Old School

Greenhorns are welcome at the Arizona Cowboy College, where hands-in-training learn ranch skills by doing.

American Cowboy Picture

With its massive chest and haunches, the cow stands there tense and flighty, looking more like a bull than a heifer. We’ve spent all morning searching for, driving, and blocking this brown cow and finally have her stopped and debating an open corral gate with her yearling. At exactly the wrong moment, the corgi sees that we’ve returned from the gather and comes bounding down from the trailer to join the fun.

“Amish, you dumb dog,” yells rancher Ed Hanks. “Get back!”
Amish cowers. The cow bolts, jumps a fence, and that’s that. Nothing could have stopped this frustrating scene from unfolding. Hanks is red with anger.

“I’m going to kill that cow,” he grumbles. This renegade cow has been giving him hell, evading him for two years. On another attempt the day prior, I’d seen her jump a four-foot fence like a deer.

“I never carry a gun when I gather cattle,” Hanks had casually remarked to me over his shoulder earlier as we rode across the northern Bradshaw Mountains. “I’d likely shoot a dog.” There’s no doubt in my mind that Hanks, had he been armed, would have shot (or shot at) his beloved corgi this morning and possibly the cow, too.

Spend any time on a ranch, and you’ll quickly see that to earn a living, a cowboy needs to draw on a broad skill set—including self-restraint. He or she works the livestock market to buy low and sell high, farms hay, tracks animals, and repairs and maintains all manner of equipment: leather, metal, wood, and mechanical. Cowboys practice most forms of veterinary care, short of outright surgery, and deftly employ psychology to train and move animals. Perhaps not cosmopolitan, ranchers are savvy observers of nature, picking up chemistry (soil analysis), botany (the nutritive value of different feeds), and hydrodynamics (swales, berms, and ponds) to fit their land into—and maximize—an ecosystem.These were my essential impressions of Hanks. During the week I spent at the Arizona Cowboy College (www.cowboycollege.com) to, um, beef up my ranch skills, the guy showed himself to be overwhelmingly competent—an army of one. But boy did he have a temper.

Faced with a conundrum of ranching life, he’d spit his stock phrase before getting down to business: “What in the hell!?”
This morning, he regroups and continues sorting the cattle and newborns we’d gathered then sends us off to survey his lower pens and watering holes. When we return many hours later, Hanks is scratching his head before a corral. There stands the renegade cow’s yearling, bawling for its mother. It turns out the wild cow hadn’t bolted far, and Hanks had been able to quietly urge her and the yearling to join their friends.

“She jumped and got caught up,” he says, motioning to a pretzel of a panel. “Thought I was going to have to butcher her. Ran for my gun, but she was gone when I got back.”

Americans are too fond of hamburgers to allow maverick cattle free passage. Hanks will eventually outsmart his livestock and win this game of patience and perseverance. But no one ever claimed that cowboying was easy, and that’s why I came. I’m a desk jockey by trade. Though my wife and I own five acres and a fledgling equine-assisted therapy business, my sensibilities are more computer than cow. The six-day Arizona Cowboy College is designed for people like me who want to go beyond the dude ranch. Call it cowboy boot camp. The trail rides here actually have a purpose, like gathering up cattle or counting cow-calf pairs. I’m a game enough ranch hand and can work a shovel and a post-hole digger and toss hay bales with the best of ’em, but this program expanded my field of view. It taught me to look beyond the task at hand and to respond better to the animals and land in my care.

Rocco Wachman and Lori Bridwell run the Arizona Cowboy College from Bridwell Ranch near Scottsdale, Arizona, with a Wednesday to Saturday visit to Schmidt Ranch in Seven Springs, Arizona, serving as the final exam. (Hanks’ Triangle M ranch is no longer in regular use.) A cowboy evangelist of sorts, Wachman hosted the program Cowboy U for six seasons on Country Music Television, for which he once rode a horse under the spinning blades of a helicopter. He has appeared on the Biggest Loser with Dr. Oz, where he lost 51 pounds, and occasionally serves as a personality or speaker at various events, like the 100-year anniversary of the Oklahoma Land Rush at the Flying W Ranch in Sayer, Oklahoma.

“Train a horse, and you’ll quickly learn to never ignore bad behavior. Or you might as well be rewarding it,” he tells me in one of our first encounters. A former grocer from New York, Wachman had a come-to-Jesus moment 20 years ago when his grocery chain moved him to the Phoenix area and a friend got him into riding. By training a horse, he was himself trained to listen and learn in an entirely new way. He was a changed man. These days, Wachman signs his emails: “The cowboy knew his life had a purpose. It was a gift from God to be steward of the land, livestock, and the people he loved.” It’s a sentiment fully expressed at the college and in his book, Cowboy: The Ultimate Guide to Living Like a Great American Icon (Harper Paperbacks, 2010).

“Cowboying is not a job, it’s a state of mind,” he likes to say, and from day one Wachman had us doing barn chores and practicing ranch safety. “I need to teach you, so I don’t get hurt.”
For three days, we rode slalom around saguaros and learned to shoe and care for horses. (“Any chance I can get to practice my craft,” is another of his sayings.) Then six of us, four clients and two instructors, set off for the hills in a Ford 350 Powerstroke, hauling a six-horse trailer stuffed to the gills with four leggeds, tack, camping gear, and food. Air conditioning on full blast, we roar out of the Phoenix basin and climb from 2,500 to 4,500 feet near Prescott.

As we cross the Agua Fria River, Wachman melodically recites one of his favorite poems, Sancho, by R.W. Hampton: “In the Arizona desert where the tall saguaros grow; Where the Purple Bradshaw Mountains rise and the Agua Fria flows; Down in a lonesome sand wash where no man should ever go; A buzzard picks the sun-bleached bones of a horse that I called Sancho…”

My first sight of Hanks is of a wiry man bent to his work, shoeing a rank mare.

“What ya doin’?” Wachman asks playfully, jumping out of the truck.

Usually quick with a glib response, Hanks smiles and shakes his head but recovers quickly, “Well, I could have shaved with the old ones,” he says. Ask him how he slept, and he’ll say, “lying down.” Or how he feels? “With my hand.” Or where he wants that salt block? “On the ground.”

Not long after we unload the animals and set up camp, Hanks comes over to visit. Wachman gives him a new rope as a thank you for having us, and Hanks deftly spins it through his hands, feeling its weight.

“Does it catch?” he asks. Hanks can go weeks without seeing anyone but his wife and a neighbor or two, so he’s delighted to have company. We get to talking about the wisdom of breeding older mares for the first time. (A bad idea, unless you’re planning to breed her several times. A mare’s first and last foals are typically her worst.) He speaks in the measured, thoughtful way of someone who has all the time in the world. We spend the next three days horseback six to eight hours a day, gathering with Hanks. His 30-acre spread and 36,000-acre lease is steep and rocky. He had to spend his first year on the property hauling water, installing watering troughs, and repairing many, many miles of fence.
John, one of the college’s clients, displays the “when not if” axiom about riders eventually falling off their horses. A wandering mind and an unfriendly tree branch had knocked him on his butt.

“Are you hurt?” Hanks calls back.

John would never have answered “yes” to this cowboy, even if he’d broken his femur. Remounted, we ride on and “mash rocks” and “bash brush” past Indian ruins and blooming cacti to survey the cattle. Hanks pulls a tiny notepad from his breast pocket whenever he sees one.

“If I see a bull a few times without cows, he’s gone,” he says. Hanks grew up in Boulder County, Colorado, and has been ranching all his life. His father ran cattle, too. It’s in his blood. He was even an extra in a Western, the Father Keno Story.

“You’ve got to farm what you see,” he comments about working with nature, perhaps harkening to his Indian ancestry. Hanks has Hopi blood from his mom’s side and Cherokee from his dad’s. He smokes a steady stream of Marlboros, of course, and likes to point out “bald-headed crows” (Bald eagles).

Rocco and his string boss, Elaine Pawlowski, meanwhile, carry cell phones, which they answer regularly. When your office is a saddle, you make due.

“The fastest way to move a cow is slow,” says Hanks. “Otherwise, all you do is chase.” And work the weight off them. He’s also adamant that ranching benefits the desert.

“Cattle improve watering holes,” he insists. “Their hoofs aerate the soil and promote plant growth.” Who else is going to care for all this acreage? The BLM could never pay staff to do what ranchers oversee themselves on the nation’s hundreds of millions of acres of public land.

In the evenings, we practice roping. (Pawlowski, a former Chicago firefighter, dismisses my technique: “You throw like a girl.”) Come nightfall, we sit around a fire corralled in an oil drum and nestle the cowboy microwave (aka Dutch oven) into the coals. The stories meander, as we ogle the constellations in the darkness.

Back in Scottsdale, Wachman takes me to the Scottsdale Gun Club, a nondescript box store in an ocean of air-conditioned malls. The clothes and home décor you might have expected inside have been replaced by a deadly arsenal. I’m asked to watch a five-minute safety video then handed a 45-mm Magnum revolver, ammunition, and ear protection and pointed to the indoor shooting range.

To my left, a young woman in a tank top and flip flops fires an array of weapons with her boyfriend. To my right, a small child fires his rifle with an instructor. I raise a handgun for the first time in my life and fire booming reports at the human-shaped target.

“You’re a natural,” Wachman encourages and gives me tips.

He holsters a loaded Ruger Vaquero .45 Colt at all times and brought a cannon-like Smith & Wesson AR15 to the Triangle M.

“It’s a matter of principle,” he explains.

The funny thing about Wachman is that he’s a cowboy by choice, not birth. This former New York grocer is particularly keen for the Cowboy Way, because it’s given him so much. He believes whole-heartedly that nothing could be more natural—more American—than to re-imagine yourself and make a better life. That’s the promise of the West: new beginnings.

Describing the cowboy’s lot in life, Wachman says: “Failure is not an option.” No one pays a rancher for effort. He must deliver sound cows. Period. Successful cowboys show results. The rest quit.

For my part, I can now rope my dog with ease, and I can fork a horse long after it has stopped being comfortable. Though I’ll likely never be faced with producing livestock to survive, the time I spent in Arizona taught me not to be a nuisance on a ranch and to perhaps lend a hand—better than Amish the corgi, at least.

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