Monday, May 02, 2016

Blood, Sweat and Spurs: Riding With American Cowgirls


It sure sounds like a touristy proposition: Learn “how to be a cowboy” with Arizona ranchers. Cowboy College is anything but. It is a real, working cattle ranch in the Sonoran desert. Here, visitors don’t just take postcard photos and move on; they get their hands dirty learning the ropes.

Think of it like a ‘no frills’ summer camp for adults. During five-day sessions, campers spend their days herding hundreds of cattle, grooming horses, riding horses and feeding cows. At night, after homemade stew or barbeque suppers and marshmallows roasted over an open fire, campers have a choice: sleep under the stars or climb into rustic bunk beds in the main house.

For rancher Lori Bridwell, this is serious business. “Our courses are designed to teach you horsemanship and ranching techniques you will carry with you the rest of your life,” she told Culture+Travel on a recent tour of her 10-acre ranch, also known as the Lorill Equestrian Center. Her late husband, Lloyd Bridwell, founded the camp in 1986 but passed away in 2000. Since then, Lori has run the ranch as a tribute to him and to herself, a 57-year old breast cancer survivor with the sheer energy of a twenty-something cowgirl.

..."Whenever I need to make a house payment, I come out here and sell one of 'em,” said Bridwell of her beef cattle. As soon as beef cows are born, they’re worth about $400, valued by the pound. At adult size, these cows weigh around 800 pounds and sell for up to $2,000. When it comes to pricing, their age matters less than their weight. Though they’re nursed here from birth, every staffer on this ranch knows the end game is the slaughterhouse. It’s even a joke on this ranch: misbehaving cows are quickly named Burger, Whopper and Big Mac.

There’s a lot more to this than watching cows graze. The average purchase price of a cattle ranch in Arizona ranges from $1-3 million, according to an industry study by the University of Arizona. And high operating costs are a given. Bridwell recently refinanced her home to pay a $7,000 vet bill to save a sick horse. "You can't just put 'em down," she said, petting the broad nose of Sancho the thoroughbred. He’s breathing easy at the moment - blithely unaware of the fact that his life is subsidized by Whopper and Big Mac.

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