Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls
"You don't give kids confidence and self-esteem—you show them how to earn it." -Tom Maier
Article and Photography by Fran Devereux Smith, originally published in the November 2001 issue of Western Horseman.
Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, based in Exeter, California, is a show troupe like no other. Troupe members, all young women, dazzle audiences around the world with their highspeed, horseback gymnastics. They trick ride and rope, performing with precision and apparent ease, their wide smiles and colorful costumes shining brightly under the spotlights. They also stand poised, serene, and "camera-ready" amid the hubbub at rodeos, horse expositions, and state fairs. They meet and greet celebrities and become celebrities themselves wherever they perform. That's the show troupe part and the stuff little-girl dreams are made of.
The like-no-other part is, by far, more significant. Although Tom Maier, who founded Riata Ranch many years ago, is obviously proud of the Cowboy Girls each time they perform, he's equally proud, if not more so, of the life skills his students master while riding under the rafter-double R brand.
Cowboy Girls learn, for example, a lot about goal-setting—how to perform big maneuvers by breaking them down to smaller moves performed well—and the importance of preparation, safety checks, and risk management. Multitasking is a must. In addition to trick riding and roping, the Riata program addresses horsemanship, showmanship, ranch work, and even social skills. Manners, poise, and posture are as critical to the group's overall presentation as fit athleticism; horse care and homework are equally important; and courtesy and common sense are valued.
It's not what Cowboy Girls do so much as how they do it. Cowboy Girls give every activity, from cleaning stalls to a command performance, the best possible effort—no excuses accepted—and they do it day in and day out. Cowboy Girls learn their individual strengths and weaknesses, then capitalize on the one and target the other for improvement. Cowboy Girls learn about commitment, cooperation, and perseverance; how to be mentored; and how to mentor. They learn the importance of setting standards, how to meet them, and when to raise the bar. And Cowboy Girls do all of the above with style and grace.
The ranch slogan, "building character through self-discipline," applies to every facet of the Riata program. Although the approach might seem a bit old-school for some, it's endured since 1957. Why? Perhaps rodeo announcer Bob Tallman said it best: "Riata gives young people a survival system for their adult lives."
No matter how the program is described, it works. Cowboy Girls continue to mature into responsible and productive adults. Tom Maier and his business manager, veteran Cowboy Girl Jennifer Welch, must be doing something right because young women today continue to be drawn to the program.
Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls attended the Southern National Exposition in Georgia earlier this year and performed precisely choreographed roping routines and high-speed, heart-stopping tricks horseback. In addition, their lower-key daily demonstrations on horses standing quietly in the arena gave the public a slowmotion look at how various tricks are mastered.
When they weren't hanging upside down horseback, the Cowboy Girls—hats on and shirttails tucked in—attended booksignings at the trade show and, as always, kept horses and their stalls immaculate.