Grit & Glam 7

Experience the Cowgirl Spring Roundup at The Resort at Paws Up

At The Resort at Paws Up a large rock wall stands just beyond the main entrance where a wooden banner has these words carved into its surface: “…much pleased at having arrived at this long wished for spot.” The quote is by Meriwether Lewis, the American explorer fondly remembered and known for his role as the leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

It’s hard to take myself to Montana during that time—more than 200 years ago—while drinking a glass of champagne and admiring the embroidered boots of women from faraway places lining up at the front desk. But I bet they all feel this way—much pleased at having arrived. I didn’t notice at first but these words have been somewhat etched into my own being since having moved to Montana, a relief in many ways that this gem of a state has embraced its history and kept its Western ways alive, past the means of recreation. It’s a place where horses can get a job done and where men and women hunt and ride and teach their children to do the same.

These women and I were at Paws Up for the Cowgirl Spring Roundup where we would come to rub elbows with four National Cowgirl Hall of Fame honorees—women who have earned their place in history and bent back the branches on the path less traveled for those passionately following in their footsteps.

Each of these honorees—Dr. Eleanor Green, Stacy Westfall, Barbara Van Cleve, and Cathy A. Smith—offered workshops that were to be slotted in, if not solely depicting of, one’s schedule of events throughout the course of each day. Staying true to my roots, I kicked off the long weekend with a trail ride through a fraction of Paws Up’s 37,000-acre spread, following a steady stream of horses through rolling hills, along the mountain side, past cattle and elk and deer. Along for the ride was Stacy Westfall, a professional horse trainer and legendary cowgirl known best for being the first woman to compete and win Road to the Horse, a colt-starting competition, and for her bareback and bridleless reining freestyle.

There are so many words to describe The Resort at Paws Up—”a wild dream” as put by a fellow attendee—but there far fewer words that can describe the feeling of riding with a woman commonly referred to as a whisperer to horses. The other women and I were swapping stories and caught in the same awe of our surroundings but we were also studying Stacy, marveling at her position on a horse in this intimate setting.

“I think [a cowgirl is] somebody who depicts the traditions and the honors of the West—rugged individualism, strength, ability—but softness. The kindness, the softness, the passion for animals and nature but that strength to accomplish what you want to accomplish,” said Dr. Eleanor Green. “A cowgirl can be so many definitions and so many different personalities. Every single person in this room brings different strengths and different characteristics and different personalities and yet they’re all cowgirls because they’re bonded by that common theme.”

Eleanor’s words are true, and each workshop during the course of the three-day roundup revealed each Hall of Famer’s cowgirl spirit.

Stacy spoke about how her mother had a way with animals, inadvertently showing Stacy the way to listen and respond with respect. Her perseverance to shape her work with horses into a career and her humble nature are evidence of the lineage of long-ago cowgirls who learned to speak, and work seamlessly, with the horses they’d use for daily duties that ultimately led to the survival of many Western families.

As I scanned the room, knowing the names and faces of each woman, I felt part of that camaraderie—the cowgirl bond. I noticed the amazement of the attendees, including my own, workshop after workshop and the undeniable closeness we all felt at having shared these emotional moments together as a group.

“You can actually almost imagine you were there 150 years ago,” Cathy A. Smith, the artist whose work in the epic Western film, Dances with Wolves, set the standard for authenticity in Western filmmaking, said when she displayed a photograph from the set of the film. Authenticity meant 18-20 hour days—painting, beading, and using quillwork to successfully honor the original drawings and paintings of 19th century cowgirls and cowboys and the Plains Indians—at the mercy of Western weather. It was through that photograph, and through capturing our own depictions of this Westerly life under the direction of Western photographer Barbara Van Cleve that we were able to see the West as it was—as it still is today—the very last best place, preserved and celebrated.

By Western definition, a roundup is the springtime gathering of cattle on the ranges in order to brand calves. Even though—fortunately for these women and me—we didn’t return to our homes with brands or ear-tags, we did return with brimming hearts and enough feel-good to last us until next year, when the workload completes another rotation under the big sky that blankets a way of life not lost in our corner of the world.