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Cowgirl brand manager, Cynthia Burke (far left) trial riding with friends in New Mexico.

They pulled up to the trailhead in a red two-door convertible with Wisconsin license plates, their blonde hair wild from the wind.  The two 30-something women emerged from the car like models from an ‘80s ZZ Top video. They both wore sunglasses, loose flannel shirts and fashion jeans tucked into scuffed cowboy boots.  The driver reached for a pink-tinged cowboy hat on the back seat and mashed it down over her curly shoulder-length locks.  I was sure she’d picked it up at some truck stop on the way to Colorado.

I was by the trailer unloading three trail horses plus Alfred Packer, a sturdy pack horse named for the infamous Colorado cannibal.  I shouted a hello.  The one with the hat walked right up to me, gave me a peck on the cheek and said, “Hi, I’m Krista and this is Jackie.  But you can also call us the Boorang Twins.”

“Welcome!” I said, “Your legend precedes you.”

I’d heard dozens of stories about “the Twins“ from the other wranglers–male and female–who worked for my boss, the trail outfitter.  Every year, the two close friends who worked together as ER nurses came west from Madison to trail ride in the Colorado Rockies.  They were, by all accounts, a pair of firecrackers.

They’d gotten their nickname a few years earlier when, in the absence of other drink mixers, they improvised a camp cocktail made of Bourbon and hot Tang–the Boorang.  It had become a pack trip staple, a tradition shared with everyone we took into the mountains.  At last, I was meeting its originators.

While I got their gear sorted and packed onto Alfred, the women blasted rock tunes on their car stereo.  They climbed up on a picnic table and danced.  Later, as we rode ever upward on the trail to camp, they sang songs and told racy jokes.  While I set up camp, they slipped away to hike and explore a bit.  An hour later, they came back giggling.

A water crossing at Midwest Trails. Photo by Ashley Murphy.

“We got to the lake and decided to go skinny dipping,” Jackie told me.

“I think we might have traumatized a pack of Boy Scouts,” said Krista.  Then they both burst out laughing.

Whether they were telling the truth or enhancing the story for my benefit, the two were having a great time. Over the course of the trip, they helped with the cooking and camp chores, had me teach them swing dancing, sang by the campfire, shot hundreds of photos and made dozens of their famed Boorangs.  Jack Daniels never had better friends than the Twins. They were game to groom and saddle their own horses, always up for a ride, and easily put in 60 miles on hard, steep trails over four days–never complaining about being saddle sore.

At the end of the pack trip, I was sad to see them go. They each gave me a $100 tip and kissed me on the cheek.  I felt like I should have been paying them.  I’d never had such a great time.

“Our jobs in the ER are really stressful, so we do these rides to relax and blow off stream,” Krista told me.  “It’s our chance to cut loose.  Getting a little crazy helps keep us from going insane.”

“Thanks for so much fun!” said Jackie.  Then, she kissed the nose of her horse and said, “Thanks to you too!”

As a former mountain guide, I have memories of trips that will last a lifetime.  But to my mind, this one epitomizes everything great about trail riding.  Laughter, friendship, shared adventure, relaxation, a feeling of freedom–the Boorang Twins had it all in spades.  I know they couldn’t have gotten all those things on a luxury cruise ship vacation, or a trip to Las Vegas. Horses were their vehicle.

I don’t know if Krista or Jackie ever got horses of their own…we lost touch after I left the guest ranch where I’d worked.  But there’s a good chance they did.  Most American horse owners start as trail riders, often taking their first rides on rental horses, on guest ranches or pack trips.  Trail riding is, by far, the typical horsewoman’s favorite activity–recreational horses make up more than two-fifths of America’s 9.4 million equines, and women make up 70 percent of their riders.

Over the years, I’ve often wondered why women are so much more inclined to own horses then men.  I got a pretty satisfactory answer from Kim Humphries, owner of Midwest Trail Ride & Outpost near Norman, Indiana.

“Men prefer riding a mountain bike, or a motorcycle.  They like machines.  Women fall in love with things they can care for and [that] love them back, like horses,” Kim said.

Enjoying a verdant summer ride at Midwest Trails. Photo by Randy McKissick.

Sure, it’s stereotyping, but Kim’s wisdom comes from experience.  She and her husband, Jeff, operate what’s likely the largest public trail riding facility in the Midwest, with more than 300 horse stalls, 108 campsites, 13 cabins, and a dining hall that seats 250.  Clubs and individuals come here daily to ride on more than 100 miles of bridle trails in Southern Indiana’s 200,000-acre Hoosier National Forest.

Kim says their client base is about 80 percent professional women and retired couples, “the kind of people who can afford a $100,000 rig and all the accessories to go with it.”

Nine years ago, the Humphries fit that profile.  While not yet retired, Jeff had made a long, successful career in the trucking industry.  Kim, who’d shared driving duties in the couple’s younger day, had gone back to school to get a bachelor’s degree in business.  For recreation, they rode the trails.

It was Kim’s childhood love of horses that got them both involved in the activity.  Although they travelled and trail rode throughout the region, they were particularly fond of Midwest Trails, where they could camp and ride in relative luxury.  When Kim heard that there was an opportunity for the couple to manage the facility, she and Jeff veered off course to take it.

“We’d ridden for years and thought it would be neat to make a career out of it.  So, we quit our jobs and moved here,” Kim said.  After managing Midwest Trails for six years, they bought the business in 2013.

Asked what moved the Humphries to make trail riding the center of their lives, Kim said,  “When you are out there on the trail, it’s a little adventure.  You’re outdoors seeing nature and bonding with your horse.  It is an awesome thing.”

Midwest Trails hosts scores of riding clubs throughout the year, including a few women-only groups.  This coming Spring, a chapter of the all-women’s outdoor adventure group Sisters On The Fly plans to go there and trail ride, then throw a Kentucky Derby Party complete with mint juleps and fancy hats. Sue Kuzelka, a nurse from Chicago and weekend trail rider, is organizing the event.

Cowgirls taking in the moment at Wagonmound Land and Cattle in Douglas, Wyoming. Photo by Robin Merrill.

“We went live yesterday and already have 18 women signed up.  And it’s not until May!,” she told me in the fall.

When she joined her local chapter of Sisters On The Fly (the name came from fly fishing, the club’s initial focus), she realized she could share her passion for trail riding.  The Kentucky Derby Party is her first event as an organizer.

“I want the women to realize how fun it is to get out and ride in our National Forest.  I want them to put down their cellphones and tablets, to shut everything off and be in the moment.”  Horses, she says, force a person to be fully engaged in what they’re doing.

Sue took up riding at age 32.  Her first overnight camping experience involved a 100-mile trail ride spread over a three-day weekend.  Though she only rode a fraction of the distance, she recalls how much she enjoyed herself.

“I met some wonderful people.  We had catered meals and dances in the evenings.  Then, they threw the newcomers in a horse trough and we all went home wet.  It was so fun!”

Now in her 50s, Sue is still just as enthusiastic about camping and trail riding.  She has made one concession to age: she no longer sleeps in a tent but in a heated trailer.

“I work as a critical care nurse in Chicago.  I have family and kids that I love.  But this is just for me.  I can go out and ride and feel grounded and focused. Riding gives me freedom and happy endings.”

Opening women up to the joys of riding—and providing a relief valve from the stresses of everyday life—was what prompted another rider, Kristi Williams, to form 40-Something Cowgirls.  What started six years ago in Oregon as a group of 13 of Kristi’s closest friends has now grown to a nationwide organization with 40 chapters ranging from 10 to 70 riders each.

“There’s no limitations on the things they can do, every chapter can basically run things the way they see fit.  We do all sorts of things like parades, cow sorting and team roping contests, but there is quite a bit of trail riding,” said Kristi, who is both a show rider and an avid trail rider.

A trail etiquette committee supports riders with educational materials that provide guidelines and recommendations for rides and advice on topics such as how to stay safe on the trail and what makes for a good trail horse.  Then, there’s the casual interplay between experienced riders and newcomers—some of whom don’t have horses.

“We have members that have ridden for 30-plus years.  And we have members that are 60-plus who are looking at getting a first horse.  So, the expertise varies.  Our gals are always helping each other to learn.”

Navigating a narrow passage through boulders at Wagonmound Land and Cattle. Photo by Robin Merrill.

The 40-Something Cowgirls is not just made up of 40 year olds.  As Kristi says, “We say, ‘We’re all 40-something and holding.’  A few of us, well, we haven’t seen 40 in a long time! It’s about attitude, not age.”  Unlike Sisters On The Fly, whose motto is “No men, no kids, be nice, have fun!,” 40-Something Cowgirls takes a more lenient attitude toward family members.  Some of the chapters exclude men from their activities, but most will include “the boys” in family events, says its founder.

“My husband goes everywhere with me.  He’s one of the girls,” says Kristi, with a laugh.

One appealing aspect of the 40-Something Cowgirls as a group (and trail riding as an activity) is that both are non-competitive in nature.

“The horse world can be so competitive.  But these gals are open-minded and willing to help.  This is all about sharing experiences—riding experiences, but life experiences too,” says Kristi.  “It’s sort of like a sorority.”

Finding groups to ride with is a key part of the trail riding experience, not just for social support but also for the riders’ safety. Cynthia Burke, a brand manager at COWGIRL, is an avid back country trail rider active in a local riding club.  From the first warm days in spring to the shortening days of late fall, she spends her weekends out riding trails with them.  Having a support group, she says, gives her confidence.

“The majority of our club is women over 50.  So it’s a comfort to ride and caravan with four or five others,” she said.  Months of preparation go into the rides, and the difficulty of terrain is rated so that a beginner, say, doesn’t end up on an overly challenging trail.

“Our club policy is, if someone doesn’t feel safe on a ride, we will have someone accompany them back to camp.  But we’ve never had that happen,” said Cynthia.

One of her best memories was her first overnight trip, and how empowering it felt.

“It was just unbelievable! I had such a good time.  To do something with my animal, to wake up to find he was still there [laughs].  I was just happy.”

Now, she finds the same type of happiness bringing new riders into the fold.

“What’s memorable for me is when I see new people who join the club, who haven’t gotten out and done things with their horses. I like watching their growing confidence.  I like to see people get excited and have a wonderful trip.  It’s just so great to think, ‘I was that person.’”

If you haven’t tried trail riding, maybe it’s time you became that person, too.  Who knows?  You might get lucky and find your trail crosses paths with the Twins.  I’m pretty sure they’re out there somewhere, having a ball and tossing down a few Boorangs. m