The neo-Western series Yellowstone wouldn’t be where it is right now without the real-life cowboys on set. Because it’s the authentic portrayal of cowboys and the ranching life that gives life to its grippingly dramatic – and bloody – narrative about family, land, and power. They taught the actors the ropes on how to look believable cowboys on TV, helped them feel confident and safe while doing the stunts with the horses (and made sure the horses were safe as well), and even acted alongside them. Yes, you read that last bit right, and you were surprised because you didn’t notice. We know.
So, who are they? Let’s get to know them one by one.
Taylor Sheridan as Travis Wheatley
Yellowstone, set on Chief Joseph Ranch in Montana, was deeply influenced by co-creator Taylor Sheridan’s home and childhood. In an interview with Michael Corcoran for Texas Highways, Sheridan shared that his mother, Susan Drew, was raised on her grandparents’ ranch near Bosqueville in Waco, Texas, and she wanted her children to have the same opportunity as hers to ‘learn firsthand about the peaceful feeling of freedom in nature.’
So, in 1978, their family bought the 214-acre Cranfills Gap Ranch. Sheridan was 8, and this space allowed him to explore everything about horses, cowboys, and ranches. He got his first job at 14 on a cattle ranch just a few miles outside Cranfills Gap, earning $400 a month. Then during his high school years, Sheridan pursued theatre while still wrangling on the weekends. Though unfortunately, they lost the ranch in the early 1990s.
Today, Sheridan is celebrated as a master craftsman of the neo-Western genre producing successful films, including “Sicario” (2015), “Hell or High Water” (2016), “Wind River” (2017), and his most popular yet, Yellowstone (2018).
In Yellowstone, Taylor Sheridan plays the horse trainer and trader from Bosque Ranch, Travis Wheatley. The character is a reflection of his life as a skilled cowboy who also breeds and shows Quarter horses. And in Season 4, as a favor to the Duttons, Travis took Jimmy (Jefferson White) to the Four Sixes and had him do several odd jobs for him and his crew. And if you’ve heard the news, Sheridan is also now part-owner of the legendary Four Sixes Ranch that had been with the Burnett family for decades.
Forrie J. Smith as Lloyd Pierce
The cowboy blood definitely runs in Forrie J. Smith’s blood. His grandfather and his dad were both excellent rodeos, while his mom was a barrel racer. And he literally grew up riding horses on his grandparents’ cattle ranch in Montana. He also spent a lot of his early years sitting in the back seat of the station wagon, going to rodeos with his parents.
He started competing by eight and then riding bareback horses at 11. After years of rodeoing and some broken bones, he got into the entertainment business as a stuntman. Then it turned into stunt acting with his first role as Harley in “Desperado” (1987). But what really turned his stunt acting career around was Yellowstone.
In an interview with Bridle & Bit Horse Magazine for its September 2020 Special Edition, Smith shared that Sheridan offered him a role for the show during his wrangling stint in “Hell or High Water.” He was working the horses with his 50’ rope when Sheridan walked up to him and introduced himself. And along their conversation, the screenwriter told him, “I am writing a Western and you got a part in it.” Smith didn’t really believe him because he had heard it before, and things didn’t really pan out, but Sheridan told him he was serious. “You never have heard that before from me,” he said.
And he was telling the truth. Now, Forrie J. Smith plays Lloyd, Rip Wheeler’s (Cole Hauser) right-hand man and the most experienced ranch hand in Yellowstone. This was his first series regular role, and as of Season 5 Part 1, he appeared in a total of 45 episodes. And his son, Forrest, played his younger version on the show.
Jake Ream as Jake
Just like Smith, Jake Ream has grown up around horses. He couldn’t even remember when he exactly started riding one though he did have some fun and wild memories with his older brother. But it was after high school that he started doing professional horse work with award-winning cutting horse trainer Guy Woods in Texas. And then, he built his own horse training facility in Utah, specializing in cutting and offering services for colt starting and tune-ups, called Ream Performance Horses.
Ream met Taylor Sheridan through a horse he sold him a few years back. He posted an ad, Sheridan answered, and then went to the barn to try and ride the horse. After that, Sheridan and his wife, Nicole, would go back from time to time and take lessons. But Ream was oblivious as to how famous Sheridan was until the secretary of the horse-cutting association showed him what he did for a living.
“So you’re a famous guy or something,” Ream told Sheridan.
Initially, Ream was invited by Sheridan as a mentor for Yellowstone. Before Season 1 filming started, Ream packed up 14 mules with the actors and did a four-day cowboy boot camp where he taught the actors the basics of riding and helping them look their parts. Afterward, he consulted for the show and then earned a recurring role as a horseman. So far, Ream has appeared in 39 episodes.
Ryan Bingham as Walker
Ryan Bingham started his rodeo career at 17 after relocating to Stephenville, Texas, and joining a rodeo team at Tarleton University. He lived a life full of daring adventures and survived more than a few broken teeth and bones. But at some point, he decided to finally take his guitar and try music full-time. And it was through music that he got connected with Taylor Sheridan.
Their very first collaboration in “Wind River” didn’t work out, but the second time was the charm. As we all know, Yellowstone is also popular for its well-curated soundtracks. Bingham has written a total of 14 songs for the show from Seasons 1 through 5 (Part 1). But aside from his voice, Bingham is also part of the cast with a recurring role as the ex-felon and troublemaker ranch hand Walker.
Sheridan wrote Walker specifically for Bingham after finding out about his rodeo adventures. It was a small part at first, then turned into a recurring role. Walker is in a total of 29 episodes.
Ethan Lee as Ethan
Adding to the list of real cowboys on the Yellowstone set is Ethan Lee from Amite, Louisiana. His story was the same as cowboys Smith’s and Ream’s: starting out young riding and growing up at rodeos. And for years, he worked as a rodeo trick rider.
Lee’s first stint in the industry was in the 2016 war drama “Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey. The production needed extra help for the horses, so he decided to try it out. But it wasn’t something that Lee would want to do again. In an article by 44WL, Lee said, If I get through these two weeks, Hollywood doesn’t have to worry about me ever again.” That quickly changed, though, after checks piled up in the mail. He took advantage of the jobs that were coming in, and he did all sorts of tasks – made saddles, prepared the horses, and taught actors how to ride.
Unlike the other real-life cowboys, Lee wasn’t directly cast by Sheridan. It was the network that offered him the job. But his kids were so small at the time, and he didn’t want to be gone much, so he turned it down. Additionally, he and his wife, equine veterinarian Dr. Brennan Fitzgerald-Lee, owned 10 horses and 25 cows then, so there was a lot of work to be done.
He regretted that decision, so when Yellowstone called back to invite him again, he said yes.
Lee was initially contracted as a mentor, running cowboy boot camps for actors before the start of filming season and doing on-call riding sessions. Then one time, he had to stunt double for Ian Bohen, who plays Ryan in the show. After that, Sheridan started writing him into the show as a ranch hand. As of Season 5, he has been seen in 32 episodes.
Here are other real-life cowboys who made appearances on Yellowstone:
- Renowned Italian Horseman Andrea Fappani (S01E05, S4E04)
- First-ever $2 million rider in National Reining Horse Association history Tim McQuay (played the role of Martin, John Dutton and Travis Wheatley’s acquaintance in S01E05)
- McQuay’s grandson and American Professional Horseman, Cade McCutcheon (S02E05, S04E03, S04E04)
- Professional Trainer Matt Mills (S02E05, S04E03, S04E04)
- Sheridan’s personal horse trainer Tom Foran (S01E04, S01E05, S02E05, S04E03, S04E04)
- Well-known horse trainers Kelby Phillips, Todd Bergen, Bob Avila, Corey Cushing, and Tracer Gilson
Ethan Lee, Forrie J. Smith, Jake Ream, Ryan Bingham, Taylor Sheridan, Yellowstone