In a way, the story of the Riata Ranch started when 12-year-old Tommy Maier left his North Dakota home and landed in Hollywood. As the Los Angeles Times recounted in a 1985 profile, “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 his ability to compete, he found his way to Exeter… where in 1956 he started a riding school for children.”
Riata founder’s road to Exeter
As a stunt rider during those early Hollywood days, Tom worked with Ronald Reagan in Stallion Road and doubled many actresses, including Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Hutton, and Jennifer Jones. It was a prescient way to earn a living — dressing in women’s costumes and riding horses — for the man who later became the founder of a famous troupe of trick-riding girls.
But those first years in Exeter, with his riding school enrollment blossoming, the curriculum had little to do with trick riding. Classes covered various levels of ability in Western and English riding, rodeo disciplines and, as always, a variety of chores and horse care.
The Riata code
Tom Maier was a strict and demanding teacher. To call him gruff or “old school” was an understatement. But his high expectations and demand 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. Tom himself once described it as a “concept of young people learning life skills built on 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 1970s, it was well-known as one of the most competitive and winningest horse show barns on the West Coast.
But Tom always had unique things going on at Riata as well. He might have the students riding steers, or filming old-timey movies, or even working with and riding wild or exotic animals.
Eventually Tom introduced yet another pursuit: a gymnastics program emphasizing physical fitness. By now, Riata was concentrating increasingly on girls, and 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.
Evolution of trick riding
Trick riding was nothing new to American rodeo, and indeed has a long and interesting history. It has roots as far back as the Roman Empire, where riders rode standing atop a pair of horses, and the Russian Cossacks, who used their unique style of riding in battle.
Watch a trick rider today perform the Cossack Drag (also called the Suicide Drag), and you can see how Cossack horsemen were nearly unconquerable. When communism overtook Russia, many Cossacks moved to America and used their riding talents to make money. As entertainment, it caught on.
Not always just an entertainment act, up until the 1930s trick riding was a standard competition at American rodeos. With the hardest tricks earning the most points, the competition eventually became so dangerous it was deemed too risky and was relegated to an entertainment act and the sport began to die out.
Girls just wanna have fun
Additionally, women’s place in rodeo has a long and sometimes controversial legacy. In 1903, women began competing at the Cheyenne (Wyo.) Frontier Days.
By 1920, women were participating as relay racers, trick riders, and rough stock riders. In 1928, one third of all rodeos featured women’s competitive events.
But in 1929, Bonnie McCarroll was dragged to death by a horse and rodeo promoters severely curtailed women’s competitive participation, relegating them instead to serve as rodeo queens.
Some female rodeo competitors, like Mabel Strickland and Bonnie Gray, continued to compete in sponsored contests outside the rodeo mainstream (although even these competitions increasingly emphasized beauty and attire rather than athletic skill) and gave trick-riding exhibitions. Gray was one of the first performers to ride under the belly of her horse at full gallop.
Other women made names for themselves as trick riders. Faye Blackstone performed on the rodeo circuit during the 1940s and ’50s and rode in a traveling show with Gene Autry. Blackstone is credited with inventing the flyaway, the ballerina, and the reverse fender drag, wherein the rider hangs on the lower left side of the saddle while her head bobs by the horse’s haunches
Edith Happy began working rodeos as a trick rider in 1943 and spent more than two decades entertaining crowds with her famed Hippodrome Stand. She later became one of the first mentors to Tom’s new performance team, helping them with riding tricks and even making their flashy outfits. She had an incredible and lasting influence on Riata Ranch.
As Jennifer Welch Nicholson, current director of Riata Ranch and an original performer, remembers, “Tommy really started the performance team as kind of a sidebar to his riding school. It developed to provide entertainment along with the competition horse show and junior rodeo team.”
Riata talent diversified
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, they were featured in a special rodeo show for the Chrysler Corporation’s national convention in Reno. Their roaring success brought the promise of many more future engagements and tours.
Always on the lookout for a new challenges, and with the Cowboy Girls gaining notice, Tom had the girls form another new act: the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girl 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, everywhere from the Cow Palace (San Francisco) to Madison Square Garden (New York City) and ultimately international tours.
They are what they are
When that initial trick-riding team needed a name, Tom dubbed them the “Cowboy Girls.” Years later, a Los Angeles Times journalist called it “a horrible name.”
Maybe nascent political correctness prompted Tom’s opinion that calling anyone a girl sounded sexist. But they really were girls. And they certainly were cowboys. So what better name could there be?
And while I opened this article by quoting “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” I somewhat errantly attributed the lyrics to Willie Nelson. He merely (albeit wonderfully) sang the sentiment. It was actually written by a woman, Sharon Vaughn, who was once a little girl.