Tom Maier rides into town
The story of the Riata Ranch begins long before its founding six decades ago. It all started when a young Tom Maier left his North Dakota home and landed in Hollywood. As the Los Angeles Times once recounted, “There he got a job… training horses for movie stars until he could support himself bulldogging and roping calves on the rodeo circuit.”
When a car accident ended Tom Maier’s ability to compete, he found his way to Exeter where he started a riding school for youth.
Tom Maier purchased 29 acres of land near Exeter, at the end of Avenue 300 on the far side of the railroad tracks, which began to serve as the home base for his riding academy. During that winter of 1957, enrollment blossomed to include dozens of youngsters from all over the area. After seven-year-old Suzy Cooper won the “Name the Ranch” contest, Tom Maier’s riding school became known as Riata Ranch.
Classes covered various levels of ability in Western and English riding, rodeo disciplines and, as always, a variety of chores and horse care. Tom was a strict and demanding teacher. To call him gruff or old school were understatements.
Tom’s high expectations created a way for young people to be successful. The importance of chores and the philosophy that “every job counts and every action is noticed” became a defining foundation, a concept of young people learning life skills that embraced the “Code of the West.”
Throughout the 1960s and early ‘70s, Tom Maier’s Riata Ranch continued honing its horse show, “Special Classes,” until by the mid ‘70s it was known as one of the most competitive and winningest horse show barns on the West Coast. But Tom always had other activities going on at Riata as well.
He would have the students riding steers, or filming old-timey movies, or working with and riding wild or exotic animals. Eventually he introduced yet another pursuit: a gymnastics program emphasizing physical fitness.
A woman’s place is on a horse
By now, Riata was concentrating increasingly on girls, as Tom felt there were few other sports opportunities available to them. The gymnastics training soon evolved, progressing from vaults on a stationary horse to trick-riding feats on galloping ones.
As Jennifer Welch Nicholson, current director of Riata Ranch and an original performer, recalls, “Tommy started the performance team as a sidebar to his riding school. It developed to provide entertainment along with the competition horse show and junior rodeo team.”
The trick-riding team, initially comprised of four 13-year-old girls, made such a splash that a rodeo producer began booking them in the famous Flying U rodeo company. In 1977, the team was featured in a special rodeo show for the Chrysler Corporation’s national convention.
Always on the lookout for new challenges, and with the Riata Ranch performers gaining notice, Tom had the girls form another new act: the Riata Ranch Cowboy Band. With the same high standards applied to music as competing in horse shows, trick riding, or even raking a stall,
Riata’s homegrown band was soon performing to rave reviews from the Cow Palace (San Francisco) to Madison Square Garden (New York City) and, ultimately, during international tours.
The trick-riding team needed a name, so they were dubbed the “Cowboy Girls.” Their roaring success brought the promise of many more future engagements and tours for the up-and-coming Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls.
On the circuit near and far
As the Los Angeles Times stated in 1985, the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls are “really big time: taking their trick and fancy riding and roping routines” all over the world. But for all their international appeal and experience, the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls are uniquely and utterly American.
In addition to all the top American rodeos — their annual touring dates take them to rodeos from the Woodlake Rodeo to the Sioux Falls Round-Up in South Dakota and the Clovis Rodeo to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, just to name a few — the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls have also taken part in events as diverse as the Opening Ceremony of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade, and proudly carrying Old Glory on the Churchill Downs racetrack, home of the Kentucky Derby. At Oklahoma City’s National
Cowboy Hall of Fame they performed to a standing ovation.
But what is most remarkable about these global performing equestrian ambassadors is their longevity and the impressive resume they continue to build. In 2012, members of the troupe performed for Queen Elizabeth at her Diamond Jubilee at Windsor Castle in England.
Back home in America, they have a busy touring schedule each year, performing at top rodeos throughout the country including the granddaddy of them all, Cheyenne Frontier Days.
A rocky road
Riata Ranch has always been about so much more than flashy performances, and at their current facility in Three Rivers, they continue as a standard bearer in the equestrian industry for training young girls and women using the values and traditions of American western heritage to build character through disciplined instruction. This important work has always been the backbone of the Riata Ranch programs.
Like any worthwhile and ambitious endeavor, Riata Ranch has faced hardships over the years. Many of these challenges were of a financial nature and often had to do with the basic ability to maintain a home base.
For the first several decades, Tom Maier ran the operation from the six acres of land near Exeter he had originally purchased in the 1950s.
In 1998, facing overwhelming medical bills, Tom took out a loan against the property. When the man he owed the mortgage to died, his family wanted to close out the estate, so the ranch went into foreclosure. In 1998, Tom Maier looked at the property through his rear-view mirror for what he thought was the last time.
But after a couple of years, the new owners of the ranch, having fielded so many inquiries about Riata, realized they had purchased much more than a ranch. They invited Riata to come back home.
As Brenda (Caskey) Sampietro, one of Tom’s first students, recalled, “When I drove out to the end of Avenue 300 and crossed those familiar tracks, my heart sank. It was a mess. Nothing had been done for two years. Tommy greeted me with ‘We’ve got to get it cleaned up.’”
Riata’s next chapter
With a lot of help from Riata members past and present, the ranch was restored. Tom Maier and the Riata Ranch were back.
But now they were tenants, and it wasn’t the same. Then another major blow was dealt to Riata.
In 2002, Tom Maier died.
By the last years of Tom’s life, his health had deteriorated so much that he needed a lot of assistance with the ranch. One of the students who was always there to help was one of the original performance team members, Jennifer Welch.
As Tom’s health declined and he was able to do less and less, she took on more and more.
“For a long time, people thought I was running Riata Ranch,” said Jennifer. “What they could see clearly, I couldn’t. Everyone could see that I would probably end up running Riata when he was gone. I never saw that.”
It wasn’t necessarily something Jennifer had planned for or even wanted, for that matter. Tom had often advised her “to run and not keep Riata going,” she said.
He’d tell her how hard it would be and all the obstacles she’d face.
“Just go on with your life,” he’d say. But then once, toward the very end, he said, “If anyone can do it, Jennifer can.”
Of course, by then, Riata Ranch was Jennifer’s life, and she couldn’t help but take hold of the reins. With some big performance contracts looming, Jennifer thought she’d stick with it just long enough to fulfill the contracts, make some money, help Tom’s widow get situated, and then move on.
With resolve to give it “just a couple years,” and with some sound business advice from a friend, Jennifer took action. She incorporated and went after their 501(c)3 status.
Riata Ranch became a nonprofit, formalizing a mission statement that had always been their credo. Riata Ranch is dedicated to “enriching and enlightening young people by building positive life skills in a safe environment that in turn changes lives by allowing good kids to become
great citizens.” By the end of the summer, things started to look up.
But Riata was still without a permanent home, and that made it hard to build the program and recruit students and riders.
They moved the operation to property in Farmersville, but only stayed there for a year or so. It wasn’t the right fit.
They moved out to the Jackson Ranch, home of the Woodlake Lions Club Rodeo, for a few years.
“That was okay,” Jennifer said. “But it’s a rodeo grounds and working ranch. There were no facilities and they didn’t want to turn it into any kind of equestrian facility.”
Back to Exeter they went to another ranch property, but again they were only renting and had to share facilities with other tenants.
For more than a decade, Riata Ranch was without their own true home base where they could build a program and expand operations.
Home is where the ranch is
By this time, Jennifer and her husband, rodeo announcer Chad Nicholson, were living in Three Rivers. People kept telling her to talk to Janine Chilcott.
Jennifer knew the place, the old Redstone Ranch, where Janine and her late husband, Robert, had raised Percheron horses. It is a magnificent property with a storied history.
But as perfect as it might be, it seemed out of reach of Riata’s modest resources. But hoping to lease some land for their horses, Jennifer finally set up a meeting.
“I didn’t even really know what I was asking for,” she said.
By the end of the meeting, Janine had laid out a plan.
“I looked at Chad, and I looked at Janine, and I said ‘Okay, we’re going to move here!’” Jennifer recalled.
Late in 2013, Riata Ranch relocated to the Chilcott property in Three Rivers. In the years since, it has become a vital and cherished asset for the community.
And with a first-class facility and permanent base of operations, training programs and equestrian lessons flourish there. Performance teams prepare and rehearse, and horses are trained and cared for.
Riata Ranch in Three Rivers has become a popular destination. The ranch offers a broad range of opportunities for its students, for visitors from around the world, and for community members.
RIATA RANCH THROUGH THE YEARS: A CHRONOLOGY
1957 Tom Maier starts a riding school north of Exeter.
1957 Riding school student Suzy Cooper, 7, wins the “Name the Ranch” contest with her entry, “Riata Ranch.”
1958 Riata student Marlene Petersen Gomes is crowned first Miss Visalia Rodeo.
1961 Riata Ranch begins summer operations at Bass Lake (Fresno County foothills).
1970 Riata student Christine Vincent is crowned Miss Rodeo America.
1974 Riata Ranch secures Wawona History Center’s stagecoach concession in Yosemite National Park. The operation continues today, operated by Burrel Maier (son of Riata founder Tom Maier).
1974 An all-female western musical group is formed called the Riata Ranch Cowboy Band.
1975 Riata Ranch recognized as one of the most complete equestrian schools in U.S. by Pacific Quarter Horse Association and Western Horseman magazine.
1976 Riata Ranch Cowboys trick-riding team formed.
1976 Riata Ranch Cowboys perform at their first professional rodeo, the Buck Owens Rodeo in Bakersfield.
1977 Riata Ranch Cowboys featured at the Chrysler Corporation’s national convention in Reno, Nev.
1979 Riata Ranch performance team travels to Brussels, Belgium (Europe), their first overseas trip.
1981 Riata Ranch Cowboys participate in Germany’s Equitana: World Equestrian Sports Fair.
1981 Riata Ranch performance team tours Japan.
1984 Riata Ranch participates in Olympics Opening Ceremony in Los Angeles.
1985 Trick-riding team named “Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls,” at the suggestion of Hollywood horse trainer Glenn Randall.
1985 “International” added to the Riata Ranch name (ca. 1985) due to their global travels.
1987 The Cowboy Girls perform in the American Wild West Show at Pearl Land amusement park in China.
1996 Tom Maier has quadruple bypass heart surgery.
1997 Riata Ranch starts satellite performance team in Israel.
1998 Riata Ranch moves from its Exeter ranch to a series of temporary locations.
1999 Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls perform in the Melbourne, Australia, Asia-Pacific Equitana.
2000 Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls: Life Lessons Learned on the Back of a Horse (by Tom Maier with Rebekah Ferran Witter) is published.
2001 Cowboy Girls ride in the Tournament of Roses Parade and pay tribute to mentor Montie Montana (1910-1998).
2002 Tom Maier dies at the age of 73; Jennifer Welch (Nicholson) becomes executive director of Riata Ranch.
2002 Riata Ranch reorganizes to become a nonprofit corporation.
2012 Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls perform at Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant at Windsor Castle.
2013 Riata Ranch relocates to the Chilcott property in Three Rivers (the historic Redstone Ranch that haas associations with the Kaweah Colony).
2015 Riata Ranch International travels to Uruguay (South America).
2017 Riata Ranch celebrates its 60th anniversary with a reunion gala in Three Rivers.
Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls Performance Team 2018
Sarah Thompson (Australia)
Bec Circosta (Australia)
Kirby McQueen (Australia)
Miah Bryant (Australia)
Bailey Gabel (Denver, Colo.)
Anna Estill (Reno, Nev.)
Riata Ranch Rookie Team 2018
Riata Ranch Saturday Class Participants 2018
Notable Riata Ranch Students and Cowboy Girls
Source: Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls: Life Lessons Learned on the Back of a Horse
Marlene Petersen Gomes (1957), Dr. David Manchester (1957), Vicki Dungan (1957), James Young (1957), Granger Glen (1957), Dru Reynolds Lott (1958), Linda Gill, Brenda Caskey Sampietro (1958-1964), Chris Vincent Williams (1958-1968), Sharon Gill (1959-1970), Janna Copley (1968-1985), Laurie McWilliams Pierce (1972-1985), Lisa Wylie (1969-1979), Jennifer Welch Nicholson (1974-present), Paula Herrera (1993-1998), Cynthia “Tiger” Beltran, Kansas Carradine, Idalia Reveles (1993-1998), Brandi Phillips (2003-2016), Spencer Rose (2003-present)