Better Than Myths
Ever wanted to ride cowboy-style? Head for South Texas and saddle up.
By Paul Gerald
MAY 22, 2000: First there was the Myth. The Myth of the Cowboy. He rides the range alone, a symbol of independence and romance, working hard but living free, perhaps yodeling a lonesome tune as the sun sets over the prairie.
Leon Harrel doesn't fool around with mythology. He helps people get on a lean, fast horse to work real, live cattle. And even if you've never been on a horse in your life, Harrel says within a few days he'll have you riding 'em in and cutting 'em out right alongside the professionals.
And as for myths, well, Harrel says people find out they like the reality of the cowboy even better than the romanticized version.
"You don't have to sleep on the ground," he says. "You can go to the hotel in the evening and take a shower."
If this sounds like your kind of adventure, then Leon Harrel's Old West Adventures just might be for you.
Harrel started in the saddle young, riding race horses, but he didn't like the racetrack scene, especially after he got married and had four kids. Then he found the high-speed, adrenaline-driven adventure called cutting, and both he and the sport haven't been the same since.
For you non-cowpokes out there, cutting is simply removing one cow from the rest. It's simple, but it ain't easy. And Harrel became one of the best ever at it. He won seven National Cutting Horse Association world championships and was inducted into its Riders Hall of Fame in 1991.
Then he turned his 350-acre spread near Kerrville, Texas, into a teaching ground. And for the last six years he's offered two-, three-, and five-day clinics that will turn you from a "never-done-it" greenhorn to a "can't-wait-to-do-it-some-more" cowpuncher.
"People have an inner love for the horse," Harrel says. "Maybe it's that mystique with the cowboy, but there's a little Roy Rogers in everybody. Then they find out how easy and simple and fun it really is."
The ranch staff picks you up in the morning at the Y/O Resort Hotel in Kerrville and takes you out to the ranch. They show you how to get on and off the horse and ride it safely, then they introduce you to the cattle. Then you learn the "cutting horse dance."
Harrel explains: "On foot, there's no way you could keep the calf away from the mom, so the horse is trained to jump back and forth between the two. Once folks get used to it they're saying, 'Please, just one more cow.'"
One person who made the trip to learn -- and came back with 12 people from his company for a team-building clinic -- is Art Fetter of Chino Valley, Arizona.
"We had people from France with us who had never been on a horse," Fetter says. "But Leon got everybody on a horse by late morning of the first day."
Just a couple of days after those humble beginnings, Fetter and his group did an honest-to-goodness cattle drive.
"We drove about 25 head of Texas longhorns a couple of miles," Fetter says proudly. "We took 'em across a road and held up traffic and everything! We had a blast. Most everybody, by the end of the week, was riding full-out.
Fetter says the secret to cutting, especially once the "cutting horse dance" begins, is to "drop the reins and let the horse do the work. It's really a matter of staying on the horse. When you get those quick stops and turns and things like that, the horse could go east while you're still going west."
Other activities Harrel will get you going on include team penning (a competition to see who can get the cows into a pen faster), team sorting (keeping an uncooperative calf a certain distance from the herd), or just a good old-fashioned trail ride out into the countryside.
"We've got a big lake and rolling green hills, lots of different oaks and cedars," Harrel says. "We generally have quite a few deer, antelope, wild turkeys, bobcats, pheasants, and doves around, too."
Harrel says he has people who ride half a day and then go shopping in Kerrville or visit the historic German town of Fredericksburg. For that matter, the ranch is only 55 miles from San Antonio.
At night most folks go back to the Y/O in Kerrville -- and with a bar, pool, hot tub, and sauna, why wouldn't they? But the Harrels offer meals and entertainment to groups. You can have a real-live cowboy singalong by the fire, for example, or throw horseshoes, or learn to rope, or ride the "bull barrel."
And as for those cowboy dreams and myths, Art Fetter says forget about them. The reality, at least at Old West Adventures, is much better than the myth.
"We didn't have to muck the stalls or feed and groom the horses or a lot of other stuff that a cowboy has to do," he says.
Still, a little mythology never really hurt anybody. Fetter remembers just such a moment.
"Our first night, we were walking back into the Y/O. We were dusty and dirty, trudging in from spending seven hours on horseback, and we had our boots and spurs and everything. This couple and their little boy came out of the hotel as we came in, and the boy turns to his dad and says, 'Look, dad -- real cowboys!' There were no real cowboys in our bunch at all, but we got a chuckle out of it."
They also didn't correct the illusion. Let the Cowboy Myth ride on!
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