Yury Rybakov hadn’t ridden a horse before. Nor had he herded cattle or thrown a lariat. But he had the cowboy bug and wanted me to teach him a thing or two.
I was spending the week on Angus Shestakovo Ranch, where Yury worked. I agreed to help, but warned that learning the cowboy trade doesn’t happen overnight. In the American West, old cowboys who’ve honed their skills for a lifetime still say they’ve only scratched the surface. But if Yury was committed to learning, I would give him a crash course in Cowboy 101.
Step One: Clean out the Barn
When Angus Shestakovo was founded, back in 2012, the owners imported three Quarter Horses and Western saddles from the Untied States. Neither had been used in years. The barn was boarded up. Pigeons roosted in the attic, flying through a broken window. I channeled Mr. Miyagi, handing Yury a broom, shovel, and wheel barrow to sweep the barn floor.
Step Two: Catch the Horses
It’d been a year, maybe two (nobody was exactly sure) since the Russians had last tried riding the horses. The ponies had reverted to half-wild herd animals. Whatever training they’d had in America had gone dormant. We needed to catch and remind them what the human-horse bond was all about. Cowboys call this “ground training,” because a horse learns a lot just from how people handle him on the ground.
Step Three: Brush off the Dingle Berries
Most horses like to be brushed. Two of the Angus Shestakovo horses — one named Rizhik (Russian for “Brown Hide”) and Rubin (“Ruby”) — loved it. Rizhik even stood for brushing without need for a halter. The third, however, was skittish. The workers said he was a “crazy” horse. The legendary horse trainer Buck Branaman said: “There’s no such thing as problem horses; just horses with people problems.” This horse would be my project. The Russians called him Coal, because he was black, but I rechristened him Gogol, after Nikolai Gogol, the Russian novelist who often wrote about horses.
Step Four: Fix the Saddles
The Western saddles didn’t come with instruction manuals. Whoever put them together had reversed the front and back cinches, hung the bits upside down on the bridles, and twisted the rope halters so they fit poorly on the horses’ heads. Yury and I spent a day washing and oiling the tack, giving the leather that rich, dark color of a saddle that a self-respecting cowboy will ride.
Step Five: Saddle Up
Yury was nervous, so I gave him Rubin, the most docile of the horses. I showed him how to walk the horse around by the lead rope, turning him in different directions, stopping, and starting. These exercises are called “ground training,” and they help to establish in a horse’s mind that the human is the one in charge in the relationship. While Yury walked Rubin around, I did the same for Rizhik and Gogol. Farm workers gathered along the fence, sensing excitement. But if a cowboy has done a good job working with his horse, there should be no reason for a bucking bronco ride.
Step Six: Bridle and Bit
Few things are more difficult than putting a bridle on a horse. Lucky for Yury, Rubin was like a horse on training wheels. He stood still while Yury fumbled with all the leather straps, figuring out what went where.
Step Seven: Go for a Ride
We took our first long ride across a recently plough pasture. I figured that if a horse should hit the ejector button, it was best to have a soft landing. The horses seemed to enjoy stretching their legs across open country. A transformation had overcome them; the horse-human bond was rebuilt. Every morning, when Yury and I came to the barn, the horses no longer ran to the opposite end of the corral. Now, they came to the fence, welcoming the attention. It was time, I thought. Next, we would ride into the great wide open.
Step Eight: Don’t Get Bucked Off
It was early springtime, the grass was still too delicate for grazing on the range, so the cattle were being kept in their winter pens for a few weeks longer. To feed them, tractors drove up and down the fence, delivering hay into their feed troughs. The machinery and commotion could easily frighten or distract the horses. If Yury could successfully ride a horse up and down the feed line, I had confidence he would make it on his own when I left the ranch.
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"When I'm ridin', I'm right. I'm a happy cowpoke. Wind in my face, And my pony at a lope. My reins are loose And my cinch is tight. I'm on top of the world, When I'm ridin', I'm right." — Wylie and The Wild West #saddleup #cowpoke #cowboyup #saddletramp #comradecowboys #spring2016 #russia #fulbright #natgeo #westernhorseman #wildwest #wildeast #eastmeetswest
Step Nine: Roping Dummy
Throwing a lariat (commonly known as a “lasso”) is harder than it looks. Ranch kids practice from a young age by roping dogs, chickens, fence posts, and their younger siblings. I showed Yury the secret of keeping the coiled rope under control, and how to position his hand as the rope twirled over head. Roping on horseback would take too much expertise for him, so we set up a chair in the kitchen for Yury to rope. I crouched next to it, “mooing” like a calf. You know — for effect.
Step Ten: The Cowboy Rides Away
Many songs, poems, and stories have been written about the cowboy who rides away. The time had come for me to go. As Yury and I shook hands, I congratulated him for taking the first steps on a lifelong journey. More than that, I shook his hand in thanks for becoming my friend.