Tribune Staff Writer
Those who attend the Williams Lake Stampede on a yearly basis are familiar with the Cariboo Cowgirls, a local horse drill team that powers through the arena often at full speed, carrying flapping flags and performing difficult manoeuvres to music on their well-trained horses.
The women who ride for the Cariboo Cowgirls come from all walks of life. Nurses, accountants, teachers, students and foster parents make up the ranks of the drill team, but they all have one thing in common: a passion for horses and the ability to ride them.
Vice-president of the team, Jen Wintjes, had always loved horses while growing up in North Vancouver. In fact, her dream was always to “get a pick-up truck and a horse.” When she moved to the Cariboo four years ago and saw the Cowgirls’ glow in the dark show at the Williams Lake Indoor Rodeo, she immediately knew she wanted to join.
“I showed up with my English saddle and everything. I didn’t even have a Western saddle at the time,” she says.
As the team is always looking for good riders and good horses, Wintjes got involved right away, and eventually bought tack to fit what she wanted to do.
“Our coach, John Young, has a standard for us which is a high bar,” she says, adding that when she first joined she didn’t ride the performance drill for an entire year because she was working on bringing her skills up to par.
“I was willing to persevere through it and now I’m leading a side,” she says.
The team has about 14 active riders who range in ages from 12 to their late 50s, including Wintjes and her daughter, Melanie, 15. It takes a lot of commitment to ride for the team, said Wintjes. The riders practice twice a week, on Thursday and Sunday evenings, but the Cowgirls must also put in a lot of extra effort training their horses to bond with their riders and getting used to the various props and manoeuvres the team uses.
Melanie spent two years training her horse Breeze to work at a speed she could control. During that time she would repeat different exercises, correcting when her horse would make a mistake as well as running the horse in circles and waiting until she would follow her around loose. “It’s called join up,” Wintjes says.
Melanie adds: “You then have a connection with your horse and they’ll actually trust you and follow you around.”
Not only do riders need connections with their horses, they must also work on teamwork at the practises.
“When you ride with a certain partner for some moves then you know how they’re gonna respond, how close you can get to them, how far away they like to be,” Wintjes says.
At practise coach John Young runs a warm up, and practises the ladies’ grand entry as well as their main drill, concentrating on making sure the horses are moving properly, as well as getting them used to other horses and the drill.
“He runs the practise and he might have us practise squiggles, which are like pole bending to get our horse to practise changing leads properly. When we are practising our drill, when we go to park or to a move that we stop at he will correct us and say, ‘Okay, Jen I want you to work on this,’ or ‘Melanie try this.’ When we are in park, which is our halfway spot, some horses will stand there and prance. So we’ll practise just calmly sitting there for a second to help your horse relax,” Wintjes says.
The drill is the most memorable part of the Cowgirls’ performance. The team performs complicated manoeuvres including turns and moves where riders cross each others’ paths, or spin around as wheels. Drills are developed from books, watching other drill teams, YouTube videos, and even watching motorcycle drill teams.
One move called the ‘arrow through the apple’ involves half of the women forming a moving circle on their horses.
The other half of the team shoots through the circle into the middle and out the other side in a straight line, missing the horses that form the circle.
“Timing and spacing are key,” says Wintjes. Without that, and without the constant practicing the team does some of these manoeuvres could result in anything from banged knees to collisions.
There’s an “element of unknowing” in working with horses, says Wintjes. “How is my horse going to respond in this situation?”
Fortunately all the ladies are experienced horsewomen and accidents are rare among the Cowgirls.
“I really believe if you practise properly, you’ll perform properly,” Wintjes says.
And performances are always spectacular. With an amazing array of outfits to choose from and their own Cariboo Cowgirl chaps and flags, performances are breathtaking, watching riders careen towards and away from each other at high speeds.
The team travels to different rodeos and equine events around the province where they are usually paid to perform. Last weekend the team travelled to Pritchard for their BCRA Rodeo. Today they will also be opening for the RCMP Musical Ride, alongside another local drill team, the Wild West Riders and the Little Britches.
“This is totally my passion. When I ride I have a big smile on my face and I just love performing and working with the team and helping all the girls. If it’s on your bucket list, or it’s something you want to do, you can work towards that,” says Wintjes, indicating that anyone who is interested in joining the Cariboo Cowgirls need only get a hold of them via their website at cowgirlsdrillteam.com.