A team of women mounted on well-polished horses enter the ring in formation, carrying American and Canadian flags. They execute a series of precision moves to a cheering crowd, and when the drill is complete, they do something that’s unique to their team: a meet and greet the audience.
The Canadian Cowgirls make it look easy, but they’ll tell you it’s a lot of work. The group just completed a five-performance engagement at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show in Harrisburg, PA.
“We’re an elite precision drill team hailing from Chatham, Ontario,” said Marcy Trumble, assistant coach and vice president of the team. “The idea sprung from an informal group of women riders who called themselves ‘Hags on Nags.’”
Trumble explained how Terry Jenkins started the group. “Terry owns TJ Stables,” said Trumble. “We do lessons, camp, pony rides and birthday parties. We also do therapeutic riding through a program called Acceptional Riders, which services more than 150 special needs riders. Terry learned that a gentleman was putting together Can-Am, an equine extravaganza, and mentioned that a drill team known as the Ohio Top Hands would be coming to the event. He said to Terry, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we (Canada) had a drill team since it’s Can-Am?’ Terry told him that she had a drill team.”
Although she didn’t have a polished, performance-ready drill team, Terry collected a group of riders and with the help of the Ohio Top Hands, the two groups combined skills and put together a Canadian-American drill for the Can-Am Expo. The performance was a crowd-pleasing success. After that, Terry contacted a local rodeo circuit and asked if the group could perform at rodeo events.
“That was 11 years ago,” said Trumble. “We did about 150 appearances last year. We’ve performed at the Calgary Stampede, the Indy 500, the Kentucky Derby and the Royal Winter Fair.”
Trumble says the age range on the team is from ‘14 to grandma.’ Horses average about 15 hands and can be any breed other than gaited or draft. “We also have a three-strike rule for the horses,” said Trumble. “Three incidences of any aggressive action — kicking, biting, charging, humans or other horses — you’re out.”
The Cowgirls enlist new members through Canadian Cowgirl Camp and junior drill held at TJ Stables. “I have students who participate in junior drill and learn the Cowgirls’ drill,” said Trumble. “Once they’re ready and their horse is ready, we invite them to be on the team.” Team members own their own horses, and must have sponsorships to cover expenses.
One of the team’s favorite performances is ‘Pony Man,’ a play set to Gordon Lightfoot’s song of the same name. Children from a local therapeutic riding center are invited to the venue, and come to the arena floor to perform the play with the Cowgirls. As part of the play, the children are invited to ride the Cowgirls’ mounts — with assistance and sidewalkers — in the arena.
Trumble says the Cowgirls’ season starts in January and runs through the end of November. During the winter months, if nothing is booked, they hold skills practices. “Everyone’s horse has to walk, trot and canter, and go through each of those transitions,” she said. “They have to be able to back up, side pass, travel forward at a side pass and half pass at a walk and a trot.”
When it’s time to hit the road, the group works together to pack, travel and unpack. “We always try to get into the arena before we perform,” said Trumble. “When we got here (to Harrisburg), we had driven all day, then unloaded and fed the horses. We saddled them up and rode in the arena at 9:30 at night just to get the horses and riders in there. It helps get the jitters out.”
To ensure the most accurate and safe performance, the team holds a walk-through prior to each performance, even if there are multiple performances in one day. If just one person wants to run through the drill again, they’ll run it again. “We always walk through in the direction the arena runs, and we’ll always have a navigation point toward home,” said Trumble. “It’s easy to become disoriented, especially for new members.”
Trumble says one way in which the Canadian Cowgirls stand apart from other drill teams is by engaging the crowds they’re entertaining. “We interact with the crowd and draw them in,” she said. “We want to see them clapping.”
Although her background in show jumping and other English events has been valuable, Trumble is quick to say that drill is the epitome of riding. “Not only do you have to look good, you have to know where you’re going, stay on the horse, keep your spacing, and mind everyone else.” she said. “We’re clapping our hands and fist-pumping, and encouraging the crowd.”