After 96 years of riding horses, Connie Douglas Reeves made her last dismount with an independence that underscored her belief that riding is a metaphor for living.
By BILL DURYEA
Published September 7, 2003
Legendary cowgirl Connie Douglas Reeves, age 100 in this photo from 2002. Her favorite horse, Dr Pepper (not shown), would be the last she would ride.
Connie Douglas Reeves rode her first horse when she was 5. Ninety uninterrupted years of riding later, she was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
That was 1997, and at the time Reeves was still the director of horseback riding at Camp Waldemar, an all-girls summer camp in the Texas Hill Country. She had held that position since 1936, when she gave up a brief career teaching high school English to teach young girls how to ride an English saddle.
Over 67 summers, it is estimated that she taught 30,000 girls. Though she yielded full-time responsibility for the program in 1998, she remained an almost daily presence at the camp. Recently she had begun to see the great-granddaughters of girls she once taught.
Five days before the end of camp this year, about seven weeks shy of her 102nd birthday, Reeves gently climbed onto the back of her favorite horse, Dr Pepper, and went for a ride.
From a posting Aug. 5 on the Camp Waldemar Web site:
"We wanted to share the news with you before all the rumors got started. Connie was riding today with Marsha on her favorite horse, Dr Pepper. In true Connie form, Connie informed Marsha that she would like to stop walking and do a little cantering. When she urged her horse forward, Dr Pepper ducked his head and threw Connie onto the (ground)."
Meg Clark - the owner and director of the camp, and also the daughter of Marsha, the woman who was riding with Reeves - explained what happened:
"They went riding across the river and through a field across the river from the camp. Then they came back and rode across the golf course fairway," Clark, 39, said. "They were kind of all over that day . . .
"My mom had cantered across the field because Connie had her out there practicing getting her horse on a right lead, meaning when you turn right, you want your horse to have the right foot forward first. It's a challenge to do and here she was teaching my mom.
"Anyway, Mom cantered across the field and I don't know if Connie's horse was intending to canter at some point, but he put his head down and she just went over. That probably caught her off guard. She just didn't have a lot of muscle strength to hold on."
Reeves cut her forehead badly in the fall and broke a vertebra in her neck. Though she was able to move her arms and legs, a helicopter was summoned to transport her to a hospital in San Antonio.
Initially, her friends were guardedly optimistic. This was not the first time Reeves had fallen.
When she was 93, she and Dr Pepper had been swarmed by hornets. Stung repeatedly, the horse had bolted, throwing Reeves to the ground. She broke her wrist, five ribs and suffered a partially collapsed lung.
From a posting Aug. 7 on the camp's Web site:
"(Connie) mentioned her dismount may have been her last, but it was not as graceful as she would have hoped. So I believe she will give it another try."
Falling was part of riding, she had always taught her students.
"She wasn't just teaching about riding, she was teaching about life," said Clark, who learned to ride from Reeves. "She was teaching the girls you can be afraid of something like getting on a horse, or you can just go out and do it and get out there and ride that horse and know that you're going to be okay. Even if you get bucked off. And she got bucked off every year."
She liked a horse that had as much spirit as she did. That's why she chose to ride Dr Pepper, a 28-year-old paint.
"They were a little match," said Liz Pohl, the camp's equine director. "She used to say he feels like a 6-year-old in his brain. She loved him because he liked to show off and canter in place."
She continued to ride him even after he kicked her, shattering her thigh bone and shortening her leg by an inch. After that she had to have her boots specially made.
From the Aug. 7 posting:
"The doctors were initially shocked, angry and in disbelief that anyone would allow a 101-year-old woman to ride a horse. The doctors were then given a little history on their patient. They were also informed that we were not quite sure how to keep Connie off her horse, and furthermore none of us would like to take on that task. They then requested copies of her book and seem to be taking quite good care of our local celebrity."
Reeves was more than a local celebrity, though she never left Texas and had no desire to do so.
Constance Douglas was born in 1901 in the town of Eagle Pass on the border of Mexico and as child swam in the Rio Grande River. Her father was a judge and her mother, she said, was descended from English nobility. It was her grandfather who gave her her first horse.
Reeves was one of the first women to attend the law school at the University of Texas at Austin, but the Depression interrupted her studies, forcing her to take a job as a school teacher in San Antonio. She organized the first girls pep squad in the state and later started her own riding stable.
She gave that up for a job at Camp Waldemar, where she met Jack Reeves, a retired rodeo star who was the camp's head wrangler. They married in 1942.
There was rarely a day of Reeves' life that she was not on horseback. In the months when camp was not in session, she and her husband ran a 10,000-acre sheep and cattle ranch. They rode the fences together, doing everything from branding cattle and shearing sheep to repairing windmills and tending sick animals.
They never had children, and when Jack Reeves died in 1985 she simply continued doing the work she loved at the camp. And her legend continued to grow.
First came the induction at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. Then, in 1998, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City gave her an award for major contributions to the Western way of life. Last year, the Freedom Forum honored Reeves for her "free-spirited accomplishments that have stirred the public's hearts and souls by demonstrating the human capacity to dream, dare and do."
"I still ride alone," Reeves said in an interview with National Public Radio last year. "Sometimes I'll just get on the horse and go down to the river. We'll just ride up and watch a little baby fawn nursing or watch the birds in a nest."
Aug. 15 update:
"Connie had recovered enough last week to actually get up and walk a little. Unfortunately, she has had a rough time since then. She has been in and out of ICU in the past few days. We saw her yesterday afternoon and she was having a pretty difficult time breathing . . .
Yesterday the doctor said, "Connie you have had control of your life for over a hundred years and now you are the chief of what is going to happen now.' "
The Cowgirl Hall of Fame has an unofficial motto: "Always saddle your own horse."
It was a simple piece of advice that Reeves uttered countless times until it came to have the weight of a Zen aphorism.
"She kind of got a kick out of everyone taking it so philosophically," said Liz Pohl, the equine director. "But Connie lived her life to that same mantra. She always took charge. She always took responsibility for what needed to be done, for every consequence."
"Initially she meant just that: Saddle your own horse, develop a relationship with your horse," said Meg Clark. "But as with everything that Connie said, it had a much greater meaning, just as her life did. Ultimately, what she meant was: "Take responsibility for your life. Saddle your own horse and live that life the way you choose to.' "
Reeves chose a life in a man's world, never thinking that she would become a role model for women. But she understood, even if she didn't make a big deal of it, that she was building better women by teaching them to master a difficult art.
" "The horses are the teachers,' " Pohl remembers her saying more than once. "She would manage the horses so that every girl felt confident with what she was asked to do. She was very thoughtful about building self-esteem and confidence, but real tough.
"She always expected the very best. When she would ride around to the classes, you would see the little girls straighten up in their saddles just a little bit; no one wanted to disappoint her."
Reeves discovered along the way that the old ways weren't the only ways. Until the early '80s all the wranglers at the camp were men. But when the camp's ownership changed, Reeves met someone who forced her to acknowledge she wasn't the only woman who could handle a man's job.
"She was pretty tough those first couple of years because she didn't really want it," said Pohl, who came to the camp at 14 as the first female wrangler.
"But then she realized the boys we had at the time weren't really boys who loved horses. They were just high school boys. You could much easier get girls that age who just loved horses and would be much kinder to them. Then she decided that girls would be a better idea, and then we changed to all girl wranglers."
Reeves came to believe that as horse handlers women were superior to men.
"The harsh voices and rough bark of boys and men seem to frighten horses," she wrote in a script for a video that she made several weeks before the end of camp. "The same horse that refused to take the bit in its mouth will accept it from the more gentle hands of a girl."
The idea for the video, which she called Girls on Horses, came to Reeves this summer as she watched the wranglers.
"We had such a good group this summer," Pohl said. "They were all happy and sweet and loved the horses and never got grumpy no matter how tired they were. Connie loved watching them smiling every day and just loving on the horses, cleaning out the stalls when they should have been resting. So she got this idea she wanted to video the connection, the love between the girls and the horses."
The video begins:
"Lights begin popping on like fireflies against a midnight sky - inside, outside, in the feed room and in the barn. In the loft above the tack room, seven young women are crawling out of bed and slipping into their jeans. Time to gather the horses which have spent the night napping and grazing in the river pasture."
"It is with great sadness and disbelief that we must share with you that Connie Reeves passed away this afternoon . . .
"We will never forget her telling us to keep our heels down, teaching the quadrille or watching her usher in the Waldemar herd in those early mornings . . .
"We can only hope to live by the example she set. Live life to the fullest to the very end. It is what made Connie Reeves so special. One of a kind. A Texas legend."
The exact cause of death was a heart attack.
A few days later, an evening memorial service was held at the Waldemar stables.
"Liz and her sister rode two horses in with Dr Pepper being walked in," Clark said. "They tied him up to the rail. He had a blanket of red roses draped over him. I think the roses were bothering him and he was very antsy. He was not happy, so he just told everybody about it."
Nobody is riding Dr Pepper at the moment. He's in the barn with a couple of other older horses.
"We'll use him a little bit next summer, keep him going. That's kind of what kept Connie young so long, and what keeps our horses young so long, they keep a job. We never really retire them. They always have a reason to do every day."
The video is still just raw footage. It needs someone who can narrate Reeves' script with the same emotion she put into the writing:
"At the end of a camp day and the Wranglers have removed the saddles and turned the horses loose in the corral, there is time to give some affectionate pats before opening the gates.
"As the tired animals race down the hill, the same golden ball of fire which climbed out of the darkness of the east begins to settle down in the west. A canopy of many colors floats overhead.
"Day is done and as the darkness creeps overhead and the stars begin to twinkle, girls and horses are resting peacefully."