Heels down. Toes out. Squeeze with calves, not knees. Lighten up on the reins. Sink your butt into the saddle. So began my first riding lesson at the Arizona Cowboy College in Scottsdale, which was followed by instructions in grooming, shoeing, advanced riding techniques and roping. And this was just a one-day primer to what "city slickers" channeling Billy Crystal experience in their six-day cattle drive at the college.
First, despite the city's boast of 300 days of sunshine, it was cold and rainy when we were there. I put on my cowboy shirt, hat and boots for the requisite photo op but later ended up ensconced in multiple layers that included winter jacket, wool cap and gloves borrowed from the ranch.
The day began with some initial instruction from ranch manager and Jigger Boss Elaine Pawlowski, whose main goal seemed to be to keep us from falling off the horse and to avoid getting kicked when not on it. My experience up to then had been an occasional trail ride where the horse was presented to me all spruced up and saddled and all I was expected to do was mount it. Not so here.
Prior to even thinking about actually riding the animal, I was taught how to groom and brush her -- Billie, a brown mare -- and how to do so safely. I had never been responsible for the behind-the-scenes handling, so Pawlowski showed me how to pick up Billie's hooves and clean out the bottom of the horseshoe with a pick, removing the excess dirt, pebbles or nails before taking her out. My first thought was, "You want me to do what?" As I was cleaning out one of her hooves, I couldn't help thinking there's 1,200 pounds of horse flesh here that with one thrust of the hoof I'm holding can flatten me. Fortunately, Billie was not so inclined.
During Saddling 101, my status as first-rate tenderfoot was further confirmed when I tried to pick up the saddle -- and collapsed under its weight. The idea that I was actually supposed to get it atop the horse was ludicrous. I had absolutely no clue how much work went into just getting the animal ready to be ridden, much less the intricacies involved in actually riding one.
And riding a horse in the desert is a very different terrain from what most riders are used to. That, in part, is what brought Bob and Carol Skinner, local racehorse owners and my cohorts at the ranch, to the college.
Bob, who has been around a lot of different racehorse disciplines all his life, claimed that each discipline thinks its methods are the right ones in terms of training and expertise. Always looking to learn something new, Bob says he came to Cowboy College to see how the cowboys do it as opposed to racers. He thought it might be something he could incorporate into his own horse-related efforts. That much I understood. What came as a surprise was that as much as Bob knew about horses, he did not really ride. And while Carol did, her expertise was with racehorses; cowboy steeds were still a mystery.
To begin with, racers ride with Eastern saddles that carry with them proscribed rules of posture and deportment that are much more regimented than the more relaxed rules of Western riding. They use two-handed split reins versus one-handed neck reins since in the West one hand must be free to shoot rattlesnakes and rope steers. Much of how the rider and his or her horse interact is determined by how the rider hold the reins.
Prior to heading out on our ride, we headed down to the bunkhouse for chow. The fact that it was bologna, ham and cheese on white bread with mayo seemed perfectly fitting. And the To Do list I spied on a bench near the stalls was slightly different from that found in most homes: Fix stalls 3, 4 and 11; arrange tack rooms; cut off screws on saddle racks; clean out coops.
And then we headed out -- me on Billie, a quarter horse, Carol on a mustang, Bob on a paint. Bob commented that just squeezing with his calves as opposed to his knees made an immediate difference. In the East, most trail rides are through woods; here we loped through sand and rocks and sagebrush, past cactus as tall as small buildings over a monochromatic panorama of gray and tan and muted greens. Did I say trail? Nope, no trail -- just feeling our way over, around and through the rocky wasteland.
As we rested our horses atop a mesa in the Tonto National Forest, I looked out admiringly at the wide expanse of desert below, poetry-inspiring mountains in the distance and a sky the color of every shade of blue found in even the largest box of crayons. This alone was worth the pain I expected to feel later in the day.
As we continued our ride, punctuated by an unending array of rocky inclines and descents, Bob and Carol became increasingly dismayed. Apparently the uneven landscape and Western style of riding were alien to the two racehorse owners. The idea of riding horses over such a threatening terrain was a foreign concept, much less at a speed sufficient to maintain the momentum necessary to scale the crest of the embankment. Pawlowski kept reassuring them that, indeed, the horses were fine with it. She also kept reminding Carol, accustomed to riding English where proper posture is so important, to stay low in the saddle and resist the temptation to ride "two point."
When I finally dismounted Billie, my legs were so wobbly I could barely make it to the corral. And we weren't done yet -- it was now time for our roping lesson. Fortunately no actual calves were involved.
For those signed up for the complete Cowboy College program, this would have been just Day 1. Day 2 would be a more intense immersion into the cowboy's world -- this time actually involving cows -- before heading out to the cattle ranch about 25 miles to the north. Once there, the next four days are spent doing whatever needs to be done -- rounding up the cows, moving cattle from one pasture to another, finding missing steers, branding and castrating, vaccinating, separating the mamas from the calves, fixing fences and checking water supplies or helping other ranchers. That's the life of the cowboy, and the wannabes act accordingly.
According to Pawlowski, "Participants range from novices to more experienced riders but no matter what the level of expertise, after riding five to six hours a day and being immersed in cowboy training, they're pretty comfortable and ready for the trail experience."
OK, so I wasn't ready to go on a multiday cattle roundup, but I sure did have a whole new respect for anyone who does. The plus for me? Considering the difficulty I had walking the next day, I was glad that -- unlike those participating in the whole program -- I did not have to get back up on a horse.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information, visit www.cowboycollege.com.
To extend my immersion in everything cowboy, I stayed in the Wild West Suite, one of six theme suites, at the Inn of Eagle Mountain, where a saddle on a stand doubles as a night table, the lamp bases are made of horseshoes and the furniture is decked out in Western decor. The inn itself, in Fountain Hills, is a beautiful boutique establishment terraced in the foothills of the Sonoran Desert: www.innateaglemountain.com.
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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