don't just sit there. Do something!"
Occasionally, either a student or her parents decide that Maier's methods are not for them. But most parents approve of Maier's approach. "What he does with the girls is really wonderful," says Allison Keomaka, whose 15-year-old, Brianna, has been riding at the ranch for 2½ years. "Most kids her age are concerned with going to the mall or getting dates. Brianna has vision and goals and an inner strength she'll have her whole life."
Maier's emphasis on hard work and tenacity arose from the difficult circumstances of his own life. On occasion he will tell the girls how he grew up in a North Dakota farming town dreaming of being a cowboy because he heard The Lone Ranger on the radio. "I really fancied that," he says. "God! I'd get excited." He tells the girls about running away from home and about deciding, at age 12, to go to Hollywood to be a cowboy. He tells how he became a stunt rider and horse trainer for the movies and also worked on Victor McLaglen's and Will Rogers's ranches.
Maier went to Exeter in the 1950s when Carl Ward, the owner of TV's Mr. Ed, suggested that he join the W.V Smith quarter horse ranch there. Maier became a champion calf roper, but a car accident at 26 ruined his left knee, and he had to start giving riding lessons. "It felt belittling," he tells his girls. "I was a professional cowboy, giving riding lessons. But I was broke flatter than a duck's instep. I needed that money."
More often Maier talks about the tradition of the American cowboy. He reads the girls Western stories and tells them about the vaqueros (the Spanish ranchers and cowboys who once ruled California's Central Valley) and about Will Rogers, Clay Carr (the Babe Ruth of rodeo riders) and the Camarillo brothers (the greatest ropers who ever lived). He tells the girls that despite current fashions—the recent cowboy movies and trendy Western clothing—cowboy is not a look, it's a heritage.
Maier is not familiar with current studies documenting the erosion of girls' self-confidence as they reach puberty. But he sees evidence of it day after day. "Ask a 10-year-old girl if she'd rather be a boy or a girl. She'll say 'a girl.' Ask a 14-year-old. She'll say 'a boy.' Why is that? Looks. Suddenly she has to look good. But the boys still get the attention and have all the opportunities. Being here gives girls something for themselves. It gives them pride."
It also gives them opportunities unavailable to most small-town girls. Maier, who rigged up Riata Ranch to look like an old Western town, puts on dinner shows for corporate groups, treating them to roping and trick-riding routines, cowboy poetry recitals and Old West skits. Money from these shows, plus money earned from outside performances and promotional work (the team has represented Dodge Trucks, Jeep, Coca-Cola, Wrangler, Sunkist, McDonald's and Burger King, among others), allows Maier to pay for everything the girls need: costumes, transportation, room and board, coaches, riding lessons and, on the road, school tutors. (Once they become official rookies, the girls pay no fees at the ranch.)
"I used to feel like any other girl," says Dayleen Robison, 17. "Now I feel more important, like I'm special and have something to offer."
Alva, who joined Riata at the age of 17, was a star softball player in high school. "There was nothing for me after high school or college," she says grimly. "That's the end of the line for female athletes." Now she has traveled the world as one of Maier's top riders. "It has made a really big difference," she says.
Parents see the difference, too. Barbara Coelho, Lacey's mother, says her shy daughter is opening up. And Judy Welch, mother of Jennifer, says she is awed by her daughter's poise. "Boys generally come face-to-face with more competition and challenges than girls do. I am amazed at how much self-confidence Jennifer has developed."
For Maier, who left home as a boy and has survived melanoma, a heart attack and a near-fatal head injury, living the cowboy tradition is a dream come true. For his girls Riata Ranch is just one step toward realizing their dreams. Robison wants to be a lawyer; Alva, a fashion designer; McGee, a doctor; Keomaka, an airline flight attendant. Carradine wants to be president and Coelho, an astronaut.
"I tell them to shoot for the moon," says Maier. "If they miss, they'll still be in the stars."
Thanks to Maier, (from left) Alva, Keomaka, Robison, Coelho, Carradine and Welch sit tall.
In shows Welch does her vault at a full gallop.
Susan Davis is a San Francisco-based writer who has contributed several stories to Sports Illustrated.