Channeling City Slickers' Billy Crystal for a
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Images by Victor Block
eels 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 other "city slickers" channeling
Billy Crystal experience in their six-day cattle drive at the College
but more on that later.
First, despite the city's admonition of 300 days of
sunshine, it was cold and rainy when we were there. And for my story,
I had my cowboy shirt, hat and boots all on for the requisite photo
op but ended up ensconced in multiple layers instead, including winter
jacket, wool cap and gloves borrowed from the ranch. Wasn't exactly
the fashion statement I was going for.
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 this close to a horse from all sides, responsible for
the behind-the-scenes handling. Elaine 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 hoofs, I couldn't help thinking there's 1200 pounds of horse flesh
here that with one thrust of the hoof I'm holding can flatten me. Fortunately,
Billie was no 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 in the desert.
Riding a horse in the desert is a very different terrain
than what most riders are used to and that in part is what brought Bob
and Carol Skinner, local race horse owners and my cohorts at the ranch,
to the College.
Bob, who has been around a lot of very different race
horse 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. Might be something he
can 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 on
the ground, 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 Eastern saddles which carry
with them very proscribed rules of posture and deportment much more
regimented than the more relaxed rules of Western riding. For starters,
two-handed split reins vs. one-handed neck rein after all, in
the West, one hand must be free to shoot rattlesnakes and rope steers.
Amazing how much of how you and your horse interact is determined by
how you hold the reins.
Prior to heading out on our ride, we hunkered 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 than 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 Quarterhorse,
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,
poetic mountains in the distance and a sky the color of every shade
of blue found in even the largest box of Crayola 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. Elaine 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
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 steer, 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 wanna-bes act accordingly.
According to Elaine, "Participants range from novices
to more experienced riders but no matter what the level of expertise,
after riding 5-6 hours a day and being immersed in cowboy training,
they're pretty comfortable and ready for the trail experience."
Okay, so I wasn't ready to go on a multi-day cattle
round-up 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. For more information,
If You Go
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. Visit innateaglemountain.com.
Bull Riding; Santa
Fe, New Mexico; Yellow
Brick Road to Sedona; Kit
Carson in Taos; Northern
New Mexico Culinary Tour; Chincoteague