Cowgirl Camp

In the wilds of Texas and Montana, women are learning to ride horses, wrangle, and rope with the pros.

By Wolf Schneider
Cowgirl U instructor, Sheila Varian
Photograph: Photo courtesy of National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame

Propped between the mesquite and cedar trees, the roadside signs read "Average Joe’s Day Hunting" and "You’re in God’s country. Don’t drive through it like hell." This is rural Texas, land of roadside beverage barns, and I’m at Cowgirl U, a ranch retreat hosted at a private homestead about 70 miles west of San Antonio. Among my 30 fellow cowgirls-in-training: Amy, 55, a clothing designer; and Beth, 57, a nurse, who says, "The most horsepower I’ve ever used is in my convertible."

What separates Cowgirl U from other dude ranch escapes is that the program is sponsored by the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, so you can learn riding and wrangling from its hotshot honorees. Take Sheila Varian, a six-foot blonde who has bred and trained hundreds of Arabians. "They are gentle, smart horses, and they don’t like tough handling," she says as her horse stops on cue, drops his head, and turns in response to subtle rein and leg signals. Self-empowerment is a big theme at Cowgirl U, and Varian sets the tone at my first riding lesson. "If you say you can, you will," she says. "If you say you can’t, you won’t."

Over the next three days, I take morning horseback rides through fields filled with bluebonnets and practice swinging a rope rhythmically overhead with guidance from expert calf roper Pam Minick. I even hang out of a Jeep to take photographs with Montana photographer Barbara Van Cleve. My last night at camp, I boot-tap to a country band, crooning along with my cowgirl classmates: "You come home to me./And she said, ‘Rambling boy, why don’t you settle down?/L.A.‘s not your kind of town.’"


Originally published in MORE magazine, April 2007.

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