Tale of Two Ranches
Emblazoned on the side of the gooseneck trailer that carries their horses are the words Riata Ranch International. It isn’t mere hyperbole. They have earned that name.
Since the first performance team received an invitation to perform in Europe in 1979, the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls have performed in 18 countries on four continents. And beyond taking their talents to the four corners of the globe, Riata Ranch has attracted riding talent from all over the world, bringing international riders to rodeos and equestrian events right here in the United States for decades.
As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1985, when it comes to the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, “We’re talking really big time: taking their trick and fancy riding and roping routines to Austria, Japan, Belgium where they performed before all the heads of state; also to Canada, England, France, Germany, Holland and Italy.”
The Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls represented the United States at the 1981 Equitana in Germany, ultimately earning the respect of initially doubtful European military representatives. During a tour of Japan that same year, they perhaps flirted with resentment when described as “Ninjas on horseback.”
As Janna Copley, a team performer at the time, recalls in the book Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls: Life Lessons Learned on the Back of a Horse, “Back then, the Japanese didn’t consider women self-sufficient. Yet here we were, young girls, doing all these daredevil stunts and being compared to legendary warriors! We were presented to the prince, and I’ll never forget the look on his face as I shook his hand. It was real admiration. He later became Japan’s emperor.”
They faced the challenge of performing at the 1999 Equitana Asia-Pacific in Australia on horses that were green to the demands and peculiarities of trick riding. Perhaps that contributed to the following episode, again from the above-mentioned book, which illustrates the mettle of these girls:
During the main performance, Kansas Carradine was doing a Backbend when her horse suddenly changed leads behind, smashing the cantle of the saddle into her face and breaking her nose. Reeling from the impact, Kansas nonetheless held on, completing the trick although blood was flowing.
“That Backbend was my next-to-last trick,” she recalls. “For the final trick, I was to carry the American and Australian flags in a Liberty Stand. The funny thing was no one realized I’d broken my nose because I had a flag in each hand and the audience couldn’t see my face. As soon as we rode out of the arena, I jumped off and ran to the bathroom. Tom [Maier, founder of Riata Ranch] kept the flag with all the blood on it.”
A true red badge of courage!
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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 tour every year takes them to rodeos far and near, from the Woodlake Rodeo to the Sioux Falls Round-Up in South Dakota; 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 Ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the Tournament of Roses Parade, and have proudly carried Old Glory down the track at world-famous Churchill Downs.
They performed to a standing ovation at the Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy Hall of Fame. They have even been touted in the Congressional Record as “unofficial ambassadors-on-horseback as they travel around the world providing entertainment and an outstanding demonstration of American equestrian skills.”
That reputation and fame, both in the U.S. and abroad, has helped Riata attract performers from all over the world. Over the years, they have supplemented their homegrown talent with performers from Australia, France, Germany, and Israel. That mix of local and international talent continues today, with this year’s performance team comprised of two young women from Canada, one from Australia, and three from the local area.
But, of course, touring the world and performing is only part of what makes Riata Ranch such an institution. The real work of Riata is what goes on day to day at the ranch. As the decades rolled by, that day-to-day work was sometime interrupted when its founder and guiding force faced serious health issues.
During the early years of the performance team’s tours, Tom Maier was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma. The news was initially devastating to Riata, but surgery proved medically miraculous and Tom conquered that challenge.
In 1983, a freak accident while roping a bronc resulted in a traumatic head injury. During his recovery, the entire Riata organization pulled together to keep the ship sailing on course. Part of the Riata tradition is grounded in mentoring and peer education and support — the older more experience girls teach and guide the younger girls — and that tradition certainly served the program well during these times.
More health issues arose when a bout with diverticulitis landed Tom in the hospital for a month in 1994, and two years later he had quadruple bypass heart surgery. Through these difficulties, the Riata Ranch girls were always there for him.
As Tom once recalled, when he came home after his heart surgery, several of the girls were “waiting to help me up the stairs. So, you see, I’m rarely alone.”
One of the girls always there to help Tom was original performance team member Jennifer Welch. As a horse-crazy 10-yearold from Visalia, she started with Riata in the mid 1970s and became a superb rider, roper, and performer (even singing during the days of the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girl band).
Jennifer soon served as a team leader and eventually became Tom Maier’s partner and business manager. As Tom’s health declined and he was able to do less and less, she took on more and more responsibility until eventually running the entire operation.
When Tom Maier died in 2002, Jennifer was the logical and, indeed, the only choice to continue running the Riata Ranch.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll learn about the challenges Jennifer Welch Nicholson and the Riata Ranch faced in the years following Tom Maier’s death. We’ll see how these internationally famous Cowboy Girls searched for a much-needed permanent home.
They have been all over the world, they have performed for celebrities and heads of state. In 2012, they even took part in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant at Windsor Castle where that once horse-crazy little girl from Visalia got to perform for and meet Queen Elizabeth.
And that long and winding road has led them to Three Rivers, where they have now settled.