Photo: Cathy Spencer with her horses Diesel and Diamond.
“Do you speak English in South Africa?” asks Jaime. “Yes!” comes the chorus from Chantal and me. “I mean, is English your mother tongue?” “Yes,” we say in unison again. But why would Jaime know?
We are meeting worlds apart over a couple of glasses of wine in the stables of ML Arena at Owl Point, Alberta, located in the Foothills of Southern Alberta in the community of Spring Point. Chantal and I are both South Africans, and of course we have swapped the usual questions you ask someone from your home country, quickly establishing an easy understanding of each other.
Our hosts are Cathy and her husband Todd, who have made me feel welcome in a tranquil orchard of apple trees. Cathy, Jaime and Chantal are firm friends and outstanding cowgirls, and they are going to the Calgary Stampede the next morning for the day. Boots, jeans and hats are the order of the day. “Bare toes are a no-no around horses,” says Cathy. “You don’t want that animal standing on your toes.” She has a fine selection of boots in the stable, all well-worn and used.
The women are outstanding horse riders; their knowledge and comfort with these beautiful creatures is remarkable. Cathy is a reined cow horse rider and has two horses, Diesel and Diamond. Diesel is slowing down with age, and Cathy is working with Diamond to bring her up to par. A reined cow horse is trained to move a single cow up and down a fence line or in a particular pattern. Herd work involves driving the herd and cutting or separating a cow from the herd. The horse must demonstrate skill and willingness to perform the maneuvers, and the rider must be confident to control the horse. It takes endless hours of training, skill and athleticism. I am in awe. Cathy’s horses lean into her, and it is clear that there is an understanding between this woman and her horses that I can only marvel at.
When I first met Cathy and Jaime, they cut impressive figures on horseback, followed by two Corgis, a Rottweiler, and a French Bulldog. I immediately noticed the unusual bridles with exquisite plaited and beaded leather and ornate, engraved silver bits. I casually commented about how beautiful they were.
Cathy runs a business called Classy Concho. She specializes in Vaquero-style bridles and has scouted and invested in a collection of exquisite antique pieces. Cathy tells me that, roughly translated, Vaquero means buckaroo or cowboy. The Vaquero style first arrived when the Moors invaded Spain in 711 AD.
Photo: Cathy holds one of her many Vaquero-style engraved snaffle bits.
After 800 years of adaptation and refinement, Spanish horsemanship arrived on the North American continent with the conquistadors in about 1494. The functional art of Vaquero snaffle bits and a jaquima (hackamore) was a way to start and train powerful animals without damaging their mouths. The craft drifted across North America to California, and today, many artists make Vaquero-style snaffle bits and hackamores. “Vaquero style craftsmanship has experienced a renaissance, “ Cathy tells me as she shares a leather-bound book showcasing different artists. “The Texan style is more utilitarian. And, of course, the First Nations have their artistry of bridles using colourful beadwork, leather and horse-hair hitching, which is just gorgeous.”
Cathy started her business by buying unusual antique pieces. “I don’t wear jewelry, so this is my adornment.” As her collection grew, she began to sell off pieces and now works with a Mexican silversmith to produce specialty products for clients.
We spent the evening together. Chantal regales us with stories. Her comic timing is perfect, and I feel as though I have been entertained at a one-woman show. However, a shadow hangs over her beauty and hilarity as she is recovering from cancer.
Photo: Jaime, Cathy, Chantal (back row) and Julie.
Jaime is more introverted but has a quirky, self-effacing sense of humour. She is a cattle farmer and Corgi breeder, and I am astounded by her knowledge of horses, cattle, dogs and other farmyard animals. Listening to Jaime, I realize how little I know of the intensity of farming and animals. This stuff is bred in her bones. Why would she know that we speak English in a faraway land called South Africa, which has no bearing on her daily life—a tough and unforgiving world on a farm in the Alberta prairies that I can only imagine?
I feel privileged to step into the world of these three amazing cowgirls, and I am humbled by their strength, character and wisdom. I fell in love with these women and their incredible bond of friendship and passion for horses. It’s an experience I will always cherish.
Photo: Todd and Cathy Spenser with vintage car “Jimmy” and horses Diamond and Diesel.