The year is 1973, and it is a vibrant Montana spring. The wild crocuses are blooming a brilliant purple in the Big Coulee valley. A 6-year-old cowgirl lopes alongside her grandmother Betty, joyfully popping over sagebrush on her paint pony. The exultation of a great ride coupled with her grandmother’s love and guidance made this day a decisive moment in that little girl’s life. With growing confidence and ambition, she realized, “I can do anything. There is never a doubt.”
That young cowgirl would grow up to become the esteemed horsewoman, entrepreneur, yogi, and artisan, Tammy Pate. She is also the visionary behind Art of the Cowgirl, a popular public gathering that celebrates cowgirls and “their contributions to western lifestyle and culture.” On the occasion of this year’s Mother’s Day, we wanted to catch up with one of our favorite cowgirls to hear her experiences with her “most precious job”–motherhood.
Before all of her professional accomplishments, Tammy was the daughter of a fourth generation ranching family. Her childhood was defined by constructive confidence-building balanced with unadulterated freedom. “Growing up horseback and ranching there was just an expectation that you can do it,” says Tammy. “If my grandma or my mom and dad said we were going somewhere and moving cattle, there was no hesitation.”
Tammy’s grandmother Betty had a massive impact on her life. Betty taught Tammy to sew, bake, cook, and ride. Just as importantly, she instilled in Tammy an appreciation and keen eye for art.
At nine years old, her parents and grandparents purchased Tammy’s first competition horse, Friday, who would be instrumental in her character development. “Friday made me who I am. He gave me confidence. I trusted him. He was my confidant. I wish every child would have a horse like him… confidence is the most important thing we can instill in our children.”
In 1987 Tammy married her husband Curt Pate, a horseman and stockmanship clinician. The couple traveled to rodeos, started colts, and worked on ranches. For Tammy, motherhood was a welcome addition to their already busy lives. “All I ever wanted to be was a mom… I would have had 10 kids, but Curt said we had a boy and a girl and that was enough.”
Curt’s clinician career skyrocketed after his role as a technical advisor for Robert Redford’s 1998 film, “The Horse Whisperer,” prompting his family to join him on the road. In addition to her responsibilities assisting the clinics and managing administrative tasks, Tammy also homeschooled their elementary-aged children. She was resourceful and inventive and used their nontraditional circumstances as part of her children’s broader education. Rial and Mesa “each had their own little tack business. We tried to give them just enough responsibility to learn and manage and have something of their own to be proud of. We wouldn’t just give them everything.”
So what were the challenges of being a young mother living on remote ranches and traveling to clinics? At this point, you can hear the light in Tammy’s voice. “You know, honestly? I don’t remember challenges.” Continuing, she explains: “I still went and rode with Curt. During calving, I would bundle the kids up. We would go with him… We did everything together. When Curt saddled a horse, he would saddle for the kids and me. I put the baby in a little front pack. I had a safe horse I trusted and rode… I loved our life. It was the challenges of ranching, but nothing to do with family.”
As Tammy shared, “I never resented having a family, because it never changed my life.” Like many others who choose a ranching lifestyle, every part of her existence and livelihood was intertwined–her work, her home, her family. She didn’t change her life; there were just a few extra horses to saddle. Then she pauses and gives a little laugh. “The challenges came later when the kids were getting older and finding their own identity.” Even then she is both pragmatic and kind. “We were making sure that we were nurturing them individually, and not forcing them to follow in our footsteps.”
Tammy’s focus on family is undeniable. Though professionally she is very accomplished, she reiterates again and again, “I always had my side gigs, but family came first.” In addition, her emphasis on community and fellowship, instead of monetary or professional gains, is partially why she is so successful. Throughout her life, Tammy has been generous with both her time and talents. Over time and years, the Pates acquired other “children,” opening up their home to children and teenagers, giving them an opportunity to live a summer on a ranch. Mastering skills honed at the Pate’s ranch, a few of these individuals grew up to be professional horsemen, artisans, musicians, and business owners.
This philosophy and compassion made Tammy’s transition into a workshop leader a natural progression. When Curt stopped teaching horsemanship clinics in the early 2000s, he encouraged Tammy to teach her own. She listened. Since 2005 Tammy has been leading horsemanship and yoga workshops nationally and internationally. Her leadership has evolved into the creation of Art of the Cowgirl, an annual event she works closely with her daughter Mesa to implement. As Tammy says, “Mesa and I are inseparable. We see things differently, but the same. Mesa is more like her Dad… Rial and I are more alike; we are the dreamers and the risk-takers… Mesa and Curt are methodical.”
Though perhaps unintentionally, Tammy has created a legacy. A legacy that began with four generations of ranching families before her, to her life as a young mother on a ranch and raising children on the clinic trail, to teaching her own workshops, and finally in the summation with Art of the Cowgirl. It’s amazing what a nice spring ride on your favorite paint pony among the wild prairie crocuses can do.
- Learn more about Tammy Pate’s upcoming Yoga and Horsemanship Retreat at the Zapata Ranch
- Connect with Tammy at her Art of the Cowgirl website, or on social media @artofthecowgirl