When John Phippen talks about the speed and thrill of the rodeo, his voice rises and his words race. "You let the cow escape and when it sees that it has an opening, it bolts, going Mach 10," he says. "Then I take off after it with my horse going at top speed, staying with the cow and keeping it along the fence until I pass the marker. Believe me, I'm really hauling ass."
He pauses for a breath and continues: "Once the horse's head is past the cow, the cow usually stops and goes in the other direction, which is what you want. Sometimes it won't turn back, and you have to turn your horse into the path of the running cow to slow it down and turn it -- but sometimes the cow doesn't even stop. I've seen cows run right through a horse, jump over a horse, or jump over a horse and knock the rider out of the saddle. It's dangerous."
After 10 years as El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel's CIO, Phippen decided early this year to take some time off to "just enjoy things and have some fun." His idea of fun includes a lot of riding and roping.
In the summers when he was a kid, Phippen would go to his aunt's ranch near Spokane, Wash., and do a lot of trail riding. His interest in horses was reawakened about seven years ago when his high-school-aged daughter began to take riding lessons. He started riding again in the hills near his home about 30 miles south of Los Angeles. Although he found it peaceful and relaxing, he had a hankering for a bigger challenge.
A friend encouraged him to try working cattle. This involved maneuvering himself while on horseback to get a cow going in the right direction. "The first time I worked a cow, the horse threw me off," Phippen recalls. "I thought, 'Hey, that was different!' I tried again, was thrown again, and said 'This is harder than I thought -- cool!'" After many unscheduled landings, he learned to stay on and has since entered team cow penning and cow roping contests. Roping requires a well-trained horse so Phippen searched carefully before finding an experienced steed, a 16-year-old movie star. Hollywood, Phippen's bay horse, was a training horse for Billy Crystal in City Slickers and Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee.
Phippen and Hollywood have recently been competing in "working cow horse" contests, sponsored by the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA). These soon-to-be Olympic events pit rider and horse against a cow, a clock and an open arena in a demonstration of equine athleticism and riding skill. The rider must make the horse skid to a stop from a blazing gallop, pivot and spin on its heels. "Then comes the fun part, the cow part," Phippen says. A cow is let loose in the arena, and the rider and horse control the cow by running it in one direction, turning it, running it back and in a tight circle.
"It's challenging and difficult because the horse knows what to do, and my job is to give it the right cues and then let him work," Phippen says. "He's doing these maneuvers at top speed and it's difficult to sit nice and still in the saddle while it's all happening."
Phippen says he isn't sure when he might return to the corporate arena, but it probably won't be soon. "Right now, I'm enjoying riding and trying to earn enough [competition] points to attend the [AQHA] championships next November in Oklahoma City," he says. Until then, he'll keep riding hard, riding fast, hanging on and having fun.
This story, "Got Cows?" was originally published by CIO.