I was thinking the other day about what might interest the public about living in the country and working on a ranch. There aren’t many people who still live the way we do, working in the sun all the time and shoveling manure every day. It isn’t that the life isn’t exciting or fulfilling, but that people don’t realize the opportunity exists. There really are still men who where cowboy hats to church and women who ring cowbells when dinner’s on the table. It isn’t that we’re simple or that we can’t find other work; we just prefer to connect with nature rather than weekly paychecks.
So to give everyone a better idea of what this life is about, I decided to interview a real cowboy who has been doing this all his life. I’ve always worked with horses, and I own my own ranch (the Rapid R), but I don’t claim to be a cowgirl because I don’t quite live that life. Even I was surprised by some of the answers he gave, and I was fascinated to learn his perspective on the world.
This interview is with Jason Masterson of Bowling Green, Kentucky. He’s been riding the rodeo circuit for the last fifteen years (he’s thirty now) and he has his own line of Quarter Horses called Jason’s Picks, which started with a very famous stallion named Vegas High Roller.
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Jason, how long have you been working with horses?
Well, I’m thirty years old, so about thirty years. I lived with my Grandpa on his land ’til I was eighteen, and he’s got pictures of me on horses from the time I was six months old. ‘Course, he was holding me on, so I guess that doesn’t count. I really started getting serious when I was eight or nine.
And have you always wanted to make a life out of it?
Well, for a while I wanted to be a cop, but then I decided that I couldn’t handle having a boss. I was a little bit of a rebel when I was a teenager, I didn’t much like authority. Anyway, my Uncle Alex won $250,000 at a rodeo when I was twelve, and I decided that that was what I was gonna do.
What kind of rodeos did you do in the beginning?
Mostly local-yokel shows that had really small purses. I won fifty bucks at my first rodeo ’cause I was the only one to stay on Bullet for more than eight seconds, but that was only ’cause I was so small. Fifteen-year-olds have more stick-um than older fellows. I was hooked after that. I guess my first big purse was a thousand bucks at a rodeo in Lexington, but I ended up with a broken ankle for my troubles.
So you were riding broncs?
Oh, yeah, ’cause that was the only way to make money. I mean, if I was good at ropin’ I coulda done that, but I don’t have very good aim (laughs). So, yeah, broncs it was ’til I was about twenty-four.
Why did you stop?
Broke my back comin’ off a big buckskin at a rodeo. Really tore up all my muscles and I was in a hospital bed for three weeks.
Broke your back? But you didn’t suffer any long-term injury?
I healed after ’bout a year. But it still hurts if I throw hay too much or if I get tossed. I guess it was supposed to teach me a lesson. So I switched to cutting, and that was how Jason’s Picks got started.
Tell me a little more about Jason’s Picks.
Well, cuttin’ has gotten to be a pretty big industry. After Hollywood Dun It and all of them other horses started earnin’ big bucks, a lot of top trainers got into it. I found me this little red filly at an auction one time, and I just had to have her. Took her home, named her Fiery Red, broke ‘er when she was two, and started cuttin’ on ‘er when she was three. She was a rocket! Won me over $150,000 in two years, and then she went and pulled her suspensory ligament. She couldn’t cut, but I kept her as a brood mare.
And you eventually bred her to Vegas?
Yeah, Vegas came my way in a game of poker, believe it or not. This jack ass from Texas thought he was hot stuff, and he bet me his stallion when he ran out of money. Long story short, I won, and he shipped the horse to me the next week. ‘Least he made good on his word. Anyway, since I won him gambling, I called him Vegas High Roller, We won over $300,000 that year in reinin’ cow horse competitions all over the country, and I eventually retired him to stud. Made more than a million bucks off of him in four years. Bred him to Red the next year, and that started the line.
And how much are Vegas horses worth these days?
I sold a little colt last week for $70,000. Depending on how they look and their confirmation and all, I get between $15,000 and $80,000 for ’em on average.
Wow. So you must live in this huge house, right? I mean, this is comparable to owning a huge corporation.
I live in my Grandpa’s farm house. I put in a pool out back, but that’s it. I don’t need much to get by, and most of my winnin’s go to buying new horses. I have a lot saved up, but that’s for my kids if I ever have any.
This isn’t typical, though. I mean, I know “cowboys” who drive Mercedes and who live in mansions. Why don’t you?
I like to be close to the horses at night, so I’d never move. Plus, you can’t be the view from my bedroom window. I guess I spent quite a bit of money on my truck, which was stupid ’cause it’s always filthy. And I spend money on entry fees for competitions and such. But real cowboys aren’t the guys who have trainers to work on their horses, and just jump on their backs when rodeo season rolls around. I work real hard to make sure my horses are prepared.
Do you consider yourself a cowboy?
(Tips his hat) Yeah, I guess I do. I mean, I don’t track Indians or anything, and I don’t know crap about shootin’ a gun, but the cowboy tradition has changed just like everythin’ else. You roll with the punches, ya know? I don’t mind sleepin’ in the barn if one of my horses is sick, and I pick stalls just like the next guy. I make a good livin’ doin’ what I do, but I work damn hard at it.
And what does the future hold for Jason’s Picks?
Well, eventually the line will run out. Ya know, it’s just like people (laughs). You can’t be inbreedin’ horses all over the place and expect to hold the good genes. So when I decide that ol’ Vegas has been spread too thin, I’ll find me another risin’ star and start cutting that one. ‘Til then, I’ll be ridin’ rodeos much as I can. No broncs though. Just cuttin’.
Is there anything that the public should know about being a cowboy that they might not have gotten from the movies?
Well, I do know one thing: there ain’t no such thing as a Horse Whisperer. Redford’s a liar. Working with horses is about knowin’ their instincts, ya know? Know how they behave in the herd. Know how they survive in the wild. Then, you just gotta pretend that you weigh 1500 pounds, and make them think that you do, too.
What about people who are scared of horses?
Well, if they took a look at my medical records, they’d probably be even more scared (laughs). Workin’ with horses ain’t for everybody, and you have to have respect for their size. I mean, this is a thousand pound animal that can cause all sorts’a damage. I’m not scared because I understand them, but I can also understand how someone else would be terrified.
Do you have any advice for the novice horseman?
Just keep at it, I guess. Ridin’ horses at summer camp isn’t all there is. Actually owning them is a lot more complicated. You have to be prepared and knowledgable, and you have to know what to do in sticky situations. I advise all beginners to keep working with professional trainers until they’re confident enough to do it on their own.
And what about who want to be cowboys?
It’s hard if you weren’t raised that way. I mean, going from an apartment high-rise to a farmhouse is a big adjustment, and learning the ropes without someone who knows what they’re doing is nearly impossible. There are lots of internships available at the really large farms, and we might think about putting something like that together one day. Just take lessons at your local stable and see where it goes.
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Jason Masterson is a world-class cowboy, but also a very down-to-earth guy. You can usually find him on his huge farm called Riding High Ranch, working with some of his younger horses and cleaning stalls when he gets the chance.