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Arizona Cowboy College, Scottsdale
Arizona Cowboy College:
Channeling City Slickers' Billy Crystal for a Day

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.

writer riding horse inside corral with ranch manager Elaine Pawlowski, Arizona Cowboy College, Scottsdale

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.

ranch manager Elaine Pawlowski showing writer how to clean the bottom of a horse's shoe

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.

horse saddles

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.

writer on a Quarterhorse

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.

writer and companions on trail ride at the Tonto National Forest

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 involved.

writer going through roping lesson with Elaine Pawlowski

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."

writer and ranch manager Elaine Pawlowski in front of Arizona Cowboy College sign

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, visit cowboycollege.com.

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.

Related Articles:
Texas Bull Riding; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Yellow Brick Road to Sedona; Kit Carson in Taos; Northern New Mexico Culinary Tour; Chincoteague and Assateague

(Posted 1-11-2014)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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