“Tennis is a sport. Chess is a game. Horseback riding is an adventure” reads the sign at the entrance to White Stallion Ranch, Arizona. Given I’ve never ridden a horse before, and I’m about to embark on a week of intense cowgirl training in the Sonoran Desert, adventure is certainly one word for it. Ridiculous is another.
Checking in at the reception, which is flanked by saddles, a wall of stetsons and has a jar of ‘Horse Cookies’ on the desk, I try to channel the stoic grace of John Wayne. I fill in some details about my weight, height and riding experience (after much deliberation I decide that the donkey ride I had on Blackpool Beach aged six probably isn’t worth mentioning) and get taken to my room to settle in slash frantically Google ‘how to horse ride’.
Why am I saddling up at cowboy college? When my alarm goes off at 6am the next morning to start mucking out the paddock, I ask myself that exact question. I wanted a holiday that would take me out of my normal routine and stop me checking my emails. I wanted to feel immersed in something completely new. I wanted to learn a cool skill. But now I’m wondering if I couldn’t have just done a cookery course in Italy instead.
Before I have time to think too much about it, I’m meeting my horse Comanche, a brown and white dappled beauty who was saved from life as a drugs mule on the Mexico border. He’s warm and friendly and I instantly understand why people feel such an affinity with horses. My fellow ‘dudes’ - that’s the name for a trainee cowboy - have found themselves on the ranch for all sorts of reasons. There’s Binisha, who was working in politics before jacking it all in to come here for three months. There’s Janet and Paul who have recently retired. There’s a family who holiday here every year to ‘get back to nature’.
Once we’ve learned how to groom, feed and saddle up our steeds - one of my favourite tricks involves touching the back of Comanche’s leg until he kicks his hoof up so I can scrape out the dirt - we go for a hack. The landscape is rugged and cinematic and vast, with caramel-coloured mountains, dusty desert trails and Desperate Dan-style cacti.
My mornings are spent at riding school, and this isn’t your typical pony club. ‘Western style’ involves sitting back to trot, holding the reins in one hand and trying not to fall off every time we canter. In the afternoons we learn rodeo skills and I get blisters on my hands trying to get the knack of lassoing, which involves whirling a rope around your head and flicking the loop on to a cow. A plastic one, of course. The learning curve is huge. My thighs hurt in places I didn’t think were possible. At night, after I’ve showered off the red dust, I fall asleep as soon as I’ve got my sore body under the blankets.
On my last day at White Stallion, I brazenly sign up for Team Penning. I’ve watched other, more experienced riders take on this classic rodeo sport, which involves herding real cows into small pens while on horseback. It looks like a whirlwind of dust and yowling and yapping. But I figure I might never get another chance to try it.
As I mount Comanche and ride him into position, my mouth feels dry and I don’t think it’s just the desert air. I’m on a team with Janet and Paul and as we canter towards the ring the wind blows my hat off. All I can hear is the thundering rhythm of twelve hooves, and like an out of body experience I find myself making yipping noises. Somehow we get five cows into the pen in 15 seconds, which given the ranch record is 13, feels nothing short of miraculous. Talk about the ride of a lifetime.