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Winter Riding in Arizona

I first met cowgirl clinician Lee Smith 12 years ago. Like many folks, I was introduced to the world of horsemanship through Pat Parelli, and at that time, Lee was at the tail end of a partnership with Parelli Natural Horsemanship. Lee parted from the Parelli program in 1997, returning to the roots and foundation of her horsemanship path, mentor, Ray Hunt.

Ray is one of today’s finest horsemen, and he has committed his life to the horse, sharing the importance of "feel," an art and approach popularized by the Dorrance brothers. Ray is arguably the catalyst of today’s worldwide horsemanship movement. Lee’s commitment to teaching Ray’s concepts and principles of horsemanship forms the core of her work. Conducting clinics and demonstrations throughout the United States and internationally for over 20 years, Lee spreads her own gospel of the Essential Elements of Horsemanshipä .

Not surprisingly, Ray Hunt drew me back into Lee’s world ten years after she and I first crossed paths. In 2006, I sought a clinic with Ray that would fit into my schedule. I discovered that Lee and her husband, Mark, were hosting Ray in November at their working cattle ranch near Wickenburg, Arizona. I recognized Lee’s name immediately from our earlier encounter and from seeing her featured on the cover of Western Horseman in 2004. I was impressed that a professional clinician was hosting Ray Hunt, and I knew Arizona would be the perfect escape from the impending Colorado winter.

During the cow working, I chatted with Lee intently; each of us interested in the other’s work. We discussed our common interest in sharing a passion for horses with others: I through my family’s dude and guest ranch operation, Wilderness Trails Ranch, and Lee through her clinics, demonstrations, travels, and the Diamond S Ranch. The decision to attend that clinic was a pebble tossed into a pool of possibility-the beginning of a professional relationship and friendship with Lee and Mark that I am certain will last a lifetime.

A month later, I received a phone call from Lee. Western Horseman had contacted Lee about featuring her work, and she proposed that I host a clinic at Wilderness Trails Ranch in the spring. I eagerly accepted, and our professional and personal relationships have grown. We now host Lee during several weeks in the spring and fall at the ranch, including specialized weeks such as Cowgirl Camp and a spring branding.

Last November, I headed to the Diamond S for several weeks of "putting practice to purpose" with Lee prior to another clinic with Ray Hunt. I saw dramatic improvements on the ranch. The sweat equity that Mark and Lee had invested over the course of the year was remarkable. What was a dirt lot a year prior, had transformed into a full-size pipe roping arena, complete with alleys connecting two differing sized roundpens. Pipe corrals had replaced portable panels.

Over the course of several weeks I was treated to an introduction to managing cows in the desert, a warm dose of Southwestern hospitality, and, most importantly, to Lee’s eloquent and insightful instruction. Days of riding were spent gathering cattle, checking water holes and traps, and taking time to focus on concepts and hone skills.

We gathered each evening in one of the Smith’s ranch houses to swap lies and tales, share a home-cooked meal, and watch the sun slowly sink over the starkly beautiful Arizona horizon. Lee’s friendly, open, yet, direct nature create an atmosphere of approachability and camaraderie. I retired each night certain that there was nowhere else I’d rather be.

Lee approaches students and horses with a common intention, encouraging the process of learning. Lee guides students and horses to seek and find their own answers, supporting the process of discovery, instead of fixating on a predetermined goal or outcome. Inevitably, this approach to horsemanship does not fit into a neat little manual. Lee believes the path to harmony with horses is personal to each of us, rarely are truths hard and fast.

Mark and Lee host students at the ranch throughout the winter from November-April. The mild Arizona winter offers a perfect opportunity to escape the icy grip forded most of the United States and Canada. Horse folks isolated from their horses due to weather and grim riding conditions will certainly appreciate the balmy conditions at the Diamond S, and the proximity to Phoenix’s international airport opens this opportunity to riders based half a world away.

Students can take advantage of the simple, cozy, and tidy housing available at the ranch or can stay in RV’s or living quarters of their horse trailers. Students provide their own breakfast and lunches, but dinners are enjoyed communally. Pipe and panel corrals are available for students’ horses. Or, students can take advantage of leasing a dependable and excellent ranch horse during their educational holiday.

My time at the Diamond S culminated with their fall branding. Cattle in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona calve year round. Mark and Lee gather in both the spring and fall to brand new calves, castrate, worm, cull, and wean. I spent two full days in absolute heaven as several of us helped sort, and then, rope and drag calves down the alley to the branding fire. My cowgirl dreams were truly realized.

In Lee’s world, the horse always comes before the job. But, I couldn’t help but notice, the job always got done.

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