The oldest (Israeli) cowboy in town

At nearly 73, Razi Frenkel is an unassuming man who has enjoyed a fascinating and wildly diverse career.

Razi Frenkel in action at the over-40 competition in Sarona (photo credit: MAYA ALSTER)
Razi Frenkel in action at the over-40 competition in Sarona
(photo credit: MAYA ALSTER)
It's a steaming hot Saturday afternoon in early June as I arrive at the small farming community of Sarona. The mythical Mount Tabor, west of the Sea of Galilee, looms behind us. The hills of Jordan just a few short miles away to the east, framed by date palms and olive groves, shimmer in the searing heat. It’s 35 degrees (95 Fahrenheit) as I step out of my car, and no place for the fainthearted. I’m at a Western cowboy meeting ‒ Israeli style.
I don’t know why, but when you mention Jewish cowboys people always smirk, or even break into a full-fledged smile. There is, undoubtedly, something slightly comical about the notion of Jews in ten 10-gallon hats, wearing plaid shirts, boots and spurs.
Maybe it’s the “City Slickers” syndrome ‒ a great Jewish cowboy comedy, if ever there was one.
I arrive not in search of Billy Crystal, but on the trail of one Razi Frenkel who, I had been reliably informed, was competing in a cutting competition. It’s a contest where the rider has to move into a herd of cattle and separate one cow from the others, and then use his riding skills to keep said creature away from its friends for a statutory number of seconds. He can do this up to three times in the two and a half minutes granted to him.
Lines of trailers and stables filled with attractive, very well-presented horses greeted me. Adult and child riders were warming up in the practice arenas. A hip-hop version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” echoed from the loudspeakers as a proper cowboy-type moseyed along ahead of me. Right on cue, the lyric, “Dressed up like a million-dollar trooper/ Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper/ Super-duper,” rang out.
Then I saw a flashy, beige horse with a flowing white mane appear from its stable, led by the oldest cowboy in the competition.
At nearly 73, Frenkel, resplendent in an oversized cream-colored hat, is almost two decades senior to the next oldest contender in his class. He is an unassuming man who has enjoyed a fascinating and wildly diverse career.
“What’s your horse called?” I inquire.
Frenkel’s craggy face ‒ he’s from the Walther Matthau line of hangdog lookers ‒ breaks into a toothy smile. “He’s a sevenyear- old gelding called Rascal.”
“How appropriate,” I suggest. “An old rascal leading the young Rascal.”
“You’re not wrong,” he laughs.
Few among the good-natured gathering would know that Frenkel’s life on horseback has taken him on quite a journey. This unprepossessing man was the driving force behind the creation of the modern Israeli- mounted police force, now a valued tool in the Israeli Police’s day-to-day armory.
He had previously been a special-needs educator, and after his retirement from the police, among other things, became a horseback trail guide for people from around the world riding in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s Boys Own stuff.
“My life with horses began on Kibbutz Kfar Giladi [very close to the Lebanese border] where I was born in 1944,” Frenkel tells The Jerusalem Report. “As kids, they would send us on horseback to herd the cows back to the enclosures. We would ride like [American] Indians using the old British saddles from the time of the Mandate.
“I learned to ride properly in the days when we used to have a kind of organized horse racing [sport]. Every kibbutz would send a horse or two to compete. Only when I went along and saw for the first time what they were doing did I understand that I didn’t really know how to ride.”
Frenkel honed his riding skills before and after mandatory army service, which he served with the parachute regiment. He then worked in the kibbutz cotton fields, in the dairy, and even spent a few years Then, in his 30s, already married with children, he realized he wanted to combine his love for horses with his other passion ‒ helping special-needs children. At the age of 40, he graduated with a degree in special education.
“After getting my degree, I spoke to the local education authority and suggested I organize therapeutic riding to help children with special needs. They told me, ‘We’ve not got time for any of that rubbish,’ and showed me the door. But at Kfar Giladi they gave me a class of 13-18 year olds and I began to work with them, including therapeutic riding. Then I heard the police were looking for someone to establish the mounted police force. I applied and got the job.”
Until the late 1980s, the notion of mounted police, already part and parcel of forces in so many First World countries, was not taken seriously in Israel. A handful of locally bred, skittish Arabian horses ridden by officers with nominal riding skills and minimal training was all the Israeli Police could muster. They were barely capable of making a meaningful contribution to policing and were not taken seriously.
“The turning point,” Frenkel recalls, “was one May Day demonstration in Tel Aviv. The horses were asked to help out, but became very stressed when they saw the number of people out on the streets. The police knew they wanted to do something better and decided to make changes. I went along to meet Haim Bar-Lev, who had been commander-in-chief of the army, but was then the police minister.
“Bar-Lev said to me, ‘I want you to fly either to Holland or England, go on a course there, and understand what they do. Afterwards, you will write me a report.’ He was an army man and he liked to do things by the book. ‘Once you have produced the report, we can then produce a set of guidelines.
First, create the basics, then add the details.’ It was a protocol that would include operational guidelines for every occasion and eventuality.”
Frenkel spent a month with the Dutch mounted police force during which time there were violent demonstrations in Holland against the installation of NATO missiles in Europe. He saw firsthand how real professionals work with horses in difficult situations, and then returned to present his report.
“Bar-Lev always spoke very slowly ‒ he was famous for that. He told me he would immediately release money for the establishment of a serious mounted Israeli police force. I told him, ‘We don’t have any proper transportation. We need big, European horses [not the small Arab horses that had been used to that point] and we needed a lot of equipment to ensure the horses would be cared for properly.”
Bar-Lev agreed to all of Frenkel’s requests and the equipment duly arrived soon after. The protocol for policing on horseback was then completed, including the rare potential occurrence of having to use a gun while on horseback.
“We went through this in minute detail, photographing every element to ensure that everything would be done correctly in the event something like this might be required.
We were told never to shoot from horseback, but there was an incident in east Jerusalem (in the late 1980s, I think), where two mounted police officers were trapped by an angry mob. If they hadn’t fired into the air to disperse them, they would have been dragged from their horses and cut to ribbons.”
When the first newly trained mounted police officers were ready for duty there was great skepticism among senior officers that they would prove their worth but it didn’t take long for them to have a change of heart.
“I would go around speaking to the senior officers at police centers around the country explaining what we could offer them.
The horses were based in Herzliya, Jerusalem and Kiryat Ata, and we built up to 40 in total. Once they saw what we could do, they were quick to ask us to intervene first, rather than risk officers on foot among the crowds.”
The turning point, he recalls, came at a big soccer match at Ramat Gan Stadium attended by tens of thousands of rival fans.
The presence of mounted police prompted people to exclaim, “Wow, what massive horses! Best not start any balagan [trouble] today.” There was always trouble at the turnstiles, but as soon as the horses moved close things would calm down.
“Between Coastal Road 2 and the inner highway, there were many illegal Palestinian workers and quite a number were involved in stealing large amounts from the fruit fields and groves. We decided to patrol the fields and found a lot of goods. You see, even a police jeep will struggle on the sand trails in and out of the agricultural fields, but our horses could go anywhere and we helped significantly lower the number of thefts taking place in that region.
“We also patrolled in the area around Afula, where in the morning Palestinians cross rocky areas to work illegally, as well as in the area around Modi’in. It was the same on the beaches. You couldn’t go in with a motorized vehicle, but a horse can go in and out like a person. You are in an elevated position and can see a great deal. It makes a big difference.”
Frenkel wasn’t on duty on the day of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November 1995, when the mounted police were placed outside the central police cordon. Just a short time before, however, he had been on duty when Rabin was pelted with eggs at the Wingate Sports Institute, near Netanya. He suggested that it might be better for the horses to be closer to help keep crowds away from the prime minister, but a decision was made that personal bodyguards and other security officials would be enough to do the job in the inner cordon.
“Maybe I’m biased,” says Frenkel, “but I believe it’s always better when the mounted police are close by to protect when there are crowds.”
He stayed in his job as a major in the mounted police until his retirement in 2000.
He offered a few words at his farewell party.
“I’m really not one for speaking in front of people, but I did say one thing,” says Frenkel. “I said that the test of the success of the mounted police I had helped create would be in how long it continued in the future.
I’m proud to say it is still going strong 17 years later, and there is hardly a major event anywhere in the State of Israel where they are not present. They are well funded and well respected. Indeed, at the time of the withdrawal from Gaza there was extra investment provided to establish a new division in the south. As they say, the results speak for themselves.”
Soon after leaving the police, Frenkel received an unexpected offer that took him in a completely new direction.
“I was invited to accompany riding trips of up to 100 horses that would travel through Jordan in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia.
We also did trail rides in Egypt, around Alexandria, as well as in Morocco, where Lawrence had been active. They wanted a professional rider with security experience.
“I would go a week ahead of the riders and meet local Beduin, poor people, who would rent suitable horses to the British trail riders. The Beduin were mainly Jordanian, but there were also some Egyptians.
I established a network of Beduin who not only rented out their horses to the group, but also set up camp and prepared food, etc.
Believe me, sometimes you had to be quite a diplomat. This went on until around 2004, when incidents of terrorism increased and it was deemed too dangerous to tour in these places.”
It is only in recent years that the septuagenarian has discovered a love for Western riding and competition. Encouraged by his much younger mentor, Sarig Brosh, from Kibbutz Alonim, near Tivon, he began learning this new skill and eventually started competing. Brosh is credited with being one of the first to bring Western cowboy competitions to Israel, having spent a number of years ranching with cowboys in Texas and New Mexico back in the 1980s.
I asked Brosh what the Texans made of their first Israeli cowboy? “They were a little curious at first, but once they saw I could ride they treated me like one of their own,” he recalls.
Israelis invariably like to put their own spin on established ideas, so I wondered what was the big difference between Israeli cowboys, riding in the Galilee and Golan Heights, for example, and those in the States.
“Well,” says Brosh with a grin, “the only difference, I reckon, is that we’re circumcised! Otherwise, we do things pretty much the same way they do.”
Back at Sarona, Frenkel is competing in the over-40 competition, and after hauling himself onto Rascal’s back he moves out into the arena to generous applause.
“Come on, Razi. Yalla, Razi!” cries the crowd.
He starts off well, Rascal stealthily moving in to separate a calf from the herd of 20 or more, but the fleet-footed youngster pirouettes and bolts back to the clan before the former policeman can cut off his return route. Better luck follows, however, as he executes a clean cut, holding the calf in a corner, darting back and forth on his steed as the young cow tries to give him the slip.
A third attempt also proves successful just before the claxon sounds him out of time.
He leaves the arena to generous applause.
Next into the ring is his main rival, Zohar Segev, 20 years his junior. By day, he is a professor of history at Haifa University. Segev accomplishes an impressive display of cutting, achieving three out of three in fine style and steals in to grab first place. Frenkel congratulates the winner and promises to do better next time.
“It’s fantastic that he still competes at his age,” Segev tells me. “I hope I’ll be able to do that, as well ‒ I’m just 54 now. I love this discipline and the unique connection you have with the horse.”
After receiving his second-place rosette, Frenkel prepares to lead Rascal away for a well-earned shower. How long are you going to keep doing this, I ask? “If my back holds out, and I can pull myself up into the saddle ‒ that’s the hard bit ‒ I’d like to think I’ll still be competing at 80.
Being around all these youngsters is what helps keep me young.”
And with that, the oldest cowboy in town tips his hat to my wife and ambles off, spurs clicking, and Rascal’s white tail swishing contentedly as he disappears around the corner.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist.
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