Becoming a Cowboy: How the Arizona Cowboy College is carrying on the tradition of the Wild West

Arizona Cowboy College founder, Lori Bridwell, watches her student Tony Bruno in a private horseback riding lesson. (Photo Courtesy of Margaret Naczek)

Tony Bruno was always familiar with horses as he had a place in the country and owned his own horses for six or seven years.

He would ride them every day and recalled the 1,200-pound animals eagerly awaiting his arrival at the front porch each morning.

Last July, however, Mr. Bruno got bucked off a horse while on vacation. Though he only suffered bruises and scratches, his comfort level for the animal was severely injured.

It wasn’t until he began taking horseback riding lessons with Lori Bridwell at the Arizona Cowboy College, 30208 N. 152nd St. in Scottsdale, two months ago that his confidence slowly began growing.

The college

Mrs. Bridwell and her late husband Lloyd started the Arizona Cowboy College in 1991. Advertisements saying “You could be a truck driver. You could be a poodle groomer,” inspired Mr. Birdwell. He thought, “You too could be a cowboy.”

“We started it basically to give people a venue on the way of a cowboy’s life,” Mrs. Bridwell said. “To come out and see how we live and how hard we work.”

The Arizona Cowboy College runs horseback riding lessons, summer camps and one-day workshops, but a more recognizable program is the five-day intensive college program.

This program teaches participants how to live the cowboy lifestyle with instruction on horseback riding, horse care, cattle herding and the day-to-day tasks that come with running a ranch operation.

Debbie Brown first participated in the Arizona Cowboy College in 2015. She lived in Iowa, had two young children and thought the college would be a great way to get away and do something for herself.

She and her family had participated in many tourist “dude ranches,” but her interest in the Scottsdale college peaked when she saw all it offered in terms of education.

“This is more real life. At the Arizona Cowboy College, they teach you horse safety. They teach you how to catch your horse, how to groom your horse, why you should do it in a certain way, so you can stay safe because horseback riding can go from safe to dangerous pretty quick,” Ms. Brown said.

“Coming down here for a week, you get the real-life experience of living the life of a cowboy.”

The cowboy lifestyle

Along with the basics of becoming a cowboy, participants learn more about their own physical, mental and emotional strength through stepping out of their comfort zones and learning about a way of life that dates back to the American frontier.

Rocco Wachman leads a horse at the Arizona Cowboy College. (Photo Courtesy of Margaret Naczek)

“It’s a trip back 100 years,” senior instructor Rocco Wachman said. “Everything that we do takes a little bit of practice and has a certain era of danger to it. The value comes from people testing themselves.”

Mr. Wachman has taught at the college for almost 28 years. He said he believes the design of the five-day session combines three elements that create what he calls the recipe to personal growth—being with a group of strangers, understanding what was previously obscure and constantly being scared to death.

“This is a one-week immersion program into the toughest way Americans have ever had to live,” Mr. Wachman said.

The maximum capacity for each five-day program, which costs $2,250, is six people, so Mr. Wachman and Mrs. Bridwell can get to know each participant on a personal level early in the program.

Though there is flexibility in the coursework — participants can do anything from fixing fence and herding cattle to castrating and horseshoeing — Mrs. Bridwell keeps participants to a fairly rigid schedule.

Breakfast starts at 6:30 a.m. at the house. Classes begin at 7:30 or 8 a.m. The first day participants learn about horse safety and basic horse care — how to saddle, groom and feed your house.

Each day is a progression from the last to prepare the participants for days three and four when they are out at the ranch riding for six or seven hours a day. Participants sleep on the ground and go to the bathroom outside.

“Everything is new. Everything is strange. And everything is dangerous.” Mr. Wachman said.

A difficulty that participants face on the cowboy college is the direct interaction with horses. Trusting and taking charge of the 1,200- to 2000-pound animal was a struggle for Mr. Bruno.

“They can pretty much do what they want if they want to,” he said. “You have to put that out of your mind and realize you are there to tell them what to do.”

Mr. Bruno said he believes taking charge against such large animals can sometime go against the grain of rational thought, but he has learned to gain that authority from watching Mrs. Bridwell ride.

Ms. Brown, who now helps out at the cowboy college, recalls watching a group of young men who participated in the program because they wanted to open their own ranch.

At the beginning of the week, she described them as completely unaware to the riding process, lacking comfort, unable to position their feet and disjointed movements with their horse.

“The end of one week, they were so comfortable on horseback,” she said. “It’s just amazing to see the difference in how they behaved and how they trusted their horse.”

Lori Bridwell’s 4-year-old grandson, Dustin, pets a horse at the Arizona Cowboy College. (Photo Courtesy of Margaret Naczek)

Reaping the benefits

Everything at the college teaches participants about responsibility. Mrs. Bridwell teaches her participants the same way she taught her children and grandchildren about ranching.

“My kids will go out in a 20-acre pasture to catch a horse, and they know don’t come back until you’ve caught it,” she said. “Never say you can’t do anything. I was never allowed to say that as a child. I don’t let my children and grandchildren say that either.”

Mr. Wachman described the program as a test for how far the participants can push themselves.

“The one single thing I can take away from doing this is how people can recycle, resurge, come back stronger the next day. We really challenge people here in a way that they’re not usually challenged every day” he said.

“What we find is that rather than people getting into their shell and hiding and quitting, they rise to the occasion, and they get through it.”

BLESMA, the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association, participates in programs at the Arizona Cowboy College two to three times a year. Mr. Wachman said he learns more from the servicemen and servicewomen that participate in the program than they learn at the college.

He described sitting around a campfire with the five men and one woman—everyone missing at least one or two legs. Despite a strenuous day at the college, they are all laughing and smiling.

They are all ready to ride the next day though they know their limbs will swell so much it will be difficult to put their prosthetics back on.

“I thought I was tough. Then I realized that I’m really not as tough as I though compared to the men and women that lost body parts for freedom. It’s overwhelming,” Mr. Wachman said.

Learning rodeo skills

The rodeo is both a big competitive sport and tourist attraction in Arizona. From a wide range of local rodeos, Arizonans are immersed in the physicality and the competition behind horseback riding, roping and herding.

“I don’t think there is a tougher sport out there than rodeo,” Mrs. Brown said.

(Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

At the college, Mr. Wachman and Mrs. Bridwell teach the basic skills to some of the rodeo events. Mrs. Brown said participants learn how to rope cattle on the ground, which limits the amount of concentration and hand-eye coordination needed.

“To rope on the ground, you don’t have to worry about reigns and where your horse is going and the horse moving and your horses’ feet,” Ms. Brown said. “To actually rope on a horse, what those guys do, the time they put in, yeah they’re athletic”

Mrs. Bridwell also does a lot of work with different styles of horseback riding and three-day eventing. She said she believes horseback riding is a sport because of the muscle use required to participate and compete.

“This is basically strength and core training,” she said. “You have to be extremely strong in order to ride a horse, so I think that transcends into every sport that there is.”

Mr. Bruno said watching talented riders such as Bridwell further pushes that athletic competition of horseback riding.

“It’s a sport you can get better at,” he said. “You watch people who are tremendous riders and realize just how far you have to go, how much father I have to go myself even to catch up to where I used to be.”

The college and the community

The 2012 Agricultural Census from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the average age of farmers and ranchers is 58.3 years old, a two percent increase since 2007. The 2017 USDA statistics on agriculture reported the average age for an Arizona farmer or rancher at 61.1 years old.

“There’s not a lot of money in it, and there’s a lot of long, hard days,” Mrs. Bridwell said.

“Kids nowadays just want to make the quick buck fast and not have to work very hard at it. I’d like to see people work hard for what they have and maybe carry on this lifestyle, so that we can eat beef in the future.”

With the average age of ranchers and farmers close to the age of retirement, the concern for the future of the agricultural industry is apparent.

Mrs. Bridwell and Mr. Wachman, however, said the Arizona Cowboy College is one way to inspire a younger generation of cowboys and education children on the agriculture industry.

“When people come out at an early age and fall in love with horses, it changes their life forever,” Mr. Wachman said. “There’s work. There’s chores. There’s animals. Kids learn how to interact with livestock, which are very difficult animals to deal with.”

Though participants of the five-day program cannot immediately jump into an agricultural career — nor do they necessarily want to — the Arizona Cowboy College teaches them what it means to be a cowboy and gives them a spirit of the old American West.

“What they experience is almost like Americana,” Mr. Wachman said. “We have the right to pursue any happiness we want. There’s no guarantee that we are going to get it, but everyone can get a taste if they try hard enough.”

Ms. Brown said the college helps keep the cowboy tradition alive.

“Everybody should do it to get back to their roots, their early American roots,” she said.

As the only full-time staff member at the college, Mrs. Bridwell said she embodies what it means to be a cowboy.

“I consider myself a cowboy not a cowgirl. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a work. It just means I’m tough. I’m tougher than most,” she said.

As one of the top tourist destinations in Scottsdale with the over 2,000 participants coming from all around the world, the Arizona Cowboy College teaches about the toughness of a cowboy and the drive of the American spirit.

“It’s just a great place,” Mr. Wachman said. “It’s good for the soul. It’s good for the mind. It’s good for Arizona.”

Editor’s Note: Margaret Naczek is a student-journalist at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.

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