EXETER, Calif. — 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.