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.