By Rachel Florman
Dressed for “game day” in her best jeans, polished boots and a smart blazer, Linda McMahon sits amongst the throngs of cowboy hat-clad spectators as a buzz of anticipation fills the concrete arena’s stands. The National Reined Cowhorse Association’s World’s Greatest Horseman competition is in town, and there’s hardly room left to stand in Fort Worth’s John Justin Arena.
Pinned to her lapel for good luck, a bejeweled spider climbs along Linda’s jacket on wiry legs, its black diamonds sparkling like the excitement dancing in her eyes. It’s a token of her McSpyder Ranch and a personal reminder to face fears and challenges head-on.
The lively staccato of the born-and-raised Brooklynite’s cheers might sound a little out of place amongst the drawls of Texas cattlemen and cowboys, but Linda’s not too concerned; the Yankee-turned-Californian is unique—just like her horse—and she’s not afraid to stand out.
Amongst plain-coated competitors shines Dueling Chic O Lena, a cherry-red tobiano whose colorful chrome gleams of her breeding, talent and training, with Linda’s highest hopes buried in the mare’s auburn tresses. Under the guidance of trainer Shane Steffen, “Scarlet” is ready to take on all doubters and the event’s four grueling final rounds: reining, herd work, fence work and steer stopping.
“It’s just the most exciting thing,” Linda said, reminiscing to the heart-pounding experience. “Even just making the finals, you about had to hold me back. I just wanted to jump into that arena, run over and grab the trainer and horse both and just hug them.”
It can take years for horsemen to breed a champion with the right mix of talent and spirit to contend in a challenge like the World’s Greatest Horseman challenge—a true test of skill and stamina for reined cow horses ages 6 and up. Some breeders and owners never reach this pinnacle achievement, a fact Linda doesn’t take for granted. After all, she’s a relative neophyte in the reined cowhorse world, where breeding and training programs are often carefully cultivated over generations. But still she sits, a fast-talking girl from Brooklyn, cheering on her flashy pride and joy.
It all started with Bonanza. Or perhaps it was The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman or any one of the dozens of Hollywood Westerns broadcasting into Linda’s New York home. No matter the show, 5-year-old Linda sat transfixed on the carpet in front of the television set, the larger-than-life characters transporting her away from the three-story home crowded with extended family in the Big Apple and into the endless expanses of the Wild West.
“I lived for Bonanza on Sunday nights,” Linda said. “I could probably tell you all the old movie actors that rode Paints in Westerns, too. When you’re a kid, you don’t realize what you’re watching isn’t real life; that fantasy Western world just drew me in.”
From the likes of the Cartwrights, Linda learned the Code of the West—honesty, work ethic and family ties—along with the dramatized consequences of breaking the hallowed code: usually an arrow or quick-draw bullet to the chest. Meanwhile, Little Joe’s Chochise and Tonto’s Scout introduced Linda to Paints, their vivid markings flashing across the screen as they bravely charged through the wilderness.
Those Western values echoed in her own tight-knit family, though the urban sprawl of the city was vastly different from the lives of her on-screen heroes. Still, Linda learned resourcefulness and responsibility—though by learning to change tires instead of mend fences. Her father, Linda says, is to blame for her independent spirit.
“My father had two daughters, and I think he was concerned we and our mother wouldn’t be able to take care of ourselves, so he was always trying to teach us things,” Linda said. “He taught me to face things head-on, that if you’re afraid of something you should stare it down, no matter how scared you are.”
Amid the crowds of New York, mounted police and horse-drawn carriages brought horses out of the big screen and into plain sight, their powerful frames towering above the boot-clad youngster, who admired the larger-than-life creatures from afar.
“I didn’t even have a cat or dog growing up, so having a horse seemed so farfetched to me. When you’re walking around Brooklyn at 5 years old in cowboy boots, though, something’s going on,” Linda said. “But if I ever knew I’d be where I am 50 years ago, I’d have never believed it.”
Linda’s banking operations career and life with her husband, Jimmy, reflected the fast-paced city culture in which she’d grown up. Surrounded by skyscrapers and a culturally enriched city, neither Linda nor Jimmy longed for a change of scenery.
“We had the mindset of ‘Why would you leave the city?’ ” Linda said. “We were city kids, and we loved to run around the town; moving anywhere else might have been as much a culture shock as moving to Europe.”
But when Jimmy, a Wall Street securities trader, took a new job in California and afforded Linda the chance to retire early, the nonstop momentum of the city came to a screeching halt. On a new coast with newfound freedom, Linda found herself ready to take on new adventures.
“I had a lot of time on my hands, so I thought, ‘You know, I want to learn how to ride a horse.’ So at 40 years old I got into the saddle for the first time,” Linda said. “I still don’t know what possessed me to do this.”
Charged with an adult-beginner’s healthy sense of fear, Linda tagged along with her San Francisco friend, Terri Simon, to her barn, where Terri’s encouraging tutelage and a patient Arabian named “Claude” taught her the ropes.
“He was bigger than I thought he’d be,” she said. “As I brushed him down the first time, I couldn’t get over what a gentle creature this horse was. It was a foreign experience—I could have learned a new language easier—but I just felt so attached to the horse; it just pulled me in even more.”
Those first tentative brush strokes blossomed into a rekindled awe, and Linda was soon saddling up with Terri for winding trail rides through the Northern California Hillsides or longer excursions to Bend, Oregon, where Terri’s brother, John von Hurst, ribbed the girls for their lighter-made mounts—“Get a real horse: a cowhorse,” he’d say.
On one of those Oregonian adventures, John also roped the equestriennes into attending their first round-up, where Linda was thrust right into the Western world she’d once watched on her apartment television.
“I was so out of my realm, but all of a sudden I’m actually doing this and I said, ‘Oh my God this is actually fun,’ ” she said. “It was dirty, and I smelled like a barn when I got home. But there was something so freeing about the work.”
Though Jimmy preferred betting on horses over riding, Linda says, he’d listen with amusement—and perhaps a little pride—as his re-inspired wife detailed her latest horseback escapades.
“Jimmy would kind of chuckle and ask, ‘So what did you do today, Dale Evans?’ ” Linda recalled. “He’d never admit it, but I think he got the biggest kick out of knowing the way we’d both grown up; riding horses was so outside of our own reality when we were younger.”
But when fatal illnesses consumed both Terri and Jimmy’s lives, Linda put her riding aspirations on hold to deal with reality, sending both her horses and Terri’s to live under John’s care in Oregon. Dying just three months apart, neither Terri’s horse passion nor Jimmy’s bemused support could be extinguished, and they live on in Linda’s equine endeavors.
Seeking solace in Oregon and the windswept manes of her horses, Linda bought a small property in Bend to house her small herd. John’s lighthearted insistence of a “real horse” continued, though, inspiring dreams of a flashy mount like those ridden by Hollywood’s most glamorous on-screen cowboys and cowgirls; eventually, Linda charged John and a business partner to find a Paint cowhorse to fulfill the fantasy. The men shook their heads—they preferred something solid-colored—but the search began.
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2017 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.