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Smithville’s Cowgirl Weekend

Written by Lori Moffatt.

As a campfire sent flame-kisses skyward, I munched on a burger and traded horse stories with a motley group of women I’d met only hours before. My lame tale from way back—loping on a borrowed horse in the Oklahoma oil fields (yawn)—paled in comparison to their spirited stories of adventure and chutzpah.

Take cowgirl Sherry Epperson of Lake Jackson, for example, who in 2004 rode her feisty horse Durango on a 650-mile trail ride all the way from Bandera to Dodge City, Kansas. Or ornery farrier Dala Hilscher, a one-time bull-rider who hunts wild hogs with her husband when she’s not wielding a blacksmith’s torch. Then there’s Linda Bland of Angleton, whose top popped off in a barrel-racing wardrobe malfunction in the 1980s, earning her more hoots and hollers than she had bargained for.

While horses whinnied in the distance, we all cracked up at the stories and got acquainted before the next day’s adventures: an invigorating two-hour trail ride on the century-old Watterson Ranch near Smithville, followed by the Amateur Cowgirl Rodeo. In front of an audience in a bona fide arena, participants would vie for silver buckles in competitions of cloverleaf barrel-racing, goat-tying, racing a horse-pulled inner tube, and goat-dressing. (Relax—the goats are dressed in bonnets and pinafores, not butter and peppercorns.) Last year, some 75 women joined in on the fun, and this year’s event, which takes place March 23-26, promises to be bigger than ever, with an expanded roster of competitions and activities.

But back to the campfire: When Austinite Sally Piña made us misty-eyed with her first foray into cowgirl poetry, and Linda “Loudmouth” Bland won the cow—girl hollerin’ contest with an ear-splitting YAAWW-HAAAAAWWWW, I knew we were in for a special few days.

I was right. A few years ago, Trina Miller, whose husband, Scott, runs the Watterson Ranch, came up with the idea of hosting a cowgirl weekend to help pay the bills and give women riders the chance to experience the ranch. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to get a bunch of ladies together for this?’ You come over that ridge, and you see nothing but land, cows, and wildlife. It’s an opportunity to be in a dream,” she says.

So, the next morning, after a breakfast of cowgirl coffee and eggs, Trina helped me saddle up her daughter Callie’s trusty 28-year-old Quarter Horse, Partner, for the trail ride. I was a little nervous. Between ghost stories and ever-so-faintly-blue jokes the night before, I had overheard a discussion of the trail ride’s infamous creek crossing. The week before on a ride here, it seems, Dala Hilscher had saved the day for her friend Katrina Packard, a Houston-socialite-turned-country-gal-attorney, known in her riding group as “Martha Stewart.”

“Katrina and her horse Sandy froze when they were about to cross that ol’ creek,” Dala told us. “And then I dropped the reins,” added Katrina.

“I almost fell off my mule chucklin’,” said Dala, looking tough in her black hat. “I tossed her my lead rope and told her, ‘Just shut up, hang on, and close your eyes.’ “Thank God I had my Depends on,” deadpanned Katrina.

Was she joking?

In the springtime, the Watterson Ranch bursts with wildflowers—particularly bluebonnets, which dot the rolling blackland prairies with a vibrant purply-blue. Creamy-white Charolais cattle graze in the distance. Pecan trees and live oaks provide random bits of shade, and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot wild turkey and deer. Sandy Creek, a Colorado River tributary that’s as rocky as it is sandy, slices out a steep bluff in the middle of the property.

Crossing Sandy Creek by horseback makes for an experience straight out of a classic Western. It should come as no surprise, then, that John Wayne’s The Cowboys—a coming-of-age film in which a group of young boys pull together to help get a rancher’s herd to market—is one of Trina’s favorite movies.

“When everyone’s on horses, we’re all equal,” says Trina. “Out here on the ranch, women accomplish things they never thought they’d be able to do. The sense of camaraderie is incredible.”

“It’s very hard nowadays to find places to ride, other than the side of the road,” says Linda Bland. “More and more, we’re looking to ride on ranches—it’s more relaxed, and there’s usually pretty scenery.”

While you must provide your own horse to participate in the Cowgirl Weekend, Trina and Scott offer other horse-riding adventures year round for those who would like to borrow one of theirs.

“One of our most popular rides is our sunset ride,” says Trina. “We can take a couple out for a trail ride, leave them for the sunset, then bring them back to the bunkhouse for cowboy cooking over the campfire.” Scott, who’s as quiet as Trina is gregarious, tends to the Dutch oven and serves up awesome chili, brisket, ranch beans, and other classic cowboy concoctions.

Since I was riding near the front of the group with Trina, I sometimes looked behind me to see a glorious sight: a long trail of horses-and-riders spilling over the green, bluebonnet-speckled hillsides. I settled into my saddle and began to feel comfortable, gently guiding Partner along the trail. In the glittering ribbon of Sandy Creek, horses lowered their heads to drink, the solid sounds of clomping hooves mixing with excited whinnies and blustery exhalations. And then, somewhere in that long trail of strength and beauty, we heard whoops and hollers, and someone shouted, “Let’s rodeo!”

The rodeo, some might say, separated the cowgirls from the cowards. After the trail ride, yours truly limped away—weak-kneed and trembly—and took a nap and a hot shower at a nearby bed-and-breakfast. The Real Cowgirls still had lots of work to do. They loaded their trailers and set up camp at the rodeo site; fed, watered, and brushed their horses; and donned spangly blouses and tight jeans. And they steadied themselves for the challenges they’d signed up for.

At starting time, the bleachers surrounding the dusty arena at Smithville’s Riverbend Park groaned with spectators, and volunteers working the concessions stand passed out popcorn and soda at a furious pace. The rodeo clown—outfitted in an orange fright wig and a kaleidoscopic costume—made the kids laugh and helped stir up the crowd. Emcee Cliff Gilland quieted the booming music to make a few announcements, and then cowgirl Tammy Aaron of Caldwell, who keeps herself busy with five horses, four dogs, two cats, a rat, and a husband, sang a graceful version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Linda Bland, preparing for her run at the barrel race, shouted out, “Don’t worry, ladies! I have two bras on!”

From there, it was all a blur. A spirited grand-entry parade brought everyone into the arena, and the competitions began. An electronic eye kept tabs on which horse-and-rider team won races, and every so often, a truck circled the arena to smooth out the hoof-dug divots. When it was all said and done, Cindy Due and Ginger Rayburn of Lufkin won silver belt buckles, but everyone sported big smiles (and lots of dust). Dala Hilscher’s dog Cadillac, a Chihuahua-blue heeler known in certain circles as a champion hog-bayer, wagged his tail as congratulations made the rounds. Even Cadillac seemed to enjoy the camaraderie.

Asked about her favorite part of the rodeo, Tammy Aaron replied, “Besides the physical part? Getting to meet new people and sharing all the stories. Watching Trina encourage people to shine where they shine brightest.”

The 3rd Annual Cowgirl Weekend takes place Mar. 23-26 at Riverbend Park in Smithville. Registration deadline is Mar. 17. Teams consist of 4 cowgirls; a single registration costs $85, pairs cost $180 (singles and pairs draw for additional teammates). Call 512/496-1792; www.wattersonranch.com.

The Amateur Cowgirl Rodeo takes place at 2 p.m. on Mar. 25 at Riverbend Park Arena, 107 Texas 71 West. Admission: Free.

Meanwhile, back at Watterson Ranch…

Trail rides are available on the Watterson Ranch year round. Fees: Rent a horse for $50 (1 1/2-hour guided ride), or bring your own horse for $15 per day. The Millers love to do customized rides and adventures, so ask.

Adjacent to the Watterson Ranch, the 9E Ranch offers 3 cottages on 300 wooded acres. Call 512/497-9502; www.9Eranch.com. Find other places to stay and eat in Smithville at www.smithvilletx.org; click on “lodging” and “restaurants” under “Member Categories.”

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