PHOENIX Nicki Nelson was born on the wrong side of South Dakota. The Missouri River splits the state into farm country to the east and ranching territory to the west.
''I grew up on 'East River,' and all my life, I was a 'West River' wannabe,'' Nicki says. ''I've been in love with horses all my life.''
Arizona Cowboy College, with headquarters at the Lorill Equestrian Center east of Scottsdale, has given Nicki the chance to cross the Missouri. She's a cowgirl now.
In real life, Nicki, 42, is an X-ray technician at the Verde Valley Medical Center. She lives in Cottonwood, Ariz., with her two young daughters. On a recent flight to Kansas, she noticed a small item in an airline magazine offering to turn anyone into a cowboy in just six days. She signed up, figuring the $1,500 tuition was a fair price for a dream.
Arizona Cowboy College was founded in 1989 by New Mexico native Lloyd Bridwell. He and his wife, Lori, had opened the equestrian center 20 years earlier. For almost a dozen years, the easygoing Lloyd served as head instructor, turning greenhorns into wranglers with two days instruction in town and four days on the trail.
In April 2000, Lloyd died in a propane explosion on an Arizona ranch. Lori Bridwell found an able partner to keep the college running in Rocco Wachman, the college's new head instructor whose kindly manner belies a no-nonsense teaching style.
''I get to watch people come together who have never met before, and by Wednesday they have a team that blows me away,'' he says.
Customers come from all over the world. A third of the students are from overseas, mostly Europe and South America. They're corporate executives, professional rodeo cowboys who've never roped a calf outside an arena and Texas ranchers hungry to know more about cattle.
''Most people come here to get as far away from 2003 as possible,'' to live life in the Old West, Rocco says. ''It's a part of Americana.''
Arizona Cowboy College closes between June and September for the long, hot summer, and most classes average four students.
Guests who think Rocco's course is for rhinestone cowboys are soon dissuaded. He calls the week grueling and spends much of the first day chronicling tragedies that can come when a half-ton horse and rider collide.
When Nicki arrived at the stables in June, she was warned that her four days on the trail would be rustic. No toilets. No showers. Sleeping under the stars. She could hardly wait.
After two days of lessons in the arena, Nicki was ready to follow the tradition of Arizona Cowboy College students who head north to help out on any of 10 ranches around Prescott, Ariz. Nicki worked for Ed Hanks, owner of the Triangle M Ranch in Mayer, Ariz.
''They help,'' Hanks says. ''They're fun. It's nice to have people up here.''
For the next three days, Nicki lived out her fantasy. Hanks needed cows moved from pasture to pasture and loaded onto trailers. Rocco says the best way to move cattle is slowly, methodically, and to get up early. In Arizona heat, cows are looking for shade by 10 a.m. They've got to be on the trail by 8 or they won't budge.
Hanks' land is at the north end of the Bradshaw Mountains. The terrain is rocky and steep, rising from high desert to a pine forest.
On the range, workdays stretch from sunup to sundown. At night, Rocco, the former gourmet food purveyor, gets out his Dutch oven to cook meals some students say are the best part of the ride. Nicki is treated to beef roast with potatoes, Cornish game hens and steak.
At the end of the week, he calls her one of his three best students in 14 years.
The program has graduated 739 students in its 14 years. And although it's called Arizona Cowboy College, half of its students are women.
Women thrive at horse school, Rocco says. With a lower center of gravity and legs longer in proportion to their bodies, they ride better than men. They're also more sensitive to the animals.
''I thought it was great,'' says Sun Valley, Idaho, real estate agent Suzie King, who went through the program in November 1999.
''It's not beyond reach'' for women, she says. ''Yet you're stretched enough to feel satisfied.''
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