Snorts, flying dust, jingling bridles. You can feel it in the air. Something great is about to happen. The lights dim and the official equestrian rodeo drill team of Texas moves into the rodeo arena to the beat of music.
The audience goes wild as East Texas’ Ghostriders begins one of its precision drills.
The Ghostriders, an all-female team, is the brainchild of Pam Bonner, who was looking for a wholesome equestrian sport the whole family could enjoy.
“We originally came together just for the love of riding and the wonderful fellowship we enjoy together,” Ms. Bonner said. “Everyone was so enthusiastic. We realized we were on to something and we formed the club Aug. 4, 2001.”
The initial group of 12 women has grown to 30. Riders, who pay a small membership fee, come from Lindale, Mabank, Grand Saline and Canton. The team provides the matching chaps, hats and shirts the riders wear during shows, parades and competitions. Members provide their own transportation, horse, saddle and bit.
One of the riders is 58-year-old Jan Elsmore, a former physics teacher who likes to do stand-up comedy.
“One reason I joined the drill team is to give my horse (Rocket) a good job,” Ms. Elsmore said. “Rocket responds to the goals I set for him, and the team effort helps individual riders improve.”
Ms. Elsmore and Rocket have been in Ghostriders for five years.
“And like all the other horse/rider teams, we realize we’re lifelong learners,” she said. “We want to do it right, and above all we want to be ... engaged in community life with our riding family.”
Ms. Bonner holds the reins as the team’s drillmaster. She choreographs the maneuvers and coaches the youth group. Her sidekick is Ghostriders’ coach Sara Bass, who has been a member since she was 16 years old. Ms. Bonner’s husband, Gary, is the director of operations.
Riders are selected from auditions. Women can participate as a member of the color guard and on the teams that compete in advanced and novice divisions. Boys and girls as young as age 6 can find a place on the youth team.
Each woman and youth rider is trained in horsemanship, safety and teamwork. Practices are generally held on Sunday afternoons.
Drills involve putting the horses through a set of maneuvers that demand perfect timing.
“First, I watch other teams, then I evaluate our horse-and-rider abilities and create routines that bring out the best of each member and her horse,” Ms. Bonner said. “From that, I develop eye-catching drills that flow smoothly from one maneuver to the next.
“It doesn’t happen without a lot of practice. So when we perform and the crowds applaud, it’s a total rush for all of us. It’s our pay. We leave the arena absolutely exhilarated.”
She said each rider’s commitment to excellence is what makes the Ghostriders so good. “Riding with women at such a high skill level challenges you to be better all the time. You know you’re part of something greater than yourself.”
In its very first competition in 2002, the Ghostriders won the Texas Open Drill Team Novice Championship. Since 2012, the team’s many titles include: Texas Rodeo Champion, National Senior Quad and National Color Guard champions, National Parade Champion, Central Texas Novice Champion and International Senior Novice Quad Champion.
In 2007, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a resolution proclaiming the Ghostriders the official rodeo drill team of Texas. The resolution notes the team’s role in preserving the legacy of horsemanship in Texas.
It reads: “Nearly 500 years have elapsed since horses first splashed through the surf and onto Mexican soil with the conquistador Hernando Cortes; during that half millennium, the animal became essential to many cultures in Texas and the horse and rider emerged as one of the iconic images of the Lone Star State. Through their deftly executed and heart-quickening performances, the Ghostriders evoke the ineffable bond that has joined countless riders and their mounts.”
In January, the Ghostriders participated in the All Western Parade, an event that drew 100,000 spectators held as part of the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. The team placed first in the riding clubs division.
Later this year, Ghostriders is set to take part in rodeos in Athens, Lindale, Mabank and Mineola. At each performance, Ghostriders presents Hometown Heroes Awards to military personnel, first responders and other heroes. Each Hometown Hero receives a framed certificate during a ceremony held in the middle of the arena. This is the Ghostriders’ way of saying “thank you” to people who dedicate their lives to serving others, Ms. Bonner said.