Now You See Me
A Cowgirl of the Yee-Ha Sisterhood
by Mark Andrews
Few characteristics of the Shenandoah Valley create our sense of identity as strongly as our relationships with horses. Mark Andrews visited a special place in next-door Frederick County that shows how our fondness and respect for equine companions connects us with nearby communities.
Everybody has a story. Once in awhile we meet a personality large enough to exert some measure of influence over our perspective on things. It’s at times like these that real opportunity exists. But, life moves pretty fast. And, well if we’re not paying attention we’re liable to get thrown from the saddle so-to-speak.
Sam Snapp has spent most of her life in a saddle. A fixture on the rodeo circuit, she’s renowned for her skill. And admired for her grit. But from all accounts, Sam is equal parts style and substance. Her piercing eyes softened by a comfortable smile and disarming sense of humor. A braided leather belt fastened by a shiny ornate buckle. Polished turquoise stones set in sterling silver bracelets on her wrists. Dust streaked denim with frayed hems sweeping the soles of her boots. Sun soaked skin and calloused hands. A genuine cowgirl with the spurs and scars to prove it.
She hasn’t always wanted to be seen, though. For much of her career as a private investigator, Sam skillfully practiced the art of not being noticed. “The best PIs can hide in plain sight,” she says. “Turns out, I was very good at it.”
While most of her colleagues hailed from backgrounds in law enforcement, Sam “just sort of fell into it.” After high school she worked days as a bill collector for the local Southern States Co-op. Her evenings were spent exercising (called galloping) thoroughbred racehorses at the local track. Eventually, Sam took a few courses at a community college that focused on investigative techniques. “I figured it’d help me chase down money for the Co-op,” she said. “And, it did. A lot.” It wasn’t long before she’d built a stellar reputation and a booming business that followed.
Over the next twelve years, Sam spent her days on horseback and her nights on stakeouts. Criss-crossing state lines in search of deadbeat dads. Chasing down leads on runaway teens that had fallen in with the wrong crowd. Bouncing down pot-holed back roads, twisting interminably in hopes of catching a lucky break. Sitting in parked cars outside seedy motels watching cheating spouses with video rolling, microphones wired for sound. Camped out on courthouse steps, digging for answers to uncomfortable questions that needed asking. More often than not, Sam got what she came for. But not without her own expense. “There came a point, when I just didn’t have the stomach for it anymore,” she said. “Just because you’re good at something, doesn’t necessarily make it worth doing.”
So she sold off the business and headed west with her husband Wayne to raise cattle and compete on the rodeo circuit. There she logged endless hours in the saddle, reconnecting with the comfort and reward of working her horses. She rubbed elbows with cowboys in between roping steers and negotiating barrels on horseback, racing against the clock. She sat at farmer’s tables entertained by conversation and bound by principle. She listened to live music in roadhouses and honkytonks alongside Native Americans, folk artists, and migrants workers—disparate individuals loosely drawn together by the yield of the land and the livestock that roamed upon it.
But in time the pull of family called Sam and Wayne back East. They settled onto a ranch situated along the banks of Cedar Creek in Winchester, Virginia. A picturesque setting of rolling pastures framed by miles of board fencing, punctuated with massive live oak and sycamore trees. There Wayne and Sam busied themselves with raising Marlboro Angus and dreaming theirs would become a first-rate cattle operation raising pasture-fed Black Angus for market. With the years gone by, they’ve grown Marlboro’s herd to over four hundred head of cattle and established a reputation as one of the premiere providers in the local market. But, it was a conversation had over coffee one morning that would chart Sam’s course—albeit not in an altogether different direction. “What if I gave a riding lesson or two? Maybe started a trail ride?” she recalled asking Wayne over coffee. His response was cautious at first. “Do your homework,” he said. She did.
That was twelve years and quite a few lessons ago. Not to mention the many miles of trail rides enjoyed by folks who come to visit Sam from all over the country.
Today, Wagon Wheel Ranch operates from dawn to dusk seven days a week. Sam offers lessons and trail rides to a faithful following while she continues to assist Wayne in the cattle operation. The riding facility boasts an indoor arena and stables with plenty of seating for the weekly open class barrel racing competition that Sam hosts every Wednesday evening. Competitors of all ages come out to race their horses and enjoy each other’s company. “There’s a real sense of community to what we’ve built here” she says.
In fact, Sam has built her own community of women around horses. Once a week, a group of women come together for a morning trail ride at the ranch. They come from all walks of life. Their ages ranging from 38 to 68.
Before leaving the barn, Sam puts on coffee. Then they set off on the trail. Afterwards, they share life’s trials and triumphs over coffee and donuts before setting off about the rest of their days. They call themselves “The Cowgirls of the Yee-Ha Sisterhood.” Sam believes it’s what she was meant to do. “The stories I’m told. The life experiences—that’s worth more to me than I could ever be paid in currency,” she says.
Sam takes the same approach of gratitude into her daily work with riding students. “Many of the girls that I teach are still trying to figure out who they are,” she said. “I have two herds here—my horses and my students.”
When the opportunity to listen presents itself, she does. “My students, especially the teens, talk to me about things that maybe they wouldn’t feel comfortable telling someone else.” Sam won’t take all the credit for this aspect of her business, though. “Horseback riding is a partnership built on trust and respect” she says. “When you look your horse in the eye, it looks back.”
“What I’ve built here. This ranch. My herd. The students. It’s what I’m supposed to do,” she said. “I’ve found my passion. Teaching others by sharing some of myself.”
There seems to be an unspoken understanding between Sam and her students born out of a shared love for the comfort of being in the saddle and building a partnership with the herd. Like when a student arrives at the barn dragging beneath the weight of everyday life and the challenges of trying to figure out their own “what’s next.” Sam greets each with a smile and a hug before directing them to saddle up the day’s mount. Together, they leave the barn and their troubles behind.
Then, as the trail turns up toward the crest of a ridge, there’s the exchanged look between student and teacher that’s instantly recognizable, without words: I’ll race you to the top.