The air is thick with dust and shimmers in the heat. In the sandy arena tucked behind the horse pens, a string of small brown-and-white steers are flicking their tails lazily as a wrangler casually corrals them towards the waiting group of ‘cowboys’.
Over the wooden fence is a landscape dominated by scrubby bushes and towering cacti, flanked by huge rocky escarpments and dotted with boulders. Dragging our eyes from the view, we line up in teams of four and charge towards the milling cattle, which scatter as we hurtle in their direction. Some veer off towards the fence looking for a place to hide, while others start meekly trotting towards the small pen in the centre of the arena. After all, for most of them, it’s not the first time they’ve been rounded up by enthusiastic tourists.
At the White Stallion Ranch, near Tucson, it’s easy to forget real life. It’s quiet, with the silence broken only by the squeak of harness, murmured conversations and the hum of insects. Out in the scrubland beyond the White Stallion’s boundaries lives a wild menagerie of coyotes, roadrunners, lizards and mountain lions. The southern half of Arizona is real cowboy country, with ranchers running their cattle on sprawling properties that stretch into the thousands of acres. It looks like the set of a John Wayne movie; oddly familiar with its cracked, red dirt and towering, grey-green cacti.
Surrounded by cowboy-hatted wranglers sporting leather chaps and boasting an endless supply of tales that feature bull-riding exploits and herds of bucking broncos, White Stallion is a Wild West fantasy come to life. You stay in terracotta pueblos, complete with old-fashioned dark-wood furniture and homemade patchwork quilts, while in the ranch bar you sit on stools made from old leather saddles. Breakfast includes cowboy staples such as steak and eggs and you can expect finger lickin’ Southern specialities like barbecue ribs and old-fashioned pots of ‘slaw later on.
Mealtimes notwithstanding, ranch life is rhythmic and dictated by the heat. An early-morning slow ride is followed by a late-morning fast ride, then lunch and a spell by the pool. Once the midday heat has burned off, it’s time for team cattle penning.
A Western sport, team cattle penning involves rounding up three steers and shutting them in a pen in less than three minutes. On horseback, no less. Galloping towards the group of milling bovines, our straight line soon begins to break up, with one rider left trailing by the other three. I wheel to the right, attempting to coax a reluctant steer towards the waiting pen, only to be overtaken by four more heading for cover. Lots of dust, much cursing and a few howls of laughter later and our chosen three are finally inside the pen. I lean down from my horse and slam the gate shut. It clangs and we’re elated. The wranglers made it look easy. As our team found out, it’s fun, but easy? No way.
Image: Daniel Foss