Photo Courtesy Riata Ranch
Trick riders at work are a sight to behold. Watching them swing around, perform handstands, and dangle inches from the ground, all from the back of galloping horse, is a rush. For those of us who work hard just to stay upright in the saddle, watching riders hang upside down at top speed is mind-blowing.
Most trick riders are on the younger side, and it’s no wonder. This pastime requires both courage and athleticism. And when learned in the context of a nurturing environment, it can help teens develop life skills and confidence they can take with them into adulthood.
One such environment is the Riata Ranch in Three Rivers, Calif. A non-profit organization whose mission is to enrich and enlighten young people by building positive life skills in a safe environment—which in turn changes lives by allowing good kids to become great citizens—the Riata Ranch is home to the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, a rope-spinning, trick-riding troupe that has been performing hair-raising stunts on horseback around the world since 1976.
In the 1940s, a cowboy named Tom Maier got a job as a performer in a drill team troupe, which led to an opportunity to become a Hollywood stunt rider. He appeared in a number of westerns alongside actor Ronald Reagan. He also doubled for Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet.”
Preferring ranch work to making movies, Maier became a horse trainer and ranch hand in California, roping and branding cattle. After honing his skills in the field, he went on to become a professional rodeo cowboy.
Maier’s rodeo career was cut short by a car accident one night after an event. His knee was crushed, and he could no longer compete as a professional roper. In need of money to support his wife and two young sons, Maier accepted a job teaching a local district attorney’s daughter how to ride. Word got out, and in a short time, other Los Angeles-area parents were asking Maier to teach horsemanship to their children. Maier soon found himself the head of an unofficial riding school for kids.
In 1956, Maier went on to buy his own ranch in Southern California. The Riata Ranch was formed, and Maier began teaching horsemanship, western values, cowboy skills and rodeo stunts to kids. His goal was to make students into top-notch cowboys and cowgirls. Their lessons included roping and riding, and they began to compete in rodeos and horse shows throughout the area.Photo by James Fain/Courtesy Riata Ranch
By 1976, it became apparent to Maier that girls had far fewer opportunities for athletic activities than boys. Choosing four 13-year-old girls to form the first Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, he arranged for the trick-riding troupe to begin performing at rodeos and events.
After learning to ride and making the Riata Ranch show team, current ranch Executive Director Jennifer Nicholson bought her first horse and competed in reined cow horse events.
“Tommy Maier decided to start a western performance team to complement his award-winning horse show team,” says Nicholson. “In between training days for the show team, I was also learning to trick ride, along with my teammates.”
Soon the girls had the opportunity to perform at some of the most noted rodeos in the West and were able to meet some of the biggest names that the world of rodeo has produced.
“We then began international travel, building western riding in Europe in the early 1980s,” says Nicholson. “It was an exciting time to be on the forefront of the explosion of the western horse in Europe and abroad. We spent more time in Belgium, Germany France, Italy and Switzerland than we did in our own country.”
While the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls quickly achieved acclaim as trick riders, their lives at Riata Ranch were not all glamour and adrenaline. Part of the program at the ranch included upkeep of the facility, taking care of the horses and maintaining the tack. Learning responsibility and building confidence are an essential part of the Riata curriculum, and working at the ranch is part of the program.
Over the past 44 years, the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls have performed at rodeos and events around the world, including Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 in London, England.
“Besides performing for Her Majesty, I actually got to meet her and talk about Riata Ranch,” says Nicholson. “What a thrill to meet one of the most well-known world leaders in our modern era—and it’s all because I learned how to spin a trick rope on horseback.”Horses need defined withers, a sound mind, and a height of 14 to 15 hands to be suitable for trick riding. Photo by James Fain/Courtesy Riata Ranch
To do trick riding feats, you need a good foundation in physical fitness. According to Nicholson, Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls learn vaulting first, a sport that is often referred to as gymnastics on horseback. Vaulting helps build core strength and flexibility, along with balance and confidence. It also teaches participants to trust the horse’s movement, along with their own seat.
The Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls also train for upper body strength, since many of the tricks they perform involve pulling their weight up into the saddle from close to the ground. Work around the ranch helps them develop this ability, and includes raking, stall cleaning, lifting loaded pitchforks, shoveling manure, sweeping, moving hay bales and a variety of other activities that help maintain the ranch while also increasing their physical abilities.
Tricks that will eventually be performed on horseback are practiced on the ground first, using a trampoline and vaulting barrel. Participants develop position, posture and control in the legs and arms while working on stationary equipment. Once a girl is ready, she moves on to performing the stunts on a horse.
In order to learn the rhythm and timing needed to eventually do tricks on horseback, each girl practices running beside a horse in a 70-foot round pen. The horse learns to rate his speed and keep a consistent pace. At the same time, the girl develops the ability to move in time with the horse.
When the horse and rider are synced on the ground, the work moves onto the horse’s back. The same stunts that were performed using the trampoline and vaulting barrel are now transferred onto the horse in the confines of the round pen. It takes considerable practice before a Riata Ranch rider is ready to perform in front of an audience in a full-sized arena.
Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls are taught both strap tricks and ground tricks. Strap tricks take place on the horse and use leather anchor straps placed at various spots on the saddle. Tricks that require standing, hanging, dragging and layouts (where the rider is stretched out parallel to the ground) are all performed with the help of a strap.
Ground tricks, on the other hand, require touching the ground from horseback. These tricks require the most upper body strength because the trick rider must pull herself back up onto the horse’s back after getting very close to the ground.Straps on the saddle help propel the Riata riders to amazing tricks. Photo by Matt Cohen/Courtesy Riata Ranch
Of course, plenty of work goes into teaching the ropes to a performing trick horse, too. Horses must not only maintain a consistent pace while riders are dangling from the saddle or standing on their backs, they must also stay calm when performing in front of roaring crowds. To build a bond of trust, the Riata Ranch team works with each trick horse in training to help that horse get used to riders vaulting on and off while traveling at high speed.
When choosing a potential trick horse, the Riata team looks for certain qualities. Horses are chosen for their age (around 8 years old is preferred), height (14 to 15 hands) and conformation (balanced, with defined withers). They also want a horse with experience under saddle and a sound mind.
More than 45 years after the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls first came into existence, the famed trick-riding troupe is still performing regularly throughout North America, with their next performances tentatively scheduled for rodeos and horse events through the West this summer.
Maier is no longer here to see his girls in action; he passed away in 2002. Yet his dream of the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls continues in the hands of Nicholson.
“In 2002, we were faced with the question: ‘Do we shut the doors or do we continue?’” she says. “The obstacle was that the company was bankrupt due to Tom’s years of major medical issues. But I took the reins and decided to forge ahead. With a lot of uncertainty, grit and determination, here we are.”
With the support of parents who continue to send their horse-loving children to the riding school and donors who believe in the program, girls who aspire to become expert trick riders and horsewomen still have a home at Riata Ranch.
This article about the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls appeared in the July 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!
Audrey Pavia is a freelance writer and the author of Horses for Dummies. She lives in Norco, Calif., with her two registered Spanish Mustangs, Milagro and Rio.
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