Horsewoman Tammy Pate's nonprofit passes cowgirl skills along to a new generation by connecting the aspiring with the inspiring.
Imagine someone offers you a chance to spend a week with one of your heroes who’s famous for excelling at the thing you’re most passionate about. You get to visit their home, see them work, ask them questions, and learn from them one-on-one.
That opportunity of a lifetime is exactly what happens when the nonprofit organization Art of the Cowgirl connects aspiring women in the cowgirl arts — fine arts, silversmithing, braiding, saddlemaking, equestrian sports, and many other Western trades — with masters of their respective crafts.
The doors that open, and the friendships that are made, keep many a cowgirl’s dreams alive and well on their way to coming true.
It’s all a dream come true for Art of the Cowgirl founder Tammy Pate, a cowgirl herself who knows a thing or two about the beauty of the Western lifestyle. She grew up in Montana, spending summers on her grandparents’ ranch, exploring the world from the back of her trusted horse. Pate never strayed from the cowgirl lifestyle as she became a wife to her high school sweetheart, and they raised their two now-grown children around cattle, ranching, rodeo, and horsemanship.
“One of the reasons I think it is so important for people to be exposed to this lifestyle is it builds confidence,” Pate says. “When my dad and mom and grandparents were raising us, we didn’t ever think there was anything we couldn’t do. They gave us a horse and told us to go move cows, and we figured it out. We got in a pickup and had to back a horse trailer up. I don’t even ever remember thinking I can’t do something.”
It’s that kind of confidence born of learned skills that Pate fosters through Art of the Cowgirl mentoring fellowships. Pate has always had an artistic and entrepreneurial side. Years ago as a young mother, she would make and sell appliquéd jean jackets at the National Finals Rodeo. When she decided to take up boot making under the guidance of a successful local bootmaker, she discovered the power of mentorship. She quickly learned the craft and spent several successful years making and selling her boots in business with her mentor. Being able to continue this time-honored trade was powerful to Pate.
I wanted women in roping to grow," says mentor Lari Dee Guy. "There are so many girls out there that rope so good, and to me, I felt like roping is a handed art, and I wanted to hand it down to the next generation to come."
Eventually, she also joined her husband in a career as a horsemanship clinician. Seeing the parallels between yoga and horsemanship skills, Pate started leading combination yoga-horsemanship retreats 15 years ago. Making connections with horsewomen at the retreats planted the seeds of a dream: to empower women to follow their own dreams and hone their skills in a variety of Western arts and disciplines.
“The thought came years ago, and it took me a while to get the confidence to just go for it. When I turned 50, I told my husband, ‘I’m just going to do it. If I don’t do it, I’m going to regret it,’ and four years later it is absolutely amazing,” she says. “It has grown beyond anything I could have imagined, and I’m so proud. We have funded 27 fellowships to date.”
Celebrating cowgirl grit and spirit is integral to the organization’s mission, and Pate is not in short supply of that grit herself. Shortly after the inaugural Art of the Cowgirl event in 2019, Pate was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. She relied on her determination, as well as a lot of research into unconventional treatments, to battle the disease and emerge cancer-free in just six months.
“I believe it is the Western spirit,” Pate says. “It’s no different than ranchers who go through blizzards and lose everything — they don’t give up. If what they’re doing isn’t working, they just rebuild and try something different. You just don’t give up, and that’s the way I try to live my life.”
That tenacity of Pate’s has propelled the Art of the Cowgirl organization forward as well. It now solicits applications from cowgirls across the country through social media and word-of-mouth. The organization painstakingly reviews the applications to select “fellows” they can pair with “masters” — both women and men who are experts in their fields — to foster learning, community, and support among the female recipients.
“We give the fellowships to people who want to make it a business and those who want to give back. Those are two main things we look at even more than skill, because the skill can be taught. We just want someone who’s passionate about preserving our Western trades,” Pate says.
That’s the case for fellowship recipient Audre Etsitty, who has goals of making her mark as a breakaway roper, horse trainer, and instructor for other cowgirls on the Navajo Reservation where she lives.
Coming from the reservation I think there is a lot of potential for our Native American horsewomen," says fellowship recipient Audre Etsitty (Navajo). "If I could help be a catalyst for that I would feel very good."
Etsitty grew up with horses. Her love of the animal is as imbedded in her Native American culture as it is tied to her childhood memories in youth rodeo and her education studying equine science. Nowadays, Etsitty shares horsemanship techniques and agricultural information through her work in educational programming for the Diné College Land Grant Office.
And though she felt comfortable in the sport of barrel racing, Etsitty was looking to step up her game when it came to teaching breakaway roping so she could encourage the young women of her community to embrace the fast-growing sport.
“Coming from the reservation, I think there is a lot of potential for our Native American horsewomen, and if I could help be a catalyst for that, I would feel very good,” Etsitty says.
That vision is what drew her to applying for a fellowship opportunity with Art of the Cowgirl. She didn’t think she’d be chosen, but she liked the organization’s focus on paying it forward in the industry.
“I wanted to be that teacher for the kids who are starting out, [as well as for] the moms that put their rodeo career on the backburner for their kids or their career, because I was also that girl,” she says. “I was the girl who was starting out, and I’m the mom, too, because I put my rodeo career aside [for an education, career, and motherhood].”
It was on a particularly hard day at her nine-to-five job that Etsitty got a phone call from Jaimie Stoltzfus, fellowship and sponsorship director for Art of the Cowgirl. It was the boost Etsitty desperately needed. Stoltzfus was calling to let her know she’d been selected to receive an all-expenses-paid chance to learn from one of breakaway roping’s most accomplished cowgirls, Lari Dee Guy, a Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world champion of the sport.
Etsitty wouldn’t be the only call Stoltzfus would be making. The Art of the Cowgirl organization awarded six additional opportunities like Etsitty’s for the 2022 award year. They’ve awarded a similar number of fellowships each of their previous three years in operation, adding up to a sizeable impact on fostering emerging talent in the Western industry.
Candidates aren’t in short supply. Every year the organization averages about 30 applicants for each fellowship but has received upwards of 100 before for a single fellowship, according to Stoltzfus, who got to call Etsitty with the good news she’d been selected.
The Art of the Cowgirl team, and many of the masters themselves, spend about four to six weeks going through applications in early spring with the difficult task of picking the winners. The responsibility of offering someone this sort of opportunity isn’t taken lightly, Stoltzfus assures.
“It’s so impactful. It truly is life-changing for so many women. It has really changed the trajectory of what they’re doing with their time. The feedback we get is that this has been so empowering, the confidence gained from being chosen and being poured into,” she says. “Sometimes that’s all it’s taking for these gals to reach their next level — someone giving them the confidence and them believing in themselves, and they’re off and running. It’s so rewarding.”
It’s not just the recipients who benefit from this opportunity. Nancy Martiny is a master saddlemaker who has been crafting beautiful and functional saddles since the 1980s after she was fortunate enough to be mentored by Dale Harwood, a legend in the saddlemaking industry.
When Martiny became a mentor herself for the Art of the Cowgirl’s first three years in operation, she knew firsthand the importance of proper guidance but had little idea of the positive impact the role would have on her own life.
“It got me out of the house, out of the shop. I spend a lot of time here by myself,” Martiny says. “For a lot of years, I hadn’t been going to any shows or really mingling with people in the industry. Nobody knew what we were getting into [in the nonprofit’s first year], but it turned into such a good deal from the start. People were real supportive, and it stayed that way. The recipients are all at different levels, but they always learn a lot, and I learn a lot from them.”
Martiny is just one example of Pate’s ability to connect people. She’s been able to involve many professionals she knows in the industry from her and her husband Curt’s years giving horsemanship clinics. Now that the organization has gotten more established, even people she doesn’t know want to participate. The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame has become a strong supporter and bountiful source of masters of cowgirl crafts, Pate says. In fact, Etsitty’s mentor, Lari Dee Guy, is a 2021 honoree in the hall of fame.
Guy has won multiple world championships, and she credits her family for giving her a solid foundation in the sport of rodeo. Now, it’s important that she help others in her role as a teacher.
“[Being able to give back is] why I do what I do. I was very fortunate to have [support in my rodeo career], and not everyone does. That’s why I took on the job that I took on, and that was teaching women to rope.” Guy explains. “I wanted women in roping to grow. There are so many girls out there that rope so good, and to me, I felt like roping is a handed art, and I wanted to hand it down to the next generation to come.”
As Etsitty’s mentor, Guy focused on handing down her knowledge, as well as sharing with Etsitty her career in rodeo and her life on a cow-calf ranch in Abilene, Texas. Like each pairing of master and fellow, the fruits of Guy’s and Etsitty’s work together will be on display at Art of the Cowgirl’s marquee event January 18–22, 2023, in Queen Creek, Arizona.
Beyond raising funds and awareness, the culmination of the fellowships in this main event is at the heart of the nonprofit’s plan.
“I have always felt it was really important to have the event to showcase these fellowships publicly and to create a place where people come together to meet other people,” Pate says. “It’s the idea of connection that was one of the driving goals of creating the event. Curt and I have been so blessed with all of our traveling our whole life. We’ve met all of these amazing people and had all of these great opportunities, but if you’re a ranch wife in small-town Wyoming, for example, how are you going to meet those people? The event is a place where all of these high-powered people come. All of our sponsors come. We have round tables where we put people together. It’s a place to network.”
Making those connections is an opportunity for Etsitty to continue her mission of bettering her community.
“I think for me, being a Native American and a millennial, I struggle between finding balance. I have to work this 9-to-5 job, which doesn’t give me enough time to stay home and learn all the songs, the prayers, the medicines, so there’s a fine line we have to walk. I feel like this opportunity will help me pick up a piece of that puzzle and put it where it needs to be so I can learn more, and I can bring those teachings back.”
The Main Event
You can experience the ultimate Western gathering for cowgirls and cowboys when Art of the Cowgirl master mentors and fellowship recipients gather in Arizona in January for the nonprofit’s big annual event. Horsemanship, bit making, saddlemaking, hat making, Western fine art, and videography skills will be on display, along with a live art auction and competitions. Impeccably trained cow dogs and horses from women trainers will be available for purchase at the event sale. Watch the Greatest Horsewoman competition and a ranch rodeo, and learn new skills yourself through hands-on clinics and workshops in breakaway roping, silversmithing, and more. There will also be music, a one-of-a-kind tradeshow, and a whole lot of mingling. Art of the Cowgirl founder Tammy Pate and Pate’s daughter Mesa, who made a name for herself as a professional bucking bull stock contractor and helps out at the big event, will be on hand.
The Art of the Cowgirl’s Main Event takes place January 18–22, 2023, at Horseshoe Park & Equestrian Centre in Queen Creek, Arizona. For ticket sales and more information, visit artofthecowgirl.com.