The Best Lesson

Stepping out from the behind the camera and onto a horse proved to be a valuable learning experience.

By Jennifer Denison

Tomas Garcilazo clinic 1More than a dozen students participated in Tomas Garcilazo’s roping workshop in California last June. Photo by Jennifer Denison

I spend most of my time on ranches and at equine events behind the lens or holding an audio recorder while asking questions. After more than 20 years of writing and photographing horses and the cowboy lifestyle, it’s a role I’ve accepted and with which I’m completely comfortable. My goal is to get the best images and interviews possible for a story, which often means being a spectator on the ground rather than a participant in the saddle.

Last spring, Cara Hamer and Fabian Banderas contacted me about doing a story on charro trick roper Tomas Garcilazo during a workshop in mid-June. Cara and Fabian are both avid ranch roping competitors and raise Andalusians in Southern California. Knowing that I have a strong interest in not only writing about this style of roping but also learning to do it, Cara also mentioned Tomas had a riding spot available for me in the workshop and I could use one of his horses.

Tomas Garcilazo clinic 2Tomas and his wife Justine travel with their 2-year-old son Louis and three horses in tow to rodeos all over North America. Tomas is a three-time winner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Specialty Act of the Year award. Photo by Jennifer Denison

The idea of putting myself out there in the arena with a group of ropers probably far more experienced than me was daunting and raised a lot of irrational questions in my mind. What if I’m the only novice roper? What if I’m so bad nobody wants to work with me? Will I hinder the experienced students paying to be there? But I also knew I would be among friends and this was an opportunity for me to lay a foundation for a longtime goal, while also doing research on a topic I enjoy writing about.

I arrived at Rancho El Abandondo, a privately owned ranch with a charreada facility in Ontario, California, on Friday evening and pitched my teepee in the sandy ground beside my friend Cindy Wilson’s living quarters trailer. Most of the participants camped and cooked out together at the ranch the entire weekend, which created camaraderie. A few stayed at nearby hotels.

After coffee on Saturday morning, I met my mount for the day, “Bonito.” The fancy bay Quarter Horse gelding is one of three horses Tomas and his wife, Justine, haul more than 40 weeks a year all over the United States and Canada to perform their charro and trick-roping specialty act at professional rodeos. The other horses in tow are an Andalusian gelding named Bolero and Latigo Dun It (“Hollywood”), who is the star of the show.

Bonito was outfitted in a charro saddle, which had a wider seat and larger horn than the Western saddle I’m used to riding. It also was lighter weight and provided closer contact with the horse. It was surprisingly comfortable and easy to ride. I was even more impressed with the charro reins, which were like roping reins with a loop at the top through which you place the index and middle fingers of your riding hand. It made it simple to handle the rope coils and reins in the same hand.

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Tags: Jennifer DenisonRanch ropingTomas Garcilazo Roping ClinicRancho El AbandondoFabian BandarasCara Hamer