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Real People Money Diaries: Making Ends Meet as a Cowboy

Broken bones, bad horses, cattle-killing wildfires: It all adds up

In this series, we explore how different people make ends meet in an age of increasing inequality and job instability, by looking at what they do, how much they make, what the job is like and what their hopes are for the future.

Name: Josh Brewer
Age: 36
City: Soap Lake, Washington
Occupation: Horse trainer
How long: 21 years
Goal: Put on rodeos 

Learning to Ride

I break horses for a living. I grew up on a ranch in Nebraska. I’d always liked the animals: horses, cows and dogs. My parents used to punish me by not letting me go to work on the ranch. If I did something really bad, they’d make me stay home. I went to school to be a horseshoer and went to work for a guy who trained and broke horses. He eventually retired, and I took over his business. That’s that — I kind of fell into it, but I was always knew I was going to be around horses and cows. 

I started training my first horse when I was eight years old. They had a little filly that was too small for the ranch hands to ride, so they put me on her. She was nice and gentle — didn’t buck or nothing. But I didn’t really do it for money until I was about 15, after my family moved to Washington. A guy brought me three horses from the Colville Indian reservation and he asked me to train them. Afterward, I got to take my pick of the three. It wasn’t for money, but I got a horse out of the deal, so it was a trade — yep, a horse trade.

In a nutshell, the most important part in breaking a horse is to try to avoid any bad behavior, and look for good behavior. So if you’re looking for something and you’re getting bad behavior out of the horse, you’re probably doing it wrong. You just need to find a different way. That’s oversimplifying it, but those are the basics behind what I do. That, and don’t get bucked off!

The Ranch Life

I work every weekday and a half-day on Saturdays, as far as actual riding. When you’ve got animals, you’re really working seven days a week since you have to feed them, but on Sundays I usually just feed, clean up and do the basic chores. 

Two years ago I bought 20 acres of land here and train horses on it. I charge $850 to $900 per month, per horse. “Month” is kind of a loose term: the training increments are 30, 60 and 90 days, but I usually end up keeping a horse for five or six weeks and charging $900. That’s my gross; then I have my expenses on top of that: Feed, and mainly hay. That’s about $150 per month, per horse. So I net about $700 per horse every month. I usually train four horses at a time, year round, so I net about $2,800 a month on horse training. 

Is it difficult? It depends on the horse! I pay for my own medical insurance, which I haven’t used in a while — knock on wood. But I’m always just one little buck off away from it, and that’s the problem: If I do get physically hurt, I can’t do this job. So it’s dangerous. But a good horse makes my job easy — bad horses, they can be pretty miserable.

I also buy cows [around $1,200 each] any time I have extra money. That helps with the income, too. They cost about $30 to $35 a month each to feed in the summer, and up to $40 to $45 in the winter because feed is more expensive in the winter. The mother cows have babies in the spring. In October, when the calves are 600 to 700 pounds, they’re ready to leave their mother. That’s when I sell them — currently they’re worth about $800 to $900 each, depending on weight. They eventually go on to be corn-fed up till they’re two years old and 1,400 pounds. Then they’re turned into premium cuts of beef that you order at a steakhouse: prime rib, T-bone, tenderloin, etc. My cows go on to have babies the next spring and usually reproduce till they’re eight years old.

Comfort-wise, it all depends on the year. Some years we get no tax refund, some years I pay taxes. I think nationally, and even within the state, we’d be considered below the average. We’re not in poverty, but not quite median income either.

The lifestyle can be hard, too. A little while back, some people were out next to my cow pasture shooting guns for target practice. It was July and really dry, and it started a fire that ended up burning 20,000 acres. I had about 35 cows, and they were right in the middle of it. Killed five of them on the spot — the fire was blowing 30 miles an hour that day, and it just blew right over the top of them. The rest of them had to walk around in the burnt grass that was left over, and it burned their feet so bad that I had to sell them because their feet were damaged. They had to go be hamburger. 

That fire was pretty tough. The five cows I lost were $1,200 each, so $6,000 total. The other 30 weren’t a total loss, but they weren’t worth as much because their feet were burned. I probably sold them at $400 under their value. So that’s about a $12,000 loss. 

Life As a Cowboy

The first injury I ever got was when I was a little kid. Dad told me to go get the milk cow, and I jumped on a young horse, bareback. He bucked me off and I broke my wrist. My dad told me, “Don’t worry about it son, you’re on your way — because once you’ve been bucked off six times and back on seven times, you’ll be a real cowboy.” I never forgot that, and sure enough, the sixth time I got bucked off, I told my dad I’m now a cowboy. 

I used to ride broncos in rodeos. I’ve broken my fibula, one time I tore the collarbone where it attaches on the outside to your shoulder — I tore that loose, it’s still loose. But again, I’ve been pretty lucky. I know a lot of people more banged up than me. I have one friend who broke his leg so bad when his horse bucked him off that he can’t do it anymore, and I actually train horses for him now. 

I’m getting older and I’ve got two kids, a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old, and I’m kind of getting to the age where, for the stability and the safety, I wouldn’t mind working in an office some days! It’s not about me anymore — I’ve got to think about others and how I’m going to provide for them.

Living the Dream

I’d like to eventually build my own rodeo arena and put on rodeos, that’d be my dream job. My wife is a teacher — she wants to do birthday parties for kids on the side, and parties in general. I thought we could combine the two and do rodeo-themed birthday parties, real rodeos, things like that.

My high school guidance counselor told me to just do what you like doing and don’t let money be a big driving factor. I thought at the time it was the best advice, but looking back some days, I wonder if it might’ve been the worst advice! I don’t see me changing too much in the near future though. I’m trying to buy as much real estate as I can — that’s kind of my retirement plan, just putting all the money I can into land. I go to tax-foreclosure auctions to buy random land in the area to build up my net worth. The 20 acres I already own I plan to build a house on, and then I’ll rent out the home in town that I currently live in. 

Yesterday I rode a great big three-year-old, 1,200-pound horse that had never been ridden. He was kind of scared and skittish, but he didn’t buck. I’d be lying if I said my job isn’t exciting and an adrenaline rush: After I got off riding it for 45 minutes, I just got a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. I did something that a lot of people aren’t brave enough to do or able to do. To me, my job is like I’m building something: Like a carpenter who builds a house or an artist who paints a painting. I’m taking an unbroken, untrained horse and turning it into something useful that someone can take from me and use. That’s exciting. 

Anyway, that’s what keeps me going, because it’s darn sure not the money! At the end of the day, I get to be a cowboy — an American hero. Kids dress up for Halloween as cowboys. Not many people get to say they do a job where they get to dress up in a Halloween costume every day to go to work, you know?