There’s a special place near the Sequoia National Park where people escape and young girls learn how to cowboy. It’s called Riata Ranch – and a piece of it is coming to the Hamel Rodeo on July 8-11!
Meet Jennifer Welch Nicholson, owner and operator of the Riata Ranch in Three Rivers, California. Jennifer’s introduction to horses began when her father’s job relocation moved her family to Visalia, California. “Everybody we met had something to do with this place called Riata Ranch. My goal was, even as a young, young girl, to learn how to ride and become a reined cow horse rider.” So it was at Riata Ranch where Jennifer learned how to ride horses, where she purchased her first horse and began competing in the horse show circuit. But just at that time, the heyday of horse show competitions was waning; to stay current Riata Ranch started an entertainment division. “I didn’t know what trick riding was, I didn’t know there was such a thing as roping – I didn’t come from a rodeo family. But the founder and owner of Riata Ranch, Tommy Maier, knew about rodeos, formed an all girl act, and that is how we started going to all these California rodeos. About two years later after learning to do the trick riding, while still riding our show horses, we went to our first professional rodeo. By the early 1980s the ranch was a full on school for learning to trick rope and trick ride.”
Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls
The Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls began traveling internationally when Jennifer was 16 years old – since then they have performed in 18 countries and across the United States. Throughout time members of the traveling team have come and gone, and with each passing year Jennifer told herself that the next year she would “move on with my life and get a real job – until I was in my 30’s and I thought, ‘Jennifer, you are doing exactly what it is you want to be doing.’”
When founder Tom Maier became very ill, the ranch slowly deteriorated until it was in financial trouble as he passed away in 2002. As manager of the ranch, Jennifer said, “I had no intention whatsoever of continuing Riata, it was bankrupt so I was going to liquidate the rest of the assets, and away we go.” Those plans were not meant to be, fate intervened when she was approached by Riata Ranch enthusiasts who convinced her that she had what it took to keep the enterprise going. “I reluctantly did it, yet I didn’t think I had the chops to do it. It just seemed really hard, and I tell you, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, taking over an existing business that was totally bankrupt. I dissolved the original business, restructured it, created it as a corporation and then became a 501c3 (non-profit organization) which I knew nothing about, let alone run a business.”
During this upheaval, Jennifer met and married her husband, Chad. “Chad and I set a vision of where we wanted to be and how this should look. We didn’t really have a road map, we just took whatever opportunities came our way – some of them worked, and some of them didn’t.
“The mission and the goal of Riata Ranch is to connect people of all ages and all lifestyles to the Western way of life. We do that through ranch experiences here – in addition to our performance team, we teach riding and Western horsemanship. For example, this morning we have people staying in a bunkhouse that is rented out to guests who come in from outside the area. Some of them will participate in our ranch activities, some are here to see Sequoia National Park. The whole purpose is to educate people about ranch life, incorporating horsemanship, leadership, mentorship, education and community service.” In addition the Riata Ranch is home to the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, a rope-spinning, trick-riding troupe that has been performing hair-raising stunts on horseback around the world since 1976. Part of the ranch’s mission is to enrich and enlighten young people by building positive life skills in a safe environment—which in turn changes lives by allowing good kids to become great citizens.
Prior to 2020, the Riata Ranch had two sides of the business with distinct timeframes of operation. The ranch itself offered private riding lessons, trail rides and regular training programs from November through March which helped fund the performance team, the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls. The Cowboy Girls’ season consisted of non-stop travel from April through October. “The whole idea for the performances was to get people interested in coming here and experiencing ranch life because without the ranch, I wouldn’t have the means to put a team out on the road.”
The pandemic forced change in the ranch’s business model. In a normal season the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls’ performance calendar was booked solid from April to October. Jennifer stated, “Last year when COVID hit, of course our entire season went out the window! And this year with the restrictions it started later in mid-May with our last rodeo for the season scheduled here at the California Rodeo Salinas in September.”
Despite the performance cancellations for 2020, Riata Ranch’s business grew. Whereas before Jennifer oversaw the ranch, then shut down that portion of the business during performance season when she traveled with the performance team, the business evolved into her acting as an executive director overseeing a full staff for the ranch year round and now this year also running the traveling/performance side of the business.
Change & Growth
Back in time when developing their long term plan, Jennifer and Chad landed on a beautiful ranch in Three Rivers outside of Sequoia National Park, where Riata Ranch now stands. Chad passed away in 2019, leaving Jennifer to run the ranch solo ever since. “Chad was a renowned professional rodeo announcer,” Jennifer shared. “And he was well respected in the rodeo business.” A loss beyond measure.
The Nicholson’s could not have foreseen this location would save their business when a global pandemic would cancel all performances for an entire season. “Because we were outside of Sequoia, we’ve been able to tap into the tourist market,” at a time when people were flocking to find outdoor activities during quarantine. “Our riding programs have really stepped up,” Jennifer explained. “The ranch experiences are now just as big and as important to the entire program as are the Cowboy Girls performances.” The impact and result of the shutdown were people yearning to reconnect with nature, with record numbers reaching out to the Riata Ranch. “We have a wonderful place to do it!”
The Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls are trick riders you don’t want to miss at this year’s HAMEL RODEO. With equal parts athleticism and performance charisma, these young ladies are known worldwide for their western trick riding and trick roping.
Swinging around galloping horses while performing handstands to dangling inches from the ground is in itself a crazy sight, especially for those of us who work hard just to stay upright in the saddle. Not surprisingly, most Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls are on the younger side, and it’s no wonder as their performance requires courage, strength and skill.
The performing act travels throughout the country and the world over the summer to delight spectators of all ages – their schedule is so booked, it has taken the Hamel Rodeo since December 2018 to get them here. “High quality specialty acts are in high demand and it can be challenging to attract them to Minnesota, especially in mid July when there are rodeos happening all over the country,” explained Rowdy Dorweiler, Treasurer of the Hamel Rodeo Committee. “We typically start looking 2-3 years out in order to secure the best entertainment for our loyal fans.”
The Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls come from a variety of backgrounds, from little or no riding experience to those who have advanced horsemanship and performance skills learning the ropes through the extensive training programs at the Riata Ranch.
These athletes will be performing at each of the Hamel Rodeo shows, talk about endurance! YeeHaw!!