Tale of two ranches
This is the fourth and final installment in a series on the history of the Riata Ranch, its “Cowboy Girls,” and the former Kaweah Colony property that they now call home.
Back in the 1950s during the very early days of his riding school, Tom Maier purchased six acres of land near Exeter — at the end of Avenue 300 on the far side of the railroad tracks. For the next four decades, it became the home base for Tulare County’s spectacular ambassadors on horseback: the world-famous Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls.
In 1998, facing overwhelming medical bills, Tom took out a loan against the property, written on the Code of the West and sealed with only a handshake. But when the man he owed the mortgage to died, his family wanted to close out the estate, and the ranch went into foreclosure. Tom Maier drove off the property in 1998 for what he thought was the last time.
After a couple of years, the new owners of the property, having fielded so many inquiries about Riata, realized they had purchased much more than just a ranch, and invited Riata back home. As Brenda (Caskey) Sampietro, one of Tom’s first students, recalled in the above-cited book, “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.’”
With a lot of help from Riata members past and present, they got the place restored, and Tom Maier and the Riata Ranch were back. But now they were merely tenants. It wasn’t the same, and another major hardship was about to befall Riata. In 2002, Tom Maier passed away.
By the last years of Tom’s life, his health had deteriorated so much that although he was still making all the decisions and the success or failure of the operation rested on his shoulders, Jennifer Welch, his longtime assistant and one of the original members of the performance team, was virtually running the entire operation.
“For a long time people thought I was running Riata Ranch,” recalled 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 wanted. Even Tom had often advised her “to run and not keep Riata going.” 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 told her “if anyone could do it, she could.” By then, Riata Ranch was her life, and she couldn’t help but take hold of the reins.
“I realized there was nobody going to run it,” she said. “There was no money, and we needed to make some right now because there were bills to pay.”
With some big performance contracts looming, Jennifer thought she’d stick with it just long enough to fill 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 (and yes, one can make the joke that they had never really made a profit), 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, Riata had 22 students. Things started to look up. But without a permanent home, it was tough to build the program and recruit students and riders.
Although Riata was back at their original headquarters for the first couple of years after Tom’s death, they didn’t own the property. It was a little like selling a house and then renting a room.
They then moved the operation to a place in Farmersville, but only stayed there for a year or so. It just wasn’t the right fit.
They moved out to the former Jackson Ranch, home of the Woodlake Rodeo, for a few years.
“That was okay,” Jennifer explained. “But it’s a rodeo grounds and working ranch. No facilities, and they didn’t want to turn it into any kind of equestrian facility.”
Then they moved to another ranch property in Exeter, 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 on which to build a program and expand operations.
By this time, Jennifer and her husband, rodeo announcer Chad Nicholson, were living in Three Rivers. People up here kept telling her she had to talk to Janine Chilcott.
Jennifer knew the place, the Redstone Ranch, where Janine and her late husband, Robert Chilcott, had raised Percheron horses. It is a magnificent property with a storied history (detailed in the first installment of this series). But it seemed out of reach of Riata’s modest resources.
Hoping to perhaps just lease some land for their horses, Jennifer finally set up a meeting with Janine.
“I didn’t even really know what I was asking for,” she said.
By the end of the meeting, Janine had laid out a whole plan.
“I looked at Chad, and I looked at her, and I said ‘Okay, we’re going to move here!’”
They jumped in with both feet.The ranch has turned out to be a perfect fit.
The facilities are ideal for the great work that Riata does. The property that was once the base of utopian dreamers in the 19th century is now the training grounds for little girls with dreams of being trick-riding and roping performers.
The ranch with the historic name honoring a pioneer Kaweah Colony family (1890s) — the Redstones — where stately draft horses flourished (1990s), is now a ranch with a much-honored name — Riata.
And now, and for generations to come, when those horses and girls perform at rodeos around the country, announcers will proclaim, “Ladies and gentlemen, from Three Rivers, California, the world-famous Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls!”
Now that deserves a standing ovation.