Learning to ride, rope and ranch College: An Arizona vocational school teaches the heritage of the American cowboy and some of the job's fundamental tasks.

Sun Journal

July 18, 1998|By Julie Cart | Julie Cart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MAYER, Ariz. -- Never mind the heat, dust and thirst. And it's not so much the saddle sores or aching back from the horse's jackhammer gait. Not the loneliness or isolation.

No, the cowboy's greatest bane is the ferocious flora of the desert Southwest. The unassuming manzanita bush with its needlelike thorns that lie in wait for tender flanks. Or the cat claw, a tree that attacks a rider's torso with apparent relish. Ocotillo, which wields its stems like whips. Brittle bush, desert hackberry. To say nothing of fishhook cactus, buckthorn cholla and prickly pear.

Still, real cowboys don't let on that they mind this, the more bristly aspect of their working environment. Indeed, real cowboys must appear to mind little.

This ethos becomes clear on the first early-morning day of class at Arizona Cowboy College, an honest-to-goodness vocational school for wannabe cowboys that takes the student beyond the "City Slickers" surface of one of the country's most trying and scarce jobs.

It is Lloyd Bridwell's self-appointed mission to preserve the heritage of the American cowboy and teach some of the fundamentals through his Arizona Cowboy College, in its 10th year.

Bridwell's weeklong program begins with two days of "classroom" instruction at an equestrian center in Scottsdale, then moves out of town to working cattle ranches.

A recent class of five included two new ranchers looking for an overview of the job from Bridwell, who peppers his lectures with information about cattle, horses, land use and the modern-day economics of ranching.

"Some of this I knew; some I didn't," says Rich Risner, who just bought a ranch in southern Arizona. "It would take years to get this information through my own experience. This is a great shortcut for me."

With the number of working cowboys decreasing, by some estimates as much as 25 percent per year, taken over by the rancher in a pickup, it's not a growth industry. According to Jobs Rated Almanac, which analyzes and ranks occupations, the potential for job growth as a cowboy is minus-41 percent. In the category of physical demands, cowboying is ranked third worst out of 250 jobs. Pay can be as little as $5 an hour, and the work is seasonal.

At the same time, the iconography of the Western cowboy is one of the nation's most enduring, if misinformed, myths.

"I'm always amazed what people think a cowboy is," Bridwell says.

The 45-year-old spent many years as a wrangler working Arizona ranches before he and his wife opened the equestrian center. With amusement, Bridwell has watched the dude ranch boom, and its resurgence with the release in 1991 of "City Slickers," a movie that portrayed the midlife quest of a group of urban friends who set out on a "cattle drive."

"We've got a lot of people who come West, wanting to be in that movie," he says. "These dude ranches put on a trail ride, and you may push cattle from one pen to another. You may rope a calf. What they call a roundup is a trail ride that happens to have cattle out in front."

Such is not the case at the Arizona Cowboy College. After two days of introductory lessons in town, Bridwell's students head for the hills, spending four days on a working ranch, sleeping on the ground, going where the rancher sends them and slicing through some of the West's most inhospitable terrain. They bring in whatever livestock is left over from roundup, or "the gather," as cowboys say. The students also assist in branding and castrating calves.

The idea to start the college gestated while Bridwell was at home, ill, in 1989.

"I was watching a lot of TV, which I had never done," he says. "I kept seeing all these commercials, 'You too can be plumber,' 'You too can drive a big rig.' I thought, 'You too can be a cowboy.' Why not?"

Bridwell had for years been a contract hand during roundups, assimilating and cataloging the cowboy way while continuing to operate his riding-lessons and trail-riding business. Everything changed when he got the call from two adventurous travel agents who asked him to design a challenging trail ride. He took them through the rugged Superstition Mountains and cautioned that it would not be a dude-ranch-esque, catered or comfortable trip. They loved it.

Six months later, the pair was back and on another ride. With the two women in tow, Bridwell dropped in to see a rancher he knew. It was gathering time, and the New Yorkers asked if they could help. Skeptical, Bridwell let them ride out on roundup one day. Then another. They stayed a week, plucking stray cattle out of the mesquite and pleasing the rancher, who saw dollar signs with each animal brought in.

From that evolved the college, one of the few cowboy schools in the country. Bridwell runs the school four to five times a year, during the spring and fall roundups. The classes are never more than eight students, and tuition is $750.

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