YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Cowgirl Won't Be Cowed by Aging

Lifestyle: Connie Douglas Reeves is nearly 101, but she refuses to let failing eyesight or fading hearing keep her off a horse.


HUNT, Texas — In 1901, while the Wright brothers were trying to fly and Guglielmo Marconi was trying to get his radio to work, Constance Douglas was born in a tiny Texas border town, the only child of a district judge and his genteel wife.

It would never occur to Connie, as she swam in the Rio Grande and rode horses with cowboys, that other little girls in other places lived vastly different lives. She was a spirited, willful child and the world was hers. That it began in Texas and ended in Texas was just fine with her, and with everyone she knew.

After she grew up and went to college, she became the first woman to enter the University of Texas Law School. She met Eleanor Roosevelt. She taught school and horseback riding. She didn't marry until age 42, becoming a rancher as well as a wife.

It never crossed her mind that she would outlive every person she ever loved, including Jack, her husband of 40 years. Or that along the way she would become famous simply by being herself.

Connie Douglas Reeves, at age 100, helped open the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame this summer, sharing the spotlight with a new inductee, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Reeves was honored because she has taught more than 30,000 girls to ride Western and English, because she embodies the independent cowgirl spirit, and because on most days, although she is "hard of hearing and can't see a thing," she still gets on her horse and rides.

For the past 66 summers, a significant portion of her life and heart has been claimed by Camp Waldemar for Girls, an exclusive oasis straddling the cool, green Guadalupe River in the Texas hill country.

Riding, canoeing, swimming and archery are taught during monthlong sessions intended to supply 7-to 16-year-olds with something that Reeves never seemed to lack -- self-possession.

"Always saddle your own horse" has become her life motto and is repeated almost every time her name is mentioned. They read it during her Hall of Fame induction. And somehow, it ended up in Liz Smith's tabloid gossip column, just before a juicy item about Tom Cruise.

"I don't remember saying that, but they keep saying I did," she said with a chuckle."I meant really saddle your own horse. You want to know that your horse is saddled properly. It establishes a good relationship with the horse."

Now it is part of her folklore, and that's fine with her too.

At first, she didn't think that she belonged in the cowgirl hall of fame. "I didn't see that I had made much of a contribution," she said, sitting on the porch of Camp Waldemar's stables, taking refuge from a merciless Texas sun.

She is wearing a blue oxford-cloth shirt and form-fitting navy slacks with stitched creases. A black belt, with a silver buckle the size of a passport, rides her flat stomach. On her tiny feet are cowboy boots of ancient leather, crinkled like the surface of an old oil painting.

Her white hair is tightly curled, her lips painted crimson, her fingernails manicured and lacquered red.

"But they said I taught all those girls, and when you add the fact that I did all that ranching, I guess I've done enough to contribute to the Western heritage of life," she said, thoughtfulness creeping into a voice cracked and high-pitched with age. Her failing eyes are fixed on the horizon, gloriously blue with clouds of spun cotton.

"Boy, that makes me feel important," she said, smiling, hooking her thumbs into imaginary suspenders.

In just a few days, the latest collection of 300 campers will trudge home from Waldemar, little more than an hour's drive northwest from San Antonio. But on this hot, clear morning, about 20 girls sit on newly saddled horses, trying not to look terrified.

Riding classes are divided by age and experience. "These are the absolute babies, the weakest ones, the smallest ones, the timid ones," she said softly. She means the girls. The same could be said for their horses.

Then off they all go, single-file behind a college-age instructor, the girls rigid under white riding helmets, their poky horses shuffling with long necks slung low.

"That's good, that's good. Keep your heels down," Reeves trills from the porch. "Just relax!"

"Yes, ma'am," the girls chorus over shoulders so tense they're almost at ear level. Some of the girls shoot wide-eyed looks to each other that say, "Is she crazy?"

"A horse really can smell fear," Reeves said.

That does not bode well for some of the departing riders.

Reeves is teaching her third generation of campers. At Waldemar, mothers often sign up daughters at birth, who grow up to enroll their daughters -- until Reeves recently found herself teaching the granddaughter of a girl she taught to ride in the 1930s. The cost is about $2,800 for four weeks.

She is legendary here, as constant as the live oaks and stone camp buildings. "Did you notice this?" she asked boldly, pointing to a life-sized statue of her near the entrance. "I'm just a spoiled brat," she said, grinning.

Los Angeles Times Articles