Cowboy U’ Isn’t Horse Play

History, Traditions
on November 14, 2004

Inside the hot, windswept rodeo ring of Moloka’i Ranch, 10 city slickers wearing new cowboy hats, boots and pressed Wrangler jeans climb onto their horses.

After a slight struggle (“H’ya! C’mon now! This way!”), the slickers, contestants on CMT’s reality show Cowboy U, arrange themselves in a bunched-up line. A hush descends on the fidgety group as a big, tanned man walks slowly toward them.

“All right people,” says lead instructor Rocco Wachman. “Tighten up. This isn’t your first day on horseback!”

In fact, it is the eighth day that these contestants, who are competing in cowboy events as couples, have been around horses. They all live in urban areas, and most had never touched a horse prior to Cowboy U. The group includes an ex-lawyer, a children’s entertainer, two body builders, a financial planner, a singer and several nail-salon regulars. But can any of these greenhorns rope a cow? That’s what they’ve come to Moloka’i, the most remote and rugged of the Hawaiian Islands, to find out.

“What an amazing location,” says Wachman, 47, an experienced Arizona Cowboy College instructor. “We’re surrounded by ocean. But despite the view, this a real, rugged working ranch.”

For Wachman, the key word is “real.” Although Cowboy U is a “reality show,” he claims it has nothing in common with the genre’s other worm-eating, date-finding programs. “Other shows want people to fail,” Wachman explains. “Here, we teach everyone before we pull a stunt. Everybody has the chance to succeed.”

Eventually, the slickers will be asked to climb aboard a 2,000-pound bucking bull to compete for a $25,000 grand prize. “I’m not getting on that bull,” whispers Yancy Mendia, 26, a secretary. “Don’t worry about it, baby,” says her boyfriend, Eric Rojas, 26, a fireman, moving his horse closer to hers. “We’ve got to get through this first.”

Indeed, the bull riding competition is weeks away. Today’s event: The Rescue Race. “This comes from the days when guys rode into town to save a damsel in distress,” Wachman says. “Girls, stand on the barrel. Your guy will pick you up on horseback.”

Right on cue, Judd Leffew, Cowboy U’s wrangler, rides into the arena at full speed to demonstrate. Leffew, 28, a fourth-generation cowboy and champion bull rider, barely slows as he sweeps a woman off a barrel and races toward the group as she clings to the back of his saddle. Leffew kicks up a cloud of dust as he abruptly stops just inches from the slickers.

The first “damsel” attempts to climb on the barrel, but tips it and falls. “It’s OK!” she exclaims. “I didn’t know it wasn’t anchored!”

“Whoa!” Leffew whispers. “This is going to be a train wreck.”

It’s noon in Moloka’i. The Cowboy U crew spent all morning moving horse trailers and jeeps down the deeply rutted road that leads to Kaunalu, a gorgeous spit of deserted beach. The slickers walk down a steep hill toward the lagoon, where the waves are crashing hard and stirring up blood red mud.

There, they will learn from paniolos, Hawaiian cowboys, how to ride bareback in the surf. “Uncle Jimmy,” a sixth-generation Moloka’i rancher, approaches the slickers. “In the old days, the only way to ship cattle was to swim with horses to the boats,” he says. “So all our training begins in the water. It’s an advantage because you have better control. They can’t buck as hard and nobody minds falling on the sand or in the water.”

“We don’t?” Mendia says. Rojas takes her hand. “You can do it.”

“There’s no saddle,” she says. “Won’t our legs chafe?”

“You won’t stay on long enough to get chafed!” Leffew laughs.

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