Cowgirl Camp in New Mexico

by Hidden Trails 10/30/2008
At Cowgirl Camp in New Mexico
Dale Evans wannabes learn ridin', ropin' and ranch chores.

By Jeff Berg

Gila Cowgirl Camp

The last thing I said to her before she left for her adventure was an old cow person cliché, attributed to Will Rogers. "Don't squat with your spurs on."

I watched my wife Sarah drive away, with hardly any cow person regalia. The car was loaded with some kind of dated "fashion" boots that had a small heel, sans spurs, the two pairs of jeans that she owns — since she usually wears black skirts and dresses that have earned her the nickname "Morticia" — and her floppy straw gardening hat. I loaned her one of my repro cowboy-style shirts — long sleeve, neutral color, no collar.

No saucer-size belt buckle, no weather-beaten Stetson with turndown brim, no chaps, wool or otherwise. Why, not even a lindsey-woolsey shirt was in that bag.

The place she was going had stressed that communication with the outside world was going to be minimal at best. Plus she refused to take her camera. So I was playfully wondering if this adventure was going to end up with her camped out at the Holiday Inn Express in Silver City, basking in bath salts, chocolate, coffee and gossip rags, with a side dish of Oprah on the tube in the afternoon.

I could hear it now: "Oh, I had a great time!"

But as it turned out, she went, saw, and conquered.

Sarah was headed for the Gila Ranch, which is located about 40 minutes north of Silver City. She had signed up for Cowgirl Camp.

An acquaintance had told me about the place about a year ago. She'd said that she had the time of her life, learning the ropes (literally) and being a real cowgirl, if for only a week. Hmmm, I pondered, gosh, with the high salary of a freelance writer, I bet I can afford this for Sarah as a Christmas present.

So, I checked the Hidden Trails website and was soon fully convinced that this was not some kind of lame "dude" operation. The novice cow people who show up would be put to work in a real ranch environment.

Sarah had occasionally told me stories about her girlhood in Indianapolis — not exactly an Old West hotbed (although the city does have the renowned Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art) — and had at times casually mentioned her fondness for most things Western. Indeed, her move to Montana — where we met in 1994 — put her in a tiny community on the Crow Indian Nation that was also a good place to observe working ranches and any number of horses. And she never complains when I slap a non-John Wayne western into the DVD/VHS player.

She had told me that her "initial defining moments" that created her adoration of the world outside a building came during Brownie and Girl Scout adventure camps. "That's where I discovered the joy of being outside," she said. "That, joined with television shows where I saw the horses going fast with the cowboys, caused me to believe that there might be much delight gained in the experience of riding horses and being outside."

She continued, "When I was a very small child, I would get up and go outside before the rest of my family was awake, and my frantic mother would later find me 'communing' with nature."

Her vivid imagination helped develop early riding skills while watching Dale Evans at work on TV. "I would get a straight-back chair and turn it around, and use my father's belt for reins. There was also lots of fun to be had on the mechanical nickel-a-ride horse in front of the A&P."

Life was not without conflict for the daydreaming cowgirl. "One of my earliest and biggest disappointments occurred when someone came around our neighborhood with a pony. He had hats and jackets and such, and you could dress up, sit on the pony, and have your picture taken. I thought it to be nirvana; my mother thought it outrageous — the price that is. I think I was eight then."

Not to be afoot forever, opportunity again arose during her freshperson year of high school. It became quite in vogue for parents, at least in Indianapolis, to send their fry to a dude ranch located near Dallas. "My parents found out from someone else's parents, learned that it was co-ed, but well-chaperoned, and that summer I was on the train to Texas. I guess it might have been my mother's way of making amends for the pony picture."

Returning for the next two summers, Sarah fantasized about being a girl on her own ranch even then.

Her first horse at the Texas dude ranch was a big red-and-brown gelding called Rhythm. Rhythm never gave her the blues, as she would ride off-trail and out of sight of the chaperone riders, as she overlooked her imaginary Ponderosa.

The ranch was not without humor, however. "When I first tried getting on the horse, I tried mounting from the right side." Which of course is the wrong side — and the horsemen certainly had a gentle chuckle at this tinhorn's "faux hoof."

A return to Texas for college brought her back in touch with her horsepersonality. "Instead of going to classes (at Trinity University in San Antonio), I would go to Breckenridge Park, where there were stables. I would go horseback riding instead."

Parental intervention and marriage followed these adventures, and for many years, no horse had the privilege of having Sarah on his back.

It wasn't until after the birth of a daughter and the release of the movie The Black Stallion that horses came to play again in her life.

"My daughter was always looking at picture books of horses and we went to all of the horse-related movies, and I did some hunter jumper riding for about three years."

Then the stable was closed again, except for a brief foray while working at a school for American Indian youth in Lame Deer, Mont.


So, after not being astride a stallion, gelding or even a pony for so many years, what were her thoughts on going to Cowgirl Camp? After all, she had seven months to try and talk herself out of it — that being the gap from Christmas to camp dates.

"Well, I had misgivings about not riding for so long. I thought my legs would be too weak, as compared to others who ride on a regular basis. It wouldn't be fun for them to be stuck for a week with someone like me who may have inferior skills."

There were four other cowgirls at this camp, all experienced riders — three from Minnesota, one all the way from Belgium. But Sarah's worrying was for naught. Including the worry about her age, which has allowed her to retire.

"The other women were probably in their 30s, so I felt pretty good about being able to keep up with them," she told me proudly.

"The first day at the ranch, we were welcomed, told the rules, and what was going to happen during the rest of the week."

She'd somehow failed to recall, however, that even in the lamest cowperson movie, the cowpeople are up at the crack of dawn, hunkering over the open fire, drinking coffee and rolling cigarettes.

"We got up at 6, and were soon at the stables taking care of the animals — feeding, watering and shoveling horse poop."

No coffee until the stable was de-pooped!

"Then we had breakfast, and after that we were back at the stables grooming the horses from head to tail. I recalled some of the procedures, such as covering the area where the saddle rests more than the other parts of the horse."

The first workday, the cowgirls worked on their basic riding skills in an arena. Gonzo was the gelding that Sarah was assigned for the week.

"We spent a good part of the morning getting used to the horses and listening to RJ (one of the real ranch hands), who wanted to make sure we all understood how the horse 'worked.'"

After lunch they went on a trail ride for most of the afternoon. The evenings were free time for the women to do as they wished on some of the ranch's 30,000 acres.

Mostly they relaxed and reviewed the day, and by early evening, everyone was turning in or attended to aching muscles or derrieres.


Tuesday was more of a workday for the guests. "The staff had gotten some cows huddled at one end of the arena, and three riders were then supposed to pick out three of the cows and move them to the other side of the arena."

From there, the steers (not calves, mind you) were to be herded into an area and behind a gate. After this was done, a rider was to raise her hand to signify that they were finished.

"It was lots of fun. I really had to concentrate, and that was hard sometimes because my body was really sore. And it was very competitive in a fun way. Some of the other women really could cuss and they did so when one of the cows would get away. You'd be an inch from success, and one cow would head in a different direction, and the others would follow."


After another evening of rest and good food ("Lucy the cook was great — I loved her homemade salsa") and perhaps a massage, which came at extra cost from a local massage therapist, the women found themselves back in the stable the next day, shovels and curry combs in hand.

"Wednesday was when they taught us how to lasso. In the morning, we had instruction on how to make a lariat, how to hold it, how to make circles with it. There were 'pretend' cows, which were made out of two-by-fours. We would swing the lariat over our heads and release, all the while controlling the horse with our left hand on the reins."

This is when the ranch staff really began to show their patience and their confidence in what the women could do, as opposed to what they thought they couldn't do.

"RJ told me that I came out to this situation by myself, and he had an enormous amount of respect for anyone who would come all that way to try it. He told me that I was thinking too much, and to let my body do the work. Forget all of those old negative thoughts."

This worked wonders, as the afternoon proceeded to a game of "H-O-R-S-E," just like the game that uses a basketball, but with roping instead. "There was lots of merriment when we played. When we got to 'H-O' or 'H-O-R,' everyone really laughed. There were lots of tangled ropes, but it was all good fun."

And probably the highlight of the week was when she was able to lasso an actual living moving steer from the back of Gonzo the cowpony. Sarah's eyes were alight with pleasure when she related this tale. Around the horns and on the move, and that steer was no longer in the "get along" category.

There was also barrel racing, a traditional cowgirl rodeo competition that only some of the women took part in. "For some of us, it was more like barrel 'trotting.'"


The next day included the roundup. And this was not just something that the staff invented. This was a genuine, although miniature, version of the real thing, complete with gathering, branding and (yikes!) castrating. I'm hoping she didn't take notes on the latter.

"We couldn't get the cows up to 'the box,' which is where Mark (a real cowboy) and I rode to start the fire for branding and to set things up."

Instead, they rode back down to where they action was. Thrown shoes by two horses required a change in plan and direction. But when the roundup started, everyone was busy.

"They would rope a calf, flip it down, and we took turns holding the calf down." Then the cowboys would brand it, castrate it (!) with a pocketknife, and throw the, ahem, evidence on the ground or in the fire.

Rocky Mountain Oysters going to waste?

Well, mostly, although one of the cowwomen, Kiki, decided to try one after she was told that the "oysters" are seen by some as a delicacy — perhaps an indelicacy if one considers the victim! Kiki pulled one out of the fire to taste, but there was no report on how well she liked this Western hors d'oeuvre.

Other duties included inoculations and ear tags, with the male calves getting a notched ear in the bargain, presumably for identification purposes.

For the most part, the cowgirls stepped aside on many of these tasks, with one refusing to take part at all, announcing that the practices were "barbaric." Many required a bit more of an experienced hand, so spectating became a popular activity. Everything was done quickly and efficiently, with about 10 cows being handled in an hour by the cowboys.


The last day was spent on a trail ride by all of the now-seasoned cowgirls. There were two groups, one group taking a slightly longer trail, the second going to look at some land that a previous visitor was preparing to buy from the owners of the ranch.

It was also here where one of the cowboys noted that the subject of this piece had her stirrups set too low. Raising them a couple of inches relieved the cramped legs that had been a problem all week.

Sarah added, "Soaking in the tub with bath salts every night and two massages helped a lot, too."

I've never seen or read about a masseuse traveling with a cattle drive, but of course many things have changed since the days of the Chisum Trail. . . .

It was time to go on Saturday morning. With goodbyes said, addresses exchanged, and hugs received, everyone hit the happy trail for home.

Sarah arrived in Las Cruces around 11 a.m. and joined some friends and me at Tiffany's Greek Cafe, one of Las Cruces' best-kept secrets. Dressed in her ranch T-shirt, somewhat tanned, refreshed and filled with memories and good stories, she told other stories to us for the rest of the lunch. I don't think I had ever seen her wear a T-shirt before, and this one was worn like a badge of honor and pride.

"I cannot remember a time when I was so filled with such pain and feeling so much joy," she cooed in a voice filed with strength and dignity.

"I feel such a delight in doing something that I thought I was not capable of doing."

I just checked the Hidden Trails site for Cowgirl Camp II. Christmas is just around the corner, after all -- Gila Cowgirl Camp

Or call them direct at  1-888-9-TRAILS

Please login to add your comment