Working holidays in Arizona

Saddle up and switch off. How city-folk can have a breather while heading west and getting their hands dirty in cowboy country

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 17 Apr 2013, 17:40 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 13:12 BST

Balancing treacherously on the edge of the stepladder, 73-year-old Earl reaches for a box at the back. "Try these on for size," he says in his purring southern drawl. Like everyone does before a week in the sun, I'm holiday shopping. But this isn't the usual bikini-dash to Debenhams. I'm in Saba's, Arizona's oldest western store in Scottsdale and Earl is kitting me out in classic cowboy attire. As well as the boots he's picked out for me, I have a shirt, jeans and, of course, a cowboy hat.

Don't get me wrong, lounging around to the echoes of steel drums with sand between your toes is great. For two days. After that, I've finished my book, tired of my holiday playlist (usually 12 songs with 'sun' in the title) and have resorted to arranging seashells into size order and talking about how I'm 'definitely going to take up swing dancing when I get home'.

We all need to relax. But for the easily bored, or city slickers who are constantly on the go, some find it impossible to drop and flop. Instead they're lumbered with restless days and nothing else to think about but the list of things they must do once they're home.

ABTA says 1.8 million overseas breaks are now classed as adventure holidays, with many Brits saying they can be more relaxing than a week by the pool. And the National Trust reported bookings for its working holiday programme were up 50%.

They say 'a change is as good as a rest' so I decided to go West and see if relaxation could come in the form of manual labour by enrolling as a student at the Arizona Cowboy College, a working cattle ranch.

"People come for different reasons," explains Lori, owner of the ranch. "They're either intrigued about cowboy life or they want some time out. We have a lot of city types, keen to try something new."

There are plenty of 'dude ranches' in Arizona but research tells me these can often be like 'spas with horses' — luxurious retreats where you can do as much or as little as you want.

I was looking for the real cowboy experience. A holiday where, taking time out from my everyday life of iPhones and commuting, I could learn a new skill and do something totally out of my comfort zone.

The Arizona Cowboy College was established in 1989 by Lori and her late husband Lloyd Bridwell to cater for tourists looking to glimpse the inner workings of a cowboy ranch.

From day visits or individual lessons to week-long cowboy courses, the college offers a broad variety of choices. But they certainly don't bill themselves as an easy ride — this is a working ranch and students are expected to muck in. Literally.

Target practice

Up before dawn, I arrive on the ranch, which is north of trendy Scottsdale, just in time to catch sunrise over the dusty paddock. With only the sound of the odd whinny interrupting the peace, there's an instant feeling of serenity.

But 'jigger boss' — a cowboy term meaning second in command — Elaine has already been up for an hour feeding and doing her checks on the 45 horses. The college can take up to eight people but it's early in the season and most guests wait until the weather cools before throwing themselves in boots first.

I'm joined for the week by only one other student, Jim Walker, a 44-year-old lawyer from California. "I've always wanted to do something like this but I never thought I'd get the opportunity," he tells me as we find our way to the lodge. "The lifestyle requires so much dedication. I want to challenge myself to see if I can do it."

The ranch is basic — rows of covered livery stalls and a barn with farming machinery and hay bales spilling from the open doors. The accommodation isn't glamorous either, consisting of a bunkhouse with wooden beds and a rainbow of rosettes decorating the walls. I choose a bed and throw my backpack on the top bunk.

I wasn't sure what to make of the new hat and boots Earl had helped me pick out, worried I resembled a low-budget Daisy Duke. But I was relieved to find Jim had also been shopping for shiny new cowboy threads. "Got to have the look," Jim winks, tipping his hat.

The clip clop of hooves on the concrete outside tells us it's time to start work. As we wait to be assigned horses, I read a sign displayed on the wall: 'The Code of the West'.

My favourites are numbers one ('Never pass a fellow cowboy on the trail without saying 'howdy'') and 14 ('No matter how hungry you are, always feed your horse before yourself'). It's a refreshing change to the unofficial London code, which is: 'Never make eye contact with anyone on the Tube and suit yourself at all times'. The fifth rule, 'Never shoot a woman', also bodes well for me.

My noble steed for the week is Leroy, a brown bay with exquisite black lashes most women would kill for. Trainee cowboys are expected to tack up their own horses. The western saddle, beautifully handcrafted and tanned with brass adornments, is almost a work of art. It weighs a solid 45lb, so fetching it from the tack house and hurling it onto Leroy's sturdy back makes for a triceps workout in itself.

The college takes students of all abilities from absolute beginners to the very advanced. Mastering the saddle and bridle is a complicated process of straps and clasps, and trying not to poke Leroy in the eye. It's been a long time since Pony Week at my childhood riding school.

"It's not so much a job as a way of life," Elaine tells us, as we head though dusty desert trails lined with imposing saguaro cacti. "There's no nine-to-five. If it's midnight and something needs doing, someone does it."

I'm keen to meet ranch boss Rocco — a local celebrity on the cowboy circuit and real life 'city-slicker' who gave up his New York finance job to embrace the cowboy lifestyle. He's waiting for us as we enter the yard and he doesn't disappoint. Statuesque, in well-worn cowboy boots with a bushy moustache and Cuban cigar balanced coolly between his lips, he certainly looks the part.

Next on the cowboy curriculum is to learn to lasso (or its official title, 'roping'). A wooden bull is wheeled out for target practice and we're shown how to a make a hoop and aim for the horns, looping the rope around his neck. Sounds simple doesn't it…? But don't be fooled by John Wayne's super smooth moves. It's much harder than it looks in the movies. When I'm not tangled up or falling over, I manage a couple of successful shots, although I did earn the nickname 'bam bam' for my violent slinging efforts. My shotput-esque throws are more likely to knock the poor thing out from behind than tether it in. But practice makes perfect and Jim and I are having a great time, getting better with every try. It's only the growl of my stomach that alerts me it's dinner time.

Hours have passed in a flash and I realise it was the most fun I've had in ages.

Cowgirl country

The next day we're put through our paces. All the animals need to be fed and watered early because the equine dentist is coming to check their teeth are in good order. Our job is to give the horses a numbing injection and hold them still while he inspects their mouths.

Later we saddle up as Rocco is taking us on a trek up to the mountains, north of Scottsdale. When I imagined riding in the desert I expected flat plains, perhaps dotted with the odd ranch house or cactus. But I'm amazed to find Arizona has a flurry of mountain ranges cutting into the horizontal landscape. Our trail pushes us into a forest of lush sycamore trees, scenic lakes and canyons. But we're not here to sightsee: our mission is to hunt for a herd of cattle that's roamed too far.

Riding in a western saddle is a far cry from the traditional English seat I'm used to, but before long I settle into the rhythmic sway of Leroy's strides. The route to the mountains is far more treacherous than our previous practice ride — there's no manicured bridal path in this part of the world. The terrain often drops into a steep descent and the path is a mottled canvas of boulders and fallen branches. Sometimes I cling on for life as we negotiate 70-degree-angle jumps and crumbling rock pathways. As well as trying to stay on track, we're constantly dodging cacti, thorny shrubs and spiders' webs. It's terrifying and exhilarating all at once. But Leroy knows the lay of the land and before long I'm cruising with the confidence of cowboys past.

The sun's at its highest point when we reach the top of the mountain, beating down on us like a heavy weight — the iconic cowboy hat is clearly not just a fashion statement, its wide rim protecting us from the 103C heat.

Rocco notices a border fence has been trampled down so we have to act fast. Dismounting and tying the horses to a tree, we get to work fixing the barbed wire barrier — it's hot work. My hands, more used to a touch screen than a hammer, are sore and bleeding by the time we're done. But I feel a real sense of achievement, something you don't often get with life in the office.

The two-hour trek back presents wondrous views and Rocco keeps us entertained with facts about the landscape and wildlife, or whistling an impressive catalogue of cowboy tunes. The altitude means more rainfall and the trail's decorated with green plants and striking flowers sprawling out as far as the moisture allows. It's a refreshing change from the endless dust and sand dunes I was expecting.

As we near a grassy bank, we finally spy the loot we've been hunting for — the herd of nine cows. Leaping into action, we round them up on horseback with the help of working dogs Ace and Jezebelle. With Rocco up front and Jim and I chasing from behind, we manage to get them all back to the gated paddock safely. Despite honing our skills yesterday, I'm thankful we don't have to catch them with rope. Managing to grab this lot by the horns and stay on the horse would definitely have been a challenge too far.

We're given a crash course on how to shoe our own horse too — a necessity for cowboys in the wild. It's by far the hardest work of the week. Crouched precariously beneath the hind-quarters of a 16-hand stallion, balancing his leg on my knee is agonizing. Salty sweat stings my eyes as I slam nails into his foot. I'm terrified I'll do it wrong and end up with a murderous kick in the face. Relaxing, it's not — but again, once we're done, that wonderful sense of achievement is back.

Ending the night with a cowboy cook-off round the bonfire, Rocco indulges his showman side by playing the guitar and singing country songs as we feast on fried steak.

With a limited signal on the ranch, there are no modern day distractions like text messages and Facebook updates, so it's really easy to switch off without even trying.

Time flies and before I know it, my working week's up. I'm sad my stint as rookie cowboy is coming to an end. It couldn't have been more different to my usual routine but I'm surprised how naturally I've eased into ranch life. Far better than any massage I've ever had, the settling of adrenalin at the end of the day has me feeling light as a feather. And lugging horse feed and 40-pound saddles around shows positively on the scales too.

There's one last task to complete before leaving though— a young calf needs to be branded. Chasing the energetic youngster into the paddock is problematic, almost descending into slapstick. It requires a full team effort with Rocco, Lori, Elaine and six of the ranch dogs helping Jim and I lure the unsuspecting baby into the 'squeeze'. Sounds grim — but the narrowing metal cage actually holds the calf still, making sure we can imprint a clear brand. It's a comedy of errors with the cheeky thing escaping Jim's star-shaped body barrier, knocking him over in the process. Eventually we hold her in place and she's given the stamp of approval and set free.

The ranch is rustic and a constant work in progress but the college is a great opportunity to experience a totally different way of life, ideal for families or groups of friends. I've never worked so hard (on holiday or otherwise) but there was no time to think about home, and I've never felt so relaxed. I wasn't sure how well I'd cope with the tasks required and I was proud of my efforts — I'd certainly sign up for another week of cowboy training. But mostly, it was great fun to switch off and pretend to be someone else for a while.

There's not much use for my cowboy skills back in the city but at least I can wear Earl's trusty boots under my desk.

Working holiday ideas

Yacht hand, Whitsunday Islands, Australia: Spend the week as a deck hand aboard a boat in the Aussie seas, learning orienteering, knot-tying and working toward your skipper licence. 

Chalet Host, Morzine, France: Seven-day chalet-host courses from May to September. 

Volunteer as a farm hand, worldwide: Long stay and quick-visit trips where manual work is exchanged for food and lodgings.

Forest ranger, Kent: From coppicing to charcoal burning, learn a variety of forestry skills. 

Hedge laying, West Dorset: Learn the ancient rural skill and enter the yearly competition.

The details
Stays at the Arizona Cowboy College start from $2,250 (£1,475) including food and lodging. 
Lorill Equestrian Ranch (where the college is located). T: 00 1 480 471 3151.

British Airways offers a seven-night fly-drive to Phoenix from £689 per person. Includes return flights from Heathrow and Avis car hire. 

Get kitted out at Saba's Western Wear

More info

Rocco Wachman provides a wider insight into the cowboy life in his book Cowboy: The Ultimate Guide to Living Like A Great American Icon. RRP: £6.99 (Kindle edition). Relive the classic 1980s movie City Slickers. RRP: £6.

Published in April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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