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« Song for Phil Spector | Main | Fish and Friendship in Tokyo »

Channeling City Slickers’ Billy Crystal for a Day 

by Fyllis Hockman 

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 other “city slickers” 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 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 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. 

As Carol enlightened me, 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 example, 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 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 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.

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. 


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.

For more information about the Arizona Cowboy College, visit


Fyllis Hockman is an award-winning travel journalist who has been traveling and writing for more than 25 years -- and is still as eager for the next trip as she was for the first. Her articles have appeared in newspapers across the country and websites across the internet. A sampling of those stories can be found by visiting and clicking on The Travel Adventures of Fyllis and Vic.


[photography by Vic Block] 

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Reader Comments (17)

I really enjoyed reading Channeling City Slickers’ Billy Crystal for a Day by Fyllis Hockman. Like all of your stories, this one brings the reader into the exprience in a very meaningful way. Ms. Hockman imparts information with a lot of humor. Her story makes me wish I had been there, roping and riding -- except for what apparently was the unseasonably cold weather for Scottsdale at that time. I also like Vic Hockmn's photographs, which put a picture with the words.

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIrving Black

Ms. Hockman has done it again in her article Channeling City Slickers' Billy Crystal for a Day. What a delightful story about the Arizona Cowboy College this is. It makes me want to sign up and enjoy this adventure for myself.

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLauren Mackay

For someone who didn't grow up in the country, Fyllis is amazingly courageous and has a terrific sense of humor. How does one get by the smell and manure?

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Strauss

Loved Fylis Hockman's article .. I felt I was right beside her enjoying her adventures .. And loved the pictures.. She's a very cute cowgirl!

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterANN MORSE

My wife and I have been a lot of places, but we never thought about going to Arizona and the cowboy college. After reading this article, I'm going to try to make a visit to the cowboy college either before or after our trip to the balloon festival in Albuquerque. It's right on the way from Los Angeles. Thanks Ms. Hockman.

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Guinn

Another great adventure Fyllis...thanks for sharing! This is the kind of thing I would love to experience, but have never thought about it before. Guess I need to practice squeezing with my calves vs. knees now. I laughed out loud picturing you picking Billie's are so brave! Keep the stories coming!! What's next? :)

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVicky Richards

I love fyllis's style of writing - it makes me want to go horse back riding - I can picture the beautiful landscape and the fun of roping.

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Marianelli

Can I switch lives with you, Fyllis? I love reading about all your adventures! You have a way of bringing your stories and experiences to life and making me feel like I was there with you. I can't wait to read about your next adventure.

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAri Nicholson

As with all of Fyllis Hockman's stories, I totally enjoyed reading Channeling City Slickers’ Billy Crystal for a Day - loved the title – very appropriate!! Reading Fyllis' work puts you in the middle of where ever her adventures roam. It is a well-written story with humor and expertise. The artistic photos by Victor Hockman added yet another enjoyable dimension to the read. I am anxiously awaiting the next adventure Fyllis takes so I can have the good fortune of the experience of travel without ever leaving my computer!

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Bierly

Wow, I saw the movie City Slickers but didn't know they actually had these activities available to people. Now I really want to go.
This was well written, I was picturing myself doing all these things. If I do go, I really hope I don;t have to take part in any castration, I don't know if I could do that to an animal

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrad nichols

Delightful! Although I am a true city slicker I felt like I too was attending the college. As with all of her articles she manages to make the reader want to sign up for her adventures. All I need is a pair of riding boots.

March 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFyllis Hockman

Loved Fyllis Hockman's article about Cowboy School. She does make you feel like you are right there experiencing the moment and inspiring you to try it just once. love her humor and how she writes!

March 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermeredith miklozek

This article is a fine example of what to expect from a good writer! Fyllis takes her readers to a place where we may very well never visit, and makes you feel a part of the experience. Then again, never say never as Fyllis admirably show us.
Great read, thank you!

March 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne Theodorou

Such a well detailed and informative story, I was actually saddle sore after reading it.

For a city girl, you really did the (new) west proud, so darn descriptive, you could almost smell the stable, even the horses seemed to be having a good time.
YAAAAAHOOOO!!!!! and kudos to you.
Victor Goodman

March 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFyllis Hockman

I recently had my first dude ranch experience out in Arizona, and was SHOCKED by the weather! Like you, I was anticipating sunny skies and warm temps, but it actually SNOWED while I was there! Shocking!

You captured the dude ranch experience beautifully. It's truly an escape to nature, and a breath of fresh air away from everyday life! Great escape for families and single folks alike!

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJess @UsedYorkCity

I've been riding horses my whole life and am so proud of my BFF Travel writer, Fyllis Hockman. I just knew she had Cowgirl in her blood! Can't wait to attend Cowboy College and will even polish my boots for the occasion. Fyllis you never cease to amaze me. Excellent article!

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarylee Sutherland

Although I am afraid of horses, your story made me want to get back in the saddle again! You did a great job in making your day on the range come alive. Keep 'em coming!

March 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne Jessen

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