Should’ve Been a Cow(Girl)
Channeling my inner rodeo star
By Elyse Notarianni

“Wait, this is the song you always talk about. How on earth is this a real song,” said Klein when one of my favorite Kenny Chesney songs started playing through my car speakers.

When I tell people that I like country music, I usually describe it as mullet-on-the-album-cover, “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” 90s to early 2000s country. You know, back when the Dixie Chicks weren’t just The Chicks and Toby Keith was singing “Beer For My Horses” with Willie Nelson. Turns out the song title “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” is too good to make up, because Klein was genuinely in awe that it was A. real and that B. anyone – especially me – would know every word.

Usually, I don’t go all-out country with other people in the car, but we were on our way to Rockin’ J Ranch in Egg Harbor to film an episode of “It’s a South Jersey Summer,” and it just felt appropriate. Klein’s reaction to me wasn’t uncommon – I’m someone who overdresses for every occasion, whose nails are always perfectly painted and who doesn’t seem like the type to be found anywhere past the suburbs. But this was the music I grew up with. (The song actually came off my Spotify playlist called, “Your Dad’s Tractor Playlist.”)

Growing up, my family had a little white 4-stall barn at our suburban house in Clarks Summit, PA and a 120-acre farm about 15 minutes away in Factoryville. Seriously, that’s the real name. We lived next to the high school, and sometimes my older sisters would have to run out of field hockey practice to grab the horse that broke out and was now running through football practice. A few other times, the police knocked on our front door at 3 am holding a 2-year-old gelding named Murphy who had a tricky habit of breaking out of the barn every chance he got.

We must have owned dozens of horses throughout my childhood. We had 11 one summer alone, and every Mother’s Day, my dad came home from the auction with a new horse that my mom did not ask for and definitely didn’t want.

So showing up to the ranch with Klein, the sights and smells were more than familiar, even comforting. But the hard part was, I hadn’t been on a horse in years.

My dad used to compete in a Western style of riding called Reining, which is a type of performance riding where he does really cool tricks like sliding down the arena or spinning in circles. I thought he was the coolest, but he was once beaten by an 11-year-old at the county fair, so my memory might be a bit off. I rode English with my sisters, but an annoyingly strict riding instructor and a nasty fall off the biggest horse in the barn had me hanging up my boots by the end of middle school. But recently, I’ve started thinking about getting back into it. We had sold our farm and the last of the horses by the time I went to college, so the video series was a great excuse to try again.

I don’t think Klein had much experience riding horses, but she’s the kind of person who’s enthusiastically down for anything, which is 99% of the reason why these videos are so much fun. We also recruited Claire, one of my triplet sisters, to take a break from her regularly scheduled accounting job and come help us film. (My other triplet, Paige, was offended that she didn’t get the invite.)

Rockin’ J Ranch had been open for about 6 months when we pulled up in August. Right after their wedding, a young couple from Texas bought the land sight-unseen, packed their horses in a trailer and started putting up fences, buildings and pastures by hand. And I mean a young couple – Morgan and Brian Johnson are just 23 and 24 years old. Do you know what I was doing at 23? Nevermind. They give lessons on riding, reigning, barrel racing, goat tying – all things rodeo, and it sounded awesome to me.

We started off on a trail ride through their 20-acre ranch, right by the cows and into the woods. I was riding my buddy Cash. Klein had a Palomino named Elvis, and Claire was behind us with slow-moving Rucker, who liked to just wander at his own pace. I thought I’d be nervous, but Cash was sweet, and I was much more comfortable than I expected after more than 10 years out of the saddle.

Then we went into the arena to “barrel race,” which I say in extreme quotation marks because, having absolutely no skills, we couldn’t do anything more than walk around the barrels. Our instructor, Abby, showed us what it should look like, which was much more impressive knowing she’s just 14 years old. (And she’s already way, way cooler than I am at 25. It’s an ego blow for sure.)

Klein and I stuck around to watch the rodeo that night, and we saw what “our” horses could really do. It was incredible to see the people we met earlier that day riding full-speed through the barrels looking like actual rodeo stars. There was one 11-year-old girl riding Klein’s horse, and while she was running the barrels, you’d hear her saying, “Good boy, Elvis. I love you, Elvis. You’re the best, Elvis.” I couldn’t help myself from finding her mom to tell her how cute her daughter is. (Her mom totally agreed.)

I wish I felt that way when I was younger – just totally comfortable and confident, out there to have fun and nothing else. But maybe I can get that way as an adult. My dad didn’t start riding until he was in his 30s. But the one thing we’d probably have in common: if I do learn to show Western, I bet an 11-year-old would beat me too.


Watch Elyse & Klein on the ranch at SJ Magazine’s Facebook page.

October 2021
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