YeeHaw! Enrolling at Arizona Cowboy College
By Helen Wright
Balancing treacherously on the edge of a step ladder, 73-year-old Earl reaches for a box at the back. ‘Try these on for size,’ he says in his purring southern drawl. Like everyone does before a week in the sun, I’m holiday shopping. But this isn’t the usual bikini-dash to Debenhams. I’m in Scottsdale, Arizona’s oldest western store, Sabas, and Earl is kitting me out in classic cowboy attire. As well as the boots he’s picked out for me, I have a shirt, jeans and of course, a cowboy hat.
Don’t get me wrong, lounging around to the echoes of steel drums with sand between your toes is great… for two days. We all need to relax. But for the easily bored, or city slickers who are constantly on the go, some find it impossible to drop and flop. Instead they’re lumbered with restless days and nothing else to think about but the list of things they must do once they get home.
The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) say that 1.8m overseas breaks are now classed as adventure holidays with many Brits saying they can be more relaxing than a week by the pool. I’ve heard it said that ‘a change is as good as a rest’ so I decided to go west and see if relaxation could come in the form of manual labour by enrolling as a student at the Arizona Cowboy College, a working cattle ranch.
‘People come for different reasons,’ explains Lori, owner of the ranch. ‘They’re either intrigued about cowboy life or they want some time out. We have a lot of city types, keen to try something new’.
There are plenty of ‘dude ranches’ in Arizona but research told me these could often be like ‘spas with horses’. Luxurious accommodation where you can do as much or as little as you want. I was looking for the real cowboy experience. A holiday where I could learn a new skill and do something totally out of my comfort zone. The Arizona Cowboy College was established in 1989 by Lori and her late husband Lloyd Bridwell to cater for tourists wanting a glimpse into the workings of a cowboy range. From day visits or individual lessons to week long cowboy courses, the college offers a variety of choices. But they don’t bill themselves as an easy ride, it’s a working ranch and students are expected to muck in. Literally.
Up before dawn, I arrive on the ranch, which is north of trendy Scottsdale, just in time to catch sunrise over the dusty paddock. With only the sound of the odd whinny interrupting the peace, there’s an instant feeling of serenity. But jigger boss, (a cowboy term meaning second in command), Elaine has already been up for an hour feeding and doing her checks on the 45 horses.
The college can take up to eight people but it’s early in the season and most guests wait until the weather cools before throwing themselves in boots first. I am joined for the week by only one other student, Jim Walker, a 44-year-old lawyer from California. ‘I’ve always wanted to do something like this but I never thought I’d get the opportunity,’ he tells me as we find our way to the lodge. ‘The lifestyle requires so much dedication. I want to challenge myself to see if I can do it’.
The ranch is basic. Rows of roof-covered livery stalls and a barn with farming machinery and hay bales spilling from the open doors. Accommodation isn’t glamorous; a bunk house with wooden beds and a rainbow of rosettes decorating the walls. I choose a bed and throw my backpack on the top bunk. I was hesitant to change into the hat and boots that Earl had helped me pick out, worried I resembled a low budget Daisy Duke. But I was relieved to find Jim had also been shopping for shiny new cowboy threads. ‘Got to have the look,‘ Jim winks, tipping his hat. The clip clop of hooves on the concrete outside tell us it’s time to start work.
As we wait to be assigned horses, I read a sign displayed on the wall: ‘The Code of the West’. My favourites were number one; ‘never pass a fellow cowboy on the trail without saying ‘howdy,’ and 14; ‘No matter how hungry you are, always feed your horse before yourself’. It was a refreshing change to the unofficial London code, which is ‘never make eye contact with anyone on the tube and suit yourself at all times’. The fifth rule, ‘never shoot a woman’ also bodes well for me!
My noble steed for the week is called ‘Leroy’, a brown bay with exquisite black lashes that most women would kill for. Trainee cowboys are expected to tack up their own horses. The western saddle, beautifully hand crafted and tanned rawhide with brass adornments, is almost a work of art. It weighs a solid 45 pounds so fetching it from the tack house and hurling it onto Leroy’s sturdy back makes for a triceps workout in itself. The college takes students of all abilities from absolute beginners to the very advanced. Mastering the saddle and bridle is a complicated process of straps and clasps and trying not to poke Leroy in the eye. It had been a long time since Pony Week at my childhood riding school.
‘It’s not so much a job as a way of life,’ Elaine tells us, as we head through dusty desert trails lined with imposing Saguaro Cacti. ‘There’s no nine-to-five, if it’s midnight and something needs doing, someone does it’.
I was keen to meet ranch boss Rocco – a local celebrity on the cowboy circuit and real life ‘city-slicker’ who gave up his New York finance job to embrace the cowboy lifestyle. He was waiting for us as we entered the yard and he didn’t disappoint. Statuesque, in well worn cowboy boots with a bushy moustache and Cuban cigar balanced cooly between his lips, he certainly looked the part. Next on the cowboy curriculum was to learn to lasso (or its official title, ‘roping’). A wooden bull is wheeled out for target practice and we’re shown how to a make a hoop and aim for the horns, looping the rope around his neck. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But don’t be fooled by John Wayne’s super smooth moves. It’s much harder than it looks in the movies. When I wasn’t getting tangled up or falling over, I managed a couple of successful shots. Although I did earn the nickname ‘bam bam’ for my violent slinging efforts. My shot-put style throws were more likely to knock the poor thing out rather than tether it in. But practice makes perfect and Jim and I were having a great time, getting better with every try. It was only the growl of my stomach that alerted me it was dinner time. Hours had passed in a flash and I realised it was the most fun I’d had in ages. Lori had dinner waiting, but not before all the horses had been fed their grub. I remembered the code. Horses first – always.
Ride on time
The next day we were really put through our paces. All the animals needed to be fed and watered early because the equine dentist was coming to check that their teeth were in good order. Our job was to give the horses a numbing injection and hold them still while he inspected their mouths. Then, we had to saddle up as Rocco was taking us on a trek up to the Seven Springs mountains, north of Scottsdale. When I imagined riding in the desert I expected flat plains, perhaps dotted with the odd ranch house or cactus. But I was amazed to find Arizona has a flurry of mountain ranges that cut into the landscape. Our trail pushes us into a forest of lush sycamore trees, scenic lakes and canyons. But we weren’t there to sightsee. Our mission was to hunt for a herd of cattle that had gone roaming too far.
Riding in the Western Saddle is far different to the traditional English seat I was used to, but it wasn’t long before I settled into the rhythmic sway of Leroy’s strides. The route to the mountains was far more treacherous than our practice ride the day before. There’s no manicured bridal path in this part of the world. The terrain often dropped into a steep descent and the path was a mottled canvas of boulders and fallen branches. Sometimes I was clinging on for life as we negotiated 70 degree angle jumps and crumbling rock pathways. As well as trying to stay on track, we were constantly dodging cacti, thorn shrubs and spiderwebs. It was terrifying and exhilarating. But Leroy knew the lay of the land and before long I was cruising with the confidence of cowboy’s past.
The sun was at its highest point when we reached the top of the mountain, beating down on us like a heavy weight. It was then I realised the iconic cowboy hat was not just a fashion statement. The wide rim protecting us from the 103 degree Arizona heat. Our heads, neck and shoulders grateful of the partial shade. Rocco notices a border fence has been trampled down so we have to act fast. Dismounting and tying the horses to a tree, we get to work fixing the barbed wire barrier. It was hot work. My hands, more used to a touch screen than a hammer, were sore and bleeding by the time we were done. But I felt a real sense of achievement, something you don’t often get with life in the office. The two hour trek back presented spectacular views and Rocco kept us entertained with facts about the landscape and wildlife or whistling an impressive back catalogue of cowboy tunes. The altitude meant more rainfall and the trail was decorated with green plants and striking flowers that sprawled out as far as the moisture would allow. It was a refreshing change from the endless dust and sand dunes I was expecting. As we neared a grassy bank, we finally spied the loot we’d been hunting for…the herd of nine cows. Leaping into action, we rounded them up on horseback with the help of working dogs Ace and Jezebelle. With Rocco up front and Jim and I chasing from behind, we managed to get them all back to the gated paddock safely. Despite honing our skills the day before, I was thankful we didn’t have to catch them by rope. Managing to grab this lot by the horns and stay on the horse would definitely have been a challenge too far.
Ending the night with a cowboy cook-off around the bonfire, Rocco indulged his showman side by playing the guitar and singing country songs as we feasted on chicken-fried steak. With limited signal on the ranch, there were no modern day distractions like text messages and Facebook updates so it was really easy to switch off without even trying. Time flew and before I knew it, it was the last day. I was sad my stint as a rookie cowboy was coming to an end. It couldn’t have been more different to my usual routine but I was surprised at how naturally I’d eased into ranch life. Far better than any massage I’d ever had, the settling of adrenalin at the end of the day had me feeling light as a feather. And lugging horse feed and 40 pound saddles around showed positively on the scales too.
The ranch is rustic and a constant work in progress but the college is a great opportunity to experience a totally different way of life. I’ve never worked so hard (on holiday or otherwise) but there was no time to think about home. I’ve never felt so relaxed. I’d certainly sign up for another week of cowboy training. It would make a great trip for families or a group of friends. I wasn’t sure how well I’d cope with the tasks required and I was proud of my efforts. But mostly, it was great fun to switch off and pretend to be someone else for a while. There’s not much use for my cowboy skills back in the city but at least I can wear Earl’s trusty boots under my desk. That way, if I start feeling stressed out I can give myself a good kick and bring a bit of cowboy spirit home.
Some extra information you might find useful…
Arizona Cowboy College
Lorill Equestrian Ranch. 30208 N. 152nd Street, Scottsdale, Arizona. 85262
(480) 471 3151
Specific dates throughout the year starting from $2, 250 including food and lodging. Flights are not included.
British Airways offers a seven night fly-drive to Phoenix from £689 per person. Price includes return British Airways flights from London Heathrow and Avis Inclusive car hire for the duration, based on two sharing. 0844 4930758 / www.ba.com/phoenix
Where to stay in Arizona
Extend your stay in Arizona: After putting my blood, sweat and tears into life at the ranch, I checked into the nearby Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North which is five minutes from the ranch and totally gorgeous. Definitely one of my favourite hotels ever.
10600 East Crescent Moon Drive Scottsdale, AZ 85262, United States
Rocco Wachman gives a wider insight into the cowboy life in his book Cowboy: The Ultimate Guide to Living Like A Great American Icon, £6.99 Kindle Edition. £8.99 Paperback