Tommy Maier Spurs Cowboy-Girls On to the Big Time

Times Staff Writer

It's time to talk real life now. Of old-fashioned values like truth and honesty and loyalty and working hard and doing what you're told, but also thinking for yourself. It's time to talk about cowboys and what they stood for and how kids today have no heroes. It's time to talk about doing things you thought you could never do and giving a good show. For this is America, the U.S. of A., and this is what America is all about.

This is conversation with Tommy Maier: non-stop, rambling, interrupted by occasional calls from assorted show-business types (attorneys, managers and agents). The story on the surface is Maier's Riata Ranch Cowboy-Girls--a horrible name--but nevertheless a rather incredible group of about 25 local girls, ages 12 to 23, who, besides going to school, are stunt riders.

Stunt riding for them is not just a casual after-school activity, however; the Riata Ranch Cowboy-Girls spend every weekend and all summer traveling and performing. And not merely in California or the United States, where they've appeared with people as diverse as James Caan, Roy Rogers and the Oak Ridge Boys. No, 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.

Yes, they were part of the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But they've also done "Magnum, P.I." with Tom Selleck, a number of commercials, all the network morning shows (not to mention "Good Morning, Japan") and so many fairs and rodeos you can't begin to count them.

But let's be clear about this. As everyone around here knows, and as the Riata Ranch Cowboy-Girls are quick to tell you, everything they are is Tommy Maier. A combination of Tom Mix, the Rev. Robert Schuller and maybe Peter Ueberroth in a cowboy hat, Maier, 56, is a mesmerizing personality who, dreaming of being a cowboy, ran away from home in North Dakota at age 12 and landed in Hollywood. There he got a job at the long-gone Dubrock Riding Academy, training horses for movie stars until he could support himself bulldogging and roping calves on the rodeo circuit. When a car accident ended his ability to compete, he found his way to Exeter, a small farm town in the Sierra foothills, 10 minutes east of Visalia, and the Riata Ranch, where in 1956 he started a riding school for children.

More than 2,000 area youngsters have learned about horses and riding from Maier, most of them going for just the basics, but some moving on to trick and Roman riding, handling a four-in-hand for stagecoach and wagon. The Riata Ranch Cowboys, as they were originally called (though they were always girls), came about in the formal sense in 1979 when Maier received an invitation to perform in Europe. A whole new adventure and several years later, as he learned how time consuming the teams could be (and also survived a bout with cancer), the riding school was phased out.

'Just a Vehicle'

Tommy Maier, however, isn't now and never has been just about horses. Indeed, he says, his voice so soft he can barely be heard (until he's outside with "his girls" and it becomes a bark), "I really really dislike a horse program. Horses are just a vehicle." A vehicle to what? To developing "tenacity, self-discipline, all those good words that mothers like to hear. . . .. We practice here how to be an individual. We dwell on that thing of being special. All the time, all the time, they hear it from me. You have to be humbly special."

He expanded on this one recent afternoon at the ranch, his voice taking on a fierceness as he described how "I demand discipline, being on time, courtesy. My girls feel sweat in the palm of their hands if they're five minutes late."

The girls. They gathered in the tack room where costumes and equipment are kept. The routine is as regular as a school day: Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 8 p.m., Saturdays from 9 to 5 unless they're out of town.

Of the 21 here this day, 14 are actual Riata Ranch Cowboy-Girls, performing with one of two traveling teams. They look the part: standing with that horsewoman's upright bearing in their tight jeans, boots, fitted shirts and cowboy hats. Five of the 14, the oldest among them, comprise Maier's staff--in addition to being, by virtue of their veteran status, his top trick riders.

The other girls--the ones without the status white hats--have been around only a few weeks. They've heard about Maier through their friends or seen the Riata Ranch Cowboy-Girls in action or maybe were intrigued by a presentation he made at their schools. Some of them can barely ride. Time will tell--Maier says he's never told a girl she can't or won't make it, rather they weed themselves out--whether they'll achieve the glory, fame and white hat of a Riata Ranch Cowboy-Girl. (And if all make it, positions will be juggled and Maier will have three fancy riding and roping teams to send on the road.)

The two group captains--Jennifer Welch, 22, who does public relations, and Lillis Lancaster, 23, who serves as office manager, choreographer and who seems to be the rock-solid backbone of everything happening here--call roll. Then there are chores to be done. Maier has no other hands working the 200-acre ranch.

As he stands, facing the now-empty corral, a certain swagger in his voice as he talks, the girls run back and forth behind him. Make of note of that, he said. "Here no one walks."

First there's a truck to be unloaded: saddles, blankets and the other paraphernalia which they had taken to a show over the weekend. Then bales of hay to be bucked, unloaded and dropped at each horse stall; then cleaning up the stalls. Hot, dusty, dirty work, hard work, and as Maier is fond of pointing out, everyone does it. "Out here everyone is equal. . . . I treat them all the same."

Monica Herrera, 12, has only been at it a year, performing since January. Even when she realized that the stunt riding package also included working the ranch, "I wasn't turned off. . . . Yeah, it hurt (her muscles) in the beginning. But you get used to it."

Kelley Scott, 16, a junior at Golden West High School in rural Visalia, said: "I feel good about it. I wouldn't do it if I didn't like it." Why was she drawn to it in the first place? "The shows and stuff excited me. And now I have a horse of my own."

What about her parents--her dad's a farmer, her mother teaches--what do they think? "They say they've seen a few things change in me . . . more disciplined, more determined. . . . My dad went out and looked for the boxing shoes we need.

"A nice thing is," she added, hoisting a saddle onto the horse in the stall, then strapping it tightly, "it doesn't cost much money. It just costs our time."

Maier is vague about how he manages the money angle. The girls pay no fees, not even those who are rank beginners. Once they're team members, he pays for their costumes, travel expenses and even pays each a small stipend ($100 to $250) when they're out of the country. All income is from performance fees, which vary and, at this point, barely cover expenses, he said. Neither he nor his staff draw a regular salary. "It's hard, every month balancing my books. But look it, I've had some difficult times. Cancer, my accidents. I could be sitting back drawing a pension. If I weren't doing this, what else would I do?"

Probably nothing that would show such results. Look at him now, out in the ring, working with the novices who are not exactly leaping a saddle with great grace. One by one they're jumping onto a trampoline, then bouncing up into the saddle of a very patient horse. When one girl, Denise Smith, 16, of Woodlake pauses, he exhorts, "do something, anything. Quit discussing it, just do it."

The girls talk of the lure of stardom. But this isn't just the photographs, scrapbooks, the awards that fill Maier's office, the calendar filled up with show dates. It's not just hearing what's happened to Maier-trained girls, how some entered contests and became Miss Rodeo America, National Appaloosa Queen, National Collegiate Rodeo Queen, to name just a few. That sense of stardom can be felt in a practice session, watching the girls watch each other. Lillis Lancaster comes first, poised for the Suicide Drag. Beginning at the far end of the arena, she secures her right foot to a strap attached to a cinch on the saddle. She then races her horse the length of the ring, simultaneously shifting her weight to the left side of the horse so that she is hanging upside down, her head and hands outstretched from her horse's hooves, her left leg extended in the air. She allows herself to be dragged in a long circle before hoisting her body up, grabbing the saddlehorn and finishing the stunt in an upright sitting position.

Not for a moment did she go off form: always a broad smile, her body always poised for dramatic effect. Afterward, there is the temptation to applaud. But following Lancaster: Janna Copley, 22, Jennifer Welch, 22, Julie Negard, 18, and so on until every team member has done at least one stunt--just to warm up. And maybe, just maybe, to show these new girls what this is all about, how anything is possible given determination and practice.

And time? Sure, but not that long. "Wendy Cheesebrough started just four months ago and last weekend she made her debut. The athletic ability was there, but she gets very nervous, you see," said Maier. "There were two performances on Sunday, so she and Lillis got up at 6 a.m., and went down to the grandstand to go through everything once again. That's what I'm talking about, the caring, the wanting everyone to do well. That's the key to survival."

Maier has long been wise to the lure of stardom. Maybe it's not so much stardom, per se, but the lure of being special. And girls in particular, he said, "What does a girl do that she can get the same recognition as, say, a boy on the football team? They need their own outlet to bring out their strengths, their individuality. Everybody's capable of something. I'm here to bring out the best in them."

The girls also bring out a special quality in him, he added adamantly. "They're an extension of my life. They're my tomorrow."

As for tomorrow, Maier said, the Riata Ranch Cowboy-Girls can only get bigger and better. Especially if, as he's hoping, they can get some type of sponsorship. True, the girls will come and go--as they should, he said; from the moment they arrive at ranch, he's pushing them to have career goals.

But as a performing unit, Maier expounded, the Riata Ranch Cowboy-Girls is bigger than all that. It's been mentioned in the Congressional Record; it's been written about in countless foreign publications. It will always be in demand because it represents something that's exciting, wholesome and distinctly American: the cowboy.

"We're a novelty," said Maier. "We're the greatest thing to happen to the U.S. for public relations since Buffalo Bill."

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