An East Coast cowgirl finds acceptance—and her inner bronc rider—at Cowgirl U.
The surest way to get stopped going through airport security is to pack a pair of chinks in your carry-on bag. Watching the security officer unpack my trappings in front of strangers isn’t nearly as embarrassing as having to wait in my stocking feet for him to finish manhandling my boots.
Despite the awkward start, my trip to Montana is finally underway. My latest writing assignment is taking me to the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame’s annual Cowgirl U Retreat, where three days of roping, riding and reflecting await me and my fellow cowgirl comrades at a guest ranch called The Resort at Paws Up.
Held each spring, the women’s getaway is a coveted educational experience offered by the Texas-based Hall of Fame. Horsewomen, ranch women and women just hoping to cultivate some cowgirl spirit come from across the country for this hands-on immersion, as well as to make a journey of self-discovery.
Students take in clinics, demonstrations and motivational talks on horsemanship, ranch culture and creative arts such as photography and cowgirl poetry. Our mentors in Big Sky country include ranching writer Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns, rough-stock world champion Jan Youren, Western photographer Barbara Van Cleve, cowgirl poet Georgie Sicking and vaquero horsewoman Sheila Varian.
I’D LIKE TO THINK it’s “cowgirl radar,” but truth be known, it’s the excited chatter of a small group of women that leads me to some fellow classmates once I touch down in Missoula. We’re an assorted lot, some bearing the familiar trappings of a Western lifestyle, while others could pass for the woman next door.
“Paws Up” is located outside the Western Montana ranching town of Greenough, east of Missoula. Nestled on 37,000 acres of untouched wilderness, the resort borders sections of the Blackfoot River and the 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Noticing the posh guest rooms, award-winning menu, a spa and on-site outfitters, my classmates and I realize we won’t be roughing it. Of greater interest to the incoming Cowgirl U class, though, are the resort’s state-of-the-art equestrian center and its 120 trails.
More than 30 women join me for the 2007 experience. They range in age from college students to great-grandmothers.
My roommate, Jule Garner, is a self-described “city slicker.” Hailing from Washington, D.C., she is a freelance radio producer for National Public Radio, on assignment to assemble a report on Cowgirl U. We get acquainted, and when I tell Jule that my early years spent in Pennsylvania were not ranchy, but suburban residential, she seems both surprised and relieved.
During our first evening together as a group, my fellow participants and I share our stories and our reasons for coming. Most of the women emphasize a connection to horses. Some have ridden every day for years. For others, though, dominant themes include tales of loss and regrouping.
Texans Nancy Levicki and her daughter, Lauren, made the trip to Montana to grow their relationship outside the confines of their 8-to-5 city lives. Christine Mineo, from California, and Alida Tinch, from Montana, have returned to rekindle their friendship. Inspired from her first Cowgirl U experience, Alida sold her California business to enjoy an early retirement in the Montana wilds.
Diana Lee Parten has traded her Nevada ranching routine for a few days surrounded by like-minded women. She says it’s refreshing to be around others who feel as passionately about their horses, cattle and land as she does.
Nineteen-year-old Kelsey Peek of North Carolina came alone, determined to reclaim the piece of her heart she left when she and her mother came West years ago for a Conestoga wagon ride. And returning participant Christine Hudson, another Texan, felt the need to “mentor” another generation through what had been, for her, an empowering experience. She sums up our developing sisterhood:
“We’re not the Ya-Yas,” she says, “We’re the Yee-Haws.”
For me, the experience is a chance to lift the leather-fringed veil of secrecy surrounding this powerful collective of women, and hopefully, to find acceptance in its ranks. After all, there are no traditional “cowgirls” in my pedigree.
When I finally get the opportunity to bed down for the evening, I find a Welcome package waiting for me in my room. A note tucked discretely inside seems to be an attempt at foreshadowing the tone of the weekend to come. On the small piece of paper is written an Onondaga Indian proverb:
“There are no secrets. There is only common sense.”
MORNING COMES EARLY and finds me trekking through dew-covered pastures with more than 15 of my fellow attendees, each of us toting a camera and searching for inspiration. Coached by award-winning photographer Barbara Van Cleve, we gravitate toward the Paws Up remuda, a colorful mix of bays, sorrels, pintos and palominos.
The horses make no judgments of our cowgirl status, as both top hands and greenhorns wade among them. Each woman seems to find a subject she can identify with—a kindness in one’s eye or a stiff-legged gait in another. I find myself drawn to an older, flea-bitten gelding. He grazes alone on the far side of the pasture, almost out of lens’ reach. Heeding Barbara’s advice, I position my camera so that the morning sun bathes the gray in natural light, highlighting the delicate features of his dished head. Before I realize it, the session is over and both my camera and my thoughts are filled with glimpses of this independent equine.
I sneak a peek at some of my classmates’ digital photos on our way back to the lodge. It seems no aspect of the herd was left unphotographed—coat patterns, introspective portraits of individuals, and even piles of manure—reflect our collective, sometimes obsessive, fascination with horses.
After breakfast, we settle in for some quality time with Elko Poetry Gathering veteran Georgie Sicking. In her 86 years of life she has tamed mustangs, ranged equally wild cattle herds across the West and published several volumes of cowgirl poetry. I’m awed at a chance to spend time with the woman who “opened” the ranges to this former East Coast cowgirl with her poetry so many years ago.
She shares with us a few trappings of her cowgirl life—a well-worn reata, a mecate braided from womens’ hair and an old-fashioned range brand. As we pass them around for closer inspection, Georgie talks about each in detail, her eyes bright and her stories captivating.
It’s not just the poetic vision of drawing a brand on an open-range cow or that first moment of submission from a broom-tail mustang that stirs the attentions of me and my fellow classmates, it’s the frankness and honesty of the one reciting it. She lived it, she loves it; she will be passionate about it always.
Accomplished Western writer and radio host Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns follows Georgie’s session with her own brand of cowgirl insight. Raised on a Wyoming ranch, she learned early the ways of the rope, saddle and horse. To this day, ranching remains her source of pride, identification and inspiration. Excerpts read from her work, both poetry and prose, teach us the qualities needed to weather the cowgirl life—strength, humility, joy and humor.
AS DAYLIGHT FADES to evening, we find ourselves boot-deep in all things cowgirl as Paws Up and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame join forces for Cowgirl Marketplace, an event open to the local community. Held inside the resort’s equestrian center, the experience invites cowgirls, cowboys and city slickers of all ages to make the rounds at vendor stations featuring everything from artwork and accessories to roping and rough-stock riding clinics.
A small crowd has gathered in the far corner of arena, where I’ve decided to try my hand at Jan Youren’s favorite sport, bareback bronc riding. At 63 years old, Jan has recently retired from a nearly five-decade rodeo career. Donning Jan’s personal riding gloves, I swing aboard a mechanical bucking contraption and take a white-knuckled, two-handed grip.
The blood rushes to my cheeks. Heels in, toes out. Chin in, chest out. The multiple world champion cowgirl’s tips for riding broncs seem simple enough, until she flips the switch.
My hat is the first thing to leave as I scramble to reclaim a centered seat aboard this robotic, lurching beast. This isn’t your average bucking situation—no reins, no saddle, not even a fence line to use to my advantage. With each thrust forward I settle into a rhythm, ending my six-second trip with one last “spurring” and the overwhelming desire to try the real thing.
RAIN FAILS TO DASH OUR HOPES the following day, as we jump at the opportunity for early morning saddle time. We wait out the lightning, don slickers and then slog down the muddy trail for some “horseback therapy.”
Our spirits are high despite our wet backsides and the cool northern wind. The Montana backcountry comes alive as we trek along lush green meadows dotted with wildflowers and along evergreen-lined paths chock full of wildlife, including a bald eagle that eyes us from the safety of its nest.
That afternoon, vaquero horsewoman Sheila Varian introduces the class to the beauty and art of the finished bridle horse. We marvel at the lightness of her Arabian’s movements as Sheila puts the gelding through his paces. I search in vain for visible cues—a quick spur tap or a shift of seat—but find none.
As this demonstration of the height of horsemanship unfolds before us, I can’t help but wonder how many others are searching their memories for that very moment, with that one special horse, when it seemed like your minds and movements were one.
ON OUR LAST EVENING, my roommate, Jule, confesses that “the horse thing” has eluded her.
“I don’t have it,” she says, following up with a short inventory of our cowgirl acquaintances who do “have it.”
“Judy kept a horse in town, in her garage,” Jule says. “Rhonda worked three jobs, bought a horse and didn’t tell her parents. Christine walked five miles to clean stalls after her parents refused to drive her anymore. And you refused to change your clothes after your first ride because they smelled like the pony.”
For these women, a girlhood love of horses helped them become focused, strong, confident adults, she decides.
Maybe we longed for adventure, freedom and strength I tell her. A horse was simply the preferred vehicle for achieving those goals.
On our final morning, skies that have been bright and sunny for our stay now reflect our gray mood as we pool ourselves around a large rock fire pit called the “spirit ring.” As I look around at my classmates, the group is visibly different than the one I met a few days earlier. Familiar faces and shared experiences replace false facades and small talk. There are more comfortable clothes and ball caps, less coordinated outfits and bling.
Fresh from an immersion in all things cowgirl, each woman shares her thoughts about cowgirl spirit.
“It means not caring about what others think and going after your dreams,” notes 19-year-old Kelsey. “It’s also about loving yourself enough to do those things.”
“Being a cowgirl is so many things,” explains Christine Mineo, “but it really doesn’t have anything to do with someone’s ability to ride a horse.”
Christine Hudson contends that cowgirls are born, not made. Even if you were city-raised and had a horseless childhood, that spirit can still be there; sometimes it just needs a chance to blossom.
“At Cowgirl U, you learn to say ‘yee-haw’ at the top of your lungs and mean it,” she says. “If you don’t have it when you come, you leave with it.”
I believe the cowgirl spirit smolders in all of us, from a hint of turquoise in the dress of the 8-to-5 professional to a suburban mother’s stories about vast spaces and wide-open opportunities for her children. It doesn’t take a horse to be a cowgirl, but it sure makes it easy to ride those faraway ranges in your mind.
Jennifer Zehnder is a Western Horsemanassociate editor and a lifelong cowgirl in-training. For more information about the Cowgirl U Retreat or additional educational opportunities, call (800) 476-FAME (3263), or visit cowgirlu.org. Send comments on this story to [email protected].