With vision and determination, Tammy Pate did more than establish Art of the Cowgirl. She created a movement and community that will continue to elevate women pursuing their dreams in Western arts and horsemanship.

This week, the sixth-annual Art of the Cowgirl main event takes place at Horseshoe Park & Equestrian Centre in Queen Creek, Arizona. Cowgirls of all ages and walks of life will gather for fellowship; to showcase their artistic talents, horsemanship abilities and athletic horses; learn new skills; and celebrate the Western lifestyle. They will also honor the event’s founder, Tammy Pate, who passed away on December 21, 2023, after fighting a brave battle with cancer.

A zealous visionary, bold dreamer and selfless giver, Pate knew no limitations and had no doubts when chasing her dreams. She believed anything was possible. She developed Art of the Cowgirl and held the first event in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2019. Since then, the event and the foundation and fellowship program it promotes have exceeded all expectations and positively influenced several facets of the Western industry. Through her fierce passion and generosity, she brought together a community of like-minded people, crushed barriers to entry and empowered women to pursue their goals. She raised the bar for cowgirls in and out of the arena.  

“One of Tammy’s biggest strengths was connecting with people and being such a beautiful visionary,” says Jaimie Stoltzfus, Art of the Cowgirl COO and Executive Director of the Art of the Cowgirl Foundation. “She was courageous and had a way of bringing people together.

“Tammy’s vision for Art of the Cowgirl has greatly impacted the industry,” she continues. “It has connected people in powerful ways, given people opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise had, and created a community around horses, art and the Western lifestyle. The connections and relationships made, the education gained, and the skills learned will continue to ripple for a long time, all because Tammy started Art of the Cowgirl.”

Tammy Pate and family
Of everything she did in her life, Pate was most proud of her family. She’s shown here with her husband, Curt; daughter, Mesa; and son Rial. Photo by McFarland Productions

The all-women’s ranch rodeo and Word’s Greatest Horsewoman competitions are electrifying spectacles during the Art of the Cowgirl event and draw a large crowd. Still, the fellowship program was at the heart of Pate’s vision. A ranch wife and mother of two children, Pate understood the challenges of pursuing a hobby or career in the Western arts with financial, family, and ranching responsibilities. She learned to make boots to help support her family, and she enjoyed painting, sewing, cooking and making a home. She imagined a fellowship that would remove financial, geographic, and other barriers often preventing rural women from pursuing their talents and interests in traditional Western trades. The Art of the Cowgirl Fellowship program, supported by the event, fundraisers and private donations, offers hands-on opportunities for women to work with masters in Western trades. Dozens of women have benefitted from fellowships in several traditional trades, including silversmithing, saddle making, rawhide braiding, horse training, and painting and sculpting.

“[Tammy’s] passion and love for the Western lifestyle was contagious. She was a true cowgirl, and you knew if she was spearheading something, it would be amazing,” says Pate’s longtime friend, Robin Rich, Senior Brand Marketing Manager at Wrangler Western. “Art of the Cowgirl has allowed women to come together to share and learn the Western lifestyle. It has generated interest and enthusiasm amongst women around Western arts that has never been showcased at such a level before. Art of the Cowgirl shines a bright light on female empowerment within the West.”

On Her Terms

In May of 2019, four months after producing the first Art of the Cowgirl, Pate, who was 52 at the time, was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. Doctors estimated she had five years to live and prescribed common treatments that included chemotherapy and a host of medications. The diagnosis and prognosis rocked the horsewoman’s world, and she was determined to beat cancer on her terms. She researched homeopathic and nontraditional treatments, including fenbendazole livestock dewormer, and boosted her nutrition. She also encouraged women to take care of themselves and take preventative measures for their health, such as getting routine mammograms. All along, she never missed a beat in expanding Art of the Cowgirl and the fellowship program, and she was humbled by the outpouring of support and compassion from her friends and supporters. In the fall of 2020, Pate was declared cancer-free.

We'll remember Tammy Pate for more than establishing Art of the Cowgirl. She created a movement and community that elevates women.
Pate credited her grandma, Betty Kunesh, for influencing her love for horses, art and ranching. Photo by Jennifer Denison

Pate’s graceful resilience and determination didn’t surprise anyone who knew her. She was raised in a ranching and rodeo family, inspired by hard-working, self-sufficient women like her mom, Shirley Clark, and her grandmother, Betty Kunesh. “Grandma Betty” instilled a love of horses, art, homemaking and the Western lifestyle in Pate from an early age and was the true inspiration for Art of the Cowgirl and later the Betty Kunesh Legacy Award, honoring Western women who have made a difference in their families, community and Western heritage.

“Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my Grandma Betty,” Pate said in an interview featured in the December 2020 Western Horseman. “My grandpa was a welder, so she did most of the work on their ranch [in Ryegate, Montana]. I rode a big brown mare, and Grandma Betty would take me with her. She also showed me how to cook, paint and sew. She taught me to be optimistic and always look at the good and see the beauty in everything.”  

Pate made her mark as a horsewoman starting in rodeo. She was crowned Miss Rodeo Montana in 1987 and traveled throughout the United States promoting the sport and her native Big Sky state.

“The Clark family was part of the fabric of rodeo in Montana,” says Canadian singer-songwriter Lynda Thurston, a longtime family friend and mother to Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world champion saddle bronc rider Zeke Thurston. “Tammy was an energetic Miss Rodeo Montana, equally at home on a horse or a fashion runway and always congenial and up for a public audience. I think her gregarious nature is what drew people to her. Enthusiasm is infectious, and Tammy was born with enthusiasm flowing in her veins.”

Tammy Pate with rope
Pate, shown here in a demonstration at Art of the Cowgirl, was a horsewoman and cowgirl through and through. On New Year’s Day, the Cowboy Channel paid tribute to her as a cowgirl and Western lifestyle advocate, and a horse wearing her empty saddle was led with the television network’s float in the Rose Parade. Photo by McFarland Productions

Pate first met her future husband, Curt Pate, at junior rodeos. One year, they both won all-around titles in the Montana Junior Rodeo Association—Tammy in the junior division and Curt in the senior. During Pate’s reign as Miss Rodeo Montana, Curt was announcing at rodeos and started paying closer attention to her.

“She was beautiful and knew what she wanted,” he recalls. “And when she decided she and I were an item, she took over. We started hanging out and got along great. We were both all about rodeo at the time. She and her sisters worked really hard, rode nice horses and were fierce competitors [in barrel racing and roping events].”

After marrying, the Pates spent the 1990s and early 2000s working on ranches in Montana and South Dakota and traveling to rodeos and later horsemanship clinics Curt conducted.

“I went to some clinics and started riding colts for the public,” remembers Curt, now an internationally recognized horsemanship and stockmanship clinician. “Tammy started putting together some clinics, and then she took over. I’d still be riding colts and working on ranches somewhere if she hadn’t taken over management of the deal.”

Curt recalls the family traveling in an old, rough-riding truck pulling a beat-up trailer.

“It was a worn-out slant-load, but we thought we were really going places and doing something great,” he recalls with a laugh. “We were in Wisconsin for the Midwest Horse Fair, and Purina provided the colts for me to ride, and David Nelson [with Purina] met us and said, ‘You know, I think you guys are gonna need a new trailer.’ It wasn’t long until Purina had a pickup and trailer for us, and we were driving all around the country doing demonstrations and clinics [for Purina].”

Though she enjoyed being a ranch wife and mother at home, she thrived in the public’s eye and raised and homeschooled their two children, Rial and Mesa, from the road.

“We’ve always lived a unique life, working on ranches, having our own ranch and traveling for clinics,” she said. “Being nomadic and going with the flow came naturally to me because my dad hauled us to rodeos all the time when I was growing up.”

Pate exposed her children to art, literature, different trades, and, of course, horses.

“What I remember most about our time on the road are all the things she made sure we experienced,” says Mesa. “We were exposed to many different people, foods, religions and horse training methods. She made sure we saw the world around us, not just wherever we were parked that week.”

A Heart for Horses and Humans

In the mid-2000s, Pate started instructing her own clinics that melded intuitive yoga principles and horsemanship, and they took her all over the United States and abroad to places such as Canada, Mongolia and Costa Rica.

She wasn’t into ego-drive horsemanship,” explains Curt. “Her focus was the quality of life for the horse and human, and that’s a very different thing, and the people who came to her clinics were quite diverse. She took people with little or no horse or ranching experience and changed their lives. She wanted to let people learn to live like her grandmother and the old-time ranch women who loved the land. Tammy transferred New Age philosophies with old-time ranch values and made it an incredible experience for people.”

Pate’s followers admired her most for her kindness and compassion for people and horses. She knew no strangers and welcomed anyone into her world with open arms. While working on ranches, she would plan holiday gatherings for the crew, many of whom didn’t have family nearby.

We'll remember Tammy Pate for more than establishing Art of the Cowgirl. She created a movement and community that elevates women.
Pate and her daughter, Mesa, shared a close bond. Mesa and the Art of the Cowgirl team are working hard to keep Pate’s vision for Art of the Cowgirl alive. Photo by Jennifer Denison

“When we were working for Sieben Ranch, Tammy would set up a Christmas party for the cowboys and Peruvian sheepherders who were away from their families,” reflects Curt. “The Peruvians loved her and would bring homemade gifts for the kids because Tammy had always made them feel more at home.

“We went to a branding one time, he adds, “and there were some Mexican guys there, and they were out back butchering a goat. I went out there, and Tammy was watching and learning—everyone was having a good time.”

 Since Pate’s passing, Mesa says many people have said Pate was their best friend.

“I admire how she treated other people; she did so much for other people and all the right reasons,” says Mesa. “When she talked to you, you felt like the most important person in the world. She really was [a best friend] for so many people and it was completely genuine. She was so fearless and would stand up for herself and the people she cared about. As a horsewoman, I always loved how she let horses be exactly what they were; she never tried to force anything. Horses loved her like people did because she didn’t try to change them. That was her true superpower.”

Big Dreams

Pate dreamed about Art of the Cowgirl for over a decade before launching it. It gave her ample time to assemble a diverse network of sponsors, volunteers, presenters, vendors, master artists and other supporters to help make her vision a reality. Having served the Western industry for years, she had a vast community of contacts who believed in her and her vision.

“Tammy didn’t just know these people—she sought out their talents and strengths to build a network of friends who grew and supported each other and, in a way, supported her,” observes Thurston. “With wanderlust in her veins, Tammy was always up for an adventure, and no idea was off limits! I remember we were driving home from visiting a beloved mutual friend, and she started to bubble over with her plans for Art of the Cowgirl. To think back on that early conversation where I said, ‘I am all in,’ and to see what it’s become today is a point of pride for Tammy and her crew.”

Judy Wagner, Montana Silversmiths Brand and Western Lifestyle Advocate, has known Pate since she was a young girl and played a significant role in her life as Miss Rodeo Montana. She was also the first Women of the West Award recipient at the inaugural Art of the Cowgirl. 

In 2019, Pate joined forces with Western Horseman to create the Women of the West Award. Her longtime friend, Judy Wagner of Montana Silversmiths, was the first recipient. Photo by Jennifer Denison

“Her vision was monumental and mammoth; nothing had ever been done like this,” says Wagner. “I believed in Tammy and her vision, not only for Art of the Cowgirl but also for the endowment and what it means for the future. She was breaking a trail, making a difference and building for the future, and that’s a cause worth investing in.

“I felt the difference at the first Art of the Cowgirl,” continues Wagner. “It was not just an event; it was a movement. It was mothers and daughters, friends and family all enjoying and celebrating the art of the cowgirl and each other. Tammy did it—she created a movement of empowerment that can grow and thrive in the future.”

A Life Filled with Love

Though she is best known for founding Art of the Cowgirl, Pate’s first true love was her family, and she revered nothing more than being a grandmother to her two grandsons, Neo and Haize, like Grandma Betty was to her. Grandma Betty passed away at 101 years old, five months before Pate, and Pate vowed to make the most of her time with her grandchildren. Pate’s family was by her side at every Art of the Cowgirl event and as she gracefully passed at her home two days after her 57th birthday.

 “What inspired me about who she was as a mother and grandmother is the magic she created around her,” says Mesa. “She had a way of making everyone feel so special, but nothing compares to how special she made her family feel. I know there’s nothing I can’t do, and that’s because of my mom. I plan to make sure the boys know that and who that confidence comes from.”

After Art of the Cowgirl, Pate will be honored at a special “Tammy’s Rodear” gathering on Sunday, January 21 at Art of the Cowgirl. The memorial will be held at the Earnhardt Cantina music stage at Horseshoe Park at 3:30 p.m.

Though she didn’t set out to create a legacy, she wanted to build something that would outlive her and sustain itself into the future. She has done that through Art of the Cowgirl.

Pate’s smile and kindness made strangers feel like family. “When you talked with Tammy, she was present with you,” says Jaimie Stoltzfus. “She truly cared about people and made them feel important, even if she just met them. She left them feeling inspired and encouraged. Photo by Jennifer Denison

“She leaves a body of work and goodwill that will grow into the next generation,” says Thurston. “Her influence spans cultures and genres and embraces all things that live up to the Code of the West.”

When Pate and Stoltzfus met in 2018 through a mutual friend, they felt like they’d been friends for years. Their special kinship led to a productive partnership in producing Art of the Cowgirl.

“Tammy became a mentor to me,” says Stoltzfus. “Her life was inspiring in how she loved her family, pursued her passions, had a growth mindset and courage to follow her dreams. She lived by her own rules and loved people deeply. She always saw the best in people and was so optimistic.

“Tammy touched so many lives and was a bright light in this world,” adds Stolzfus. “She will be remembered in the hearts of so many, and the tipple she leaves is large and will continue for generations to come.”

Mesa cherishes her close relationship with her mother and knows she’ll never be forgotten.

“I don’t think we have to worry about how she will be remembered,” concludes Mesa. “She was Tammy; God threw away the mold when he made her.”

Pate’s passion and dedication shaped the Art of the Cowgirl Foundation and Fellowship Program. Donations in her memory can be made at artofthecowgirl.com/fellowship-donations. For more information on Art of the Cowgirl, visit artofthecowgirl.com. Download Linda Thurston and the Genuine Cowgirl’s song “The Art of the Cowgirl” on iTunes.

1 Comment

  1. Tammy was such an inspirational person in our industry and just wanted all people to be proud of what their God Given talents were. She always brought the best out in people and encouraged them to share their talents for the betterment of all concerned.

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