A photo of the cowboy poet and wrangler Jake Copass taken at the Alisal Ranch in 2003. Photo by David Lansing.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is why I’m going to Cowboy College in Arizona. That would be because of Jake Copass, an old bow-legged cowboy poet who passed away on June 8, 2006 at the age of 86. I met Jake, who worked as a wrangler at the Alisal Guest Ranch in Solvang, California, when I signed up for a morning breakfast ride at Alisal in 2003.
Jake put me on a horse, named Gumby, who refused to move. “Just give that ol’ boy a little whack,” said Jake. So I did. But Gumby would have none of it. Which didn’t really surprise me. I don’t really get along with horses.
There was Duke, the purebred Arabian my high school girlfriend tried to teach me to ride, though that was a real challenge since Duke would never let me mount him. Then there was the ol’ paint in Telluride named Buck (I should have known better) who threw me over a fence, breaking three ribs—mine, not his—before I even got my feet in the stirrups. And the shaggy beach pony down in Mexico that ran me half way to the border before stopping abruptly at the ocean’s edge and launching me like a javelin into the surf.
No sir, horses and me just don’t seem to see eye-to-eye on things.
When, after 15 or 20 minutes of trying, I still couldn’t make Gumby move even an inch, I dismounted with a curse and climbed into Jake’s beat-up pickup and rode with him out to the breakfast at Alisal’s old adobe.
“Not much of a cowboy, are you,” said Jake with a grin as we bounced along the dirt road.
“Let’s just say I am not and have never wanted to be a cowboy,” I said. I told him about Duke and Buck and my encounters with other horses.
Jake got a real kick out of that. For the rest of the drive he told me a bit about his own life; how, back in Texas, he was born on a little farm in Texas “way out in nowhere, way out in the sticks,” and how all he ever wanted to be was a cowboy.
“I loved horses and I kind of made up my mind at a very young age that I was going to be a cowboy, and my mom and dad supported me. And now here I am and I’ve been a cowboy all my life.”
Later that morning, after breakfast when we were riding in the truck back to the ranch, Jake looked at me with his great smile and said if I’d come back to Alisal sometime, he’d teach me to ride a horse. “I can’t promise to turn you into a cowboy,” he said, “but I think I can make you feel comfortable on a pony.”
I thanked him and told him I’d take him up on that offer. But the thing is, I never did. And a few years later, Jake was gone.
So here’s the deal: Alisal has invited me back out to the ranch later this month. And, in Jake’s honor, I’d like to be able to saddle a horse and go out on that morning breakfast ride like I was supposed to do with Jake. And so that’s why I’m going to Cowboy College in Scottsdale. To learn how to ride a horse, yes, but mostly just to make Jake proud.