Peering through the blue lenses of white oversized sunglasses, Hollywood film producer Virginia Giritlian spins a lariat high above her head and lets it fly.
The loop grazes a bale of hay shaped like a cow and plops on the ground with a poof of dust. "That was perfect," says instructor Mike Rice. "Your cow is just learning to duck."
By her second day of schooling, Ms. Giritlian has already been bucked off a horse, kicked by a calf, and learned an important lesson about the "cow kick." Rubbing a tender spot on her hip, she says, "I didn't know cows kicked sideways."
Giritlian is one of the many students learning the fine art of cowboying at the Arizona Cowboy College, an unusual vocational school for a job and a way of life that's rapidly disappearing.
As large ranches are carved up and cowboys compete with ranchers in pickup trucks, the number of cowboys is falling by as much as 25 percent a year. But the image of the rugged, independent horseman remains one of the most powerful icons of the American West.
"Everybody wants to be a cowboy," says student Jimmy Mott. With his quiet, confident manner and lanky build, Mr. Mott - a network cameraman from New York - looks more like a character fresh out of "Bonanza."
Most who enroll in the college are searching to fulfill their romantic dreams of the Wild West, says Lloyd Bridwell, the owner and operator. They are people who know every line of every John Wayne movie and have always longed to be a cowboy. For the $750 tuition, they come to the school to live their fantasy, even if only for a week.
Mr. Bridwell welcomes all recruits, even those like Raul Sanchez, a Michigan retiree with a silver mustache and wide grin who's never set foot in a stirrup. But Bridwell is careful to ward off those looking for the "city slicker" experience. Students are expected to sleep on the dusty ground, shoe horses, gather cattle, and even help brand and castrate young bulls. "This is the real thing. They do it all. We don't try to fluff anything."
Even the students who come expecting to work bring some widely held misconceptions. "When most people hear the word cowboy, they think rodeo," Bridwell says. "But the rodeo is a show. It's not what we do on a ranch."
The son of a cowboy, Bridwell decided to start his own training college after watching the unceasing advertisements for vocational schools shown on daytime television. "You too can be a truck driver; you too can be a poodle groomer," he says, reciting the ad slogans. "I thought, you too can be a cowboy." So he developed a curriculum and advertised in a local newspaper. That was nearly 10 years ago. He never had to advertise again.
BRIDWELL begins with the basics at the Lorill Equestrian Center in Scottsdale. After two days of ring riding and bale roping, the class heads north to working ranches in central Arizona. Riding over the dusty plain toward the lowering sun is the romantic part of the job. But much of a cowboy's time is spent on tedious chores, like fixing windmills and building corrals. "A cowboy has to be part plumber, part welder, and part fence builder. You do an awful lot of construction - building pens and housing," Bridwell says.
It's a dangerous job, too. Bridwell has broken his right foot, his ribs, and nearly every finger in both hands. The pay can be as little as $5 an hour, and much of the work is seasonal. But for those who do it, the job is unequaled in its rewards. "It's a tremendous amount of boredom followed by a few seconds of adrenaline-filled excitement," Bridwell says. "Those moments may be weeks or months apart, but usually they are stories he can tell his whole life."
By the time the students return to Scottsdale Ariz., they have their own stories: Mr. Mott, of getting lost for nearly a day; Mr. Sanchez, of leading a crew by himself; and Giritlian, of discovering strengths she never knew she had.
Now, Giritlian's making plans to attend Cowboy College 202. "I'll never be the same person again," she says. "I understood that there was something I was searching for, and I know I found it. Out here, you are just who you are, and you can become much more than anybody can define you as."