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.