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What's Yellowstone's Cowboy Camp Training Really Like?

Taylor Sheridan's "Yellowstone" has become wildly popular. According to AP, it's the most-watched scripted series on television. When this series, which follows the fictional Dutton family as they run the largest ranch in Montana, debuted in 2018, no one knew how successful it would be. Thanks to this success, Sheridan has been busy expanding its universe for Paramount. The prequel "1883," starring Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Sam Elliot, follows the Duttons' ancestors across the American frontier to Montana. The next chapter, "1923," starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, explores Prohibition and Depression-era Montana.

Ian Bohen, who plays Ryan on "Yellowstone" told Paramount, "You'd be surprised to learn how much preparation goes into playing a ranch hand." Sheridan's neo-Western shows require the casts to prepare for production differently than your average series. He strives for authenticity in everything he does, so he arranges for his cast to attend cowboy camp to prepare them for the demands of playing cattle ranchers and pioneers. There's no CGI involved in making "Yellowstone."

Luke Grimes, who stars in "Yellowstone" as Kayce Dutton, the son of John Dutton (Kevin Costner), told The Hollywood Reporter that cowboy camp is "different every year," so he never knows "what to expect other than that it's just so great to get back in the saddle, to use a bad pun, with all of the other actors and the wranglers." Although its location and activities vary, the basic point of cowboy camp remains the same: to enhance the show's realism. If you're curious about what it takes to be a genuine cowboy, giddyap and read this article while the sun shines. 

Cowboy camp is a necessity for creating authenticity

Kelly Reilly, who plays Beth Dutton in "Yellowstone" didn't join the cowboy camp. Kevin Costner probably didn't need a brush-up either, as the actor is known for the riding skills he gained making "Dances With Wolves" and also rides regularly on his two ranches. Almost everyone else on the casts of "Yellowstone," "1883," and "1923" has taken part in cowboy camp to prepare for production, as Taylor Sheridan believes it is a necessity for creating authenticity in his celebrated string of Westerns.

"I don't rehearse with my actors," Sheridan said in a behind-the-scenes featurette for Paramount+, adding, "There's no way to inform them what this way of life is, you just have to do it. I just take them out and put them to work." Their experiences at cowboy camp are designed to make the actors confident in their riding skills so they aren't apprehensive while filming. "This training creates an authentic cowboy because the blisters are real, the cuts are real, I'm running into barbwire fences on my horse," Eric Nelsen, who plays Ennis in "1883," told Paramount+.

The skills learned at cowboy camp also help production run smoothly. Luke Grimes told The Hollywood Reporter, "It gets everything working like a well-oiled machine." He said the experience turned some actors into equestrians, who ride on their days off in Montana during production, saying, "They've been really cool about letting the actors continue to sharpen their skills on horseback as much as they want."

Taylor Sheridan is with his cast at cowboy camp

Luke Grimes told Paramount, "Taylor's a cowboy himself. He really walks the walk [...] He made sure that we were on the horse every day and he sent us to the cowboy camp." But Taylor Sheridan won't ask his cast to do anything he wouldn't, so he's right there with them at cowboy camp. According to Grimes, Sheridan even hosted the camp at his ranch in Texas. LaMonica Garrett, who plays Thomas in "1883" told Paramount+, "He's the first one out there, and he'll never ask you to do anything that he doesn't do."

Cole Hauser, who plays Rip Wheeler in "Yellowstone," told People, "Taylor's been great. I mean, he's taught me disciplines in cutting and roping and reining. It's been more of the same every year we go to, basically a cowboy boot camp." Hauser added how involved Sheridan is in developing the skills of his actors and how dedicated he is to making sure the cast looks like authentic wranglers and ranchers on the show.

The first year of cowboy camp was a mule-packing trip

As Luke Grimes told The Hollywood Reporter, cowboy camp "sort of evolved over the years." Grimes told Associated Press the first year it was "a mule-packing trip. So we were on horseback, we went like 20 miles into the wilderness, and cooked our own food, rode around all day, with shotguns [...] it was goofy [...] it was like 'City Slickers.'" While on their four-day mule-packing trip, the cast learned to rope cattle, wrangle, and shoot.

Wes Bentley, who plays Jamie Dutton, elaborated, telling AP a humorous story about the actor's attempts to gather firewood, and how one real cowboy cut down a tree, effectively putting a stop to their meager efforts. Bentley obviously enjoyed spending time in nature for four days and getting away from technology, especially cell service, telling Paramount, "Cowboy camp was incredible!"

Cole Hauser found cowboy camp useful in helping to create his character because he used the time to "pick the brains of real cowboys, guys that know what they're doing" and glean insights from those conversations. Dave Annable, who plays Lee Dutton in "Yellowstone, told Paramount, "It was incredible, we were out there in the elements." Jefferson White, who plays Jimmy Hurdstrom, talked about the physicality of the role, telling Paramount, "It's an amazing gift as an actor to have physical things to respond to."

The cast learn the basics of cattle ranching at cowboy camp

The casts learn horseback riding, roping, herding cattle, and swimming horses across rivers from professional wranglers who work on the Western series. "Cowboy camp was probably the most helpful thing in the world. We all got to spend a couple of weeks together, just riding horses and roping and herding cattle," Tim McGraw, who plays James Dutton in "1883," told Paramount+. Faith Hill, who plays James' wife, told USA Today how camp prepared her for production, saying, "I do wrangle cattle (in the show) and really enjoyed that." She also applauded the wranglers and stunt women who taught them these skills, saying they made her "kinda feel like a bad a**." 

Brian Geraghty, who plays Dutton Ranch foreman Zane Davis in "1923," told US Weekly, "It's really helpful for learning to really become proficient on horses and use guns and the period piece weapons." Marley Shelton, who plays Emma Dutton in "1923," told Fox News Digital it was "two weeks of 9-to-5 horse riding, cattle wrangling, roping, buggy driving in Montana." Shelton said she did historical research about the era and region, but felt cowboy camp complimented her research, saying, "It was just an incredible way to live and breathe and take in the atmosphere of ranch life and also [get] to know each other." 

Cowboy camp for the cast of 1883 was even more intense

To prepare for "1883," the cast spent two weeks learning about ranch life and Western expansion at cowboy camp in Weatherford, Texas. Not only did the cast have to learn the basics of cattle ranching but they also learned what life was like for pioneers: slow, arduous, and rife with danger. LaMonica Garrett said cowboy camp gave him an appreciation for the dangers of being a pioneer in the 1800s, telling Cowboys and Indians, "You're just trying to get from point A to point B and everything from weather, to creatures, snakes, animals, wolves, bandits — everything is trying to kill you."

Amanda Jaros, who plays Alina, told Paramount+, "This is my first time on an 1880s saddle," which probably gave her an appreciation for how comfortable modern saddles and clothing are. James Landry Hérbert, who plays Wade, relayed how physically punishing driving a wagon is, saying, "It did a number on your back." Faith Hill told USA Today that she assumed driving a wagon would be "fairly simple. No, it is not! It's very dangerous, actually."

Mark Rissmann, who plays Josef in "1883," took something else away from the experience. It gave him an appreciation for how long it took to travel in the 19th century, telling Paramount+, "you understand what a journey like this means."  

They played horse-centric versions of field games

Although cowboy camp sounds challenging, a promotional featurette makes it clear that it wasn't all work and no play for the cast of "1883." They also played games. Isabel May said they rode horses while holding an egg on a spoon. Whoever made it back to the starting line the quickest with their egg intact was the winner. Although Tim McGraw admitted he always dropped the egg, LaMonica Garrett suggested some participants got a little creative. McGraw suggested Taylor Sheridan may have cheated during this field game. Sheridan jokingly told Paramount+, "There's no proof of cheating, but it is suspected." Faith Hill confirmed the competition was heavy, "but in a supportive way." From the promotional featurette, it seems the cast and crew of "1883" developed a playful rapport during their field games and commiserated about the uncomfortable vintage saddles and heat in Weatherford, Texas, which Garrett said reached 100 degrees. Sometimes you have to suffer for your art.

Cowboy camp is a team-building experience

Spending a couple of weeks together at cowboy camp before filming gives the cast a chance to get to know each other. It's an intense bonding experience for the actors that also gives them a taste of the physical demands production would place on them. Brian Geraghty from the cast of "1923" told E! News, "We were all tortured in a two-week cowboy camp. So we got to have highs and lows together before we started, which actually was really good for bonding [...] We all got to be vulnerable. As adults, it's not easy to learn a new skill."

Eric Nelsen, from the cast of "1883," told Paramount+, "Cowboy camp is extremely important for teamwork. We're all trying to build chemistry as actors, and there's nothing more team-oriented than getting 28 cattle over hills and through alleyways for miles and miles. If you're not communicating with your teammates, then it's not going to work." Sheridan's cowboy camp sounds like the most hardcore team-building retreat you'll ever take with co-workers.

During a behind-the-scenes featurette, the entire cast of "1883" commented on how effective cowboy camp was at bringing them together as a group who could trust and count on each other. This really came through in the series during their characters' difficult journey to Montana. Pioneers literally had to trust their wagon train with their lives. 

It takes a physical toll

Everyone who has attended cowboy camp agrees it is tough and takes a physical toll. Faith Hill told USA Today, "It's not glamorous at all." LaMonica Garrett told Paramount+, "I've been to like hell week and camps in football. This is a whole different beast." The long days practicing roping, wrangling, and riding are a serious change of pace for anyone who doesn't live and work on a cattle ranch, but the cast of "Yellowstone" and the prequels put in the hours.

Darren Mann, who plays Jack Dutton in "1923," told Fox New Digital, "Riding eight hours a day ain't easy. I think my groin just wanted to walk off and quit the gig, but you know everybody else was handling it, so I had to too." Mann explained he bought a horse after a couple of days of camp and started taking cold plunges to prepare for the next day. Michelle Randolph, who plays Elizabeth Strafford, seconded Mann, telling US Weekly she had, "a lot of fun," while acknowledging the physical toll the training took, emphasizing the need for "group ice baths."

Although everyone seems in agreement about the physical demands of cowboy camp, Cole Hauser, who plays Rip on "Yellowstone," told People that the skills they learned in cowboy camp keep them fit, saying, "Horseback riding at a very high level is a hell of a workout for core and back and legs."

Cowboy camp prepares the cast to do their own stunts

Some of the actors have become such authentic ranch hands and consummate horseback riders, ropers, and wranglers that they've started doing some of their own stunts in "Yellowstone." Cole Hauser told People, "This year [Season 5] ... a lot of the actors are doing a lot of their own stunts, so [production] kind of took the shackles off and let us go this year." Jason Rodriguez, the stunt coordinator on "Yellowstone," told Paramount, "We're doing feature film quality stunts on a television show. It's really rewarding to do all that."

Cowboy training is a perfect background for stunt work. "I was a cowboy before I was ever an actor," Forrie J. Smith, who plays Lloyd Pierce in "Yellowstone," explained to Paramount, "Most stuntmen back in the '50s, especially in Westerns, came from the rodeo world," adding that "becoming a cowboy or a horseman is a lifetime endeavor." Rodriguez told Paramount during a featurette that he came from the rodeo world, too. He said that "[What he tries to do], as a stunt coordinator, is put the actors in the situation as much as possible," and let "the actors do a lion share of their action themselves," and cowboy camp makes this possible. The Yellowstone cast saddles up for stunt work, so when you see them riding, roping, and herding cattle in the series, they are actually doing it.

Cowboy camp is repetitive

LaMonica Garrett told Taste of Country the daily schedule at cowboy camp involves a lot of repetition, saying, "We're doing horseback riding in the morning, we're doing wagon training in the afternoon, we're doing precision shooting with guns in the evening, we're herding cattle. Every minute was reserved for something cowboy behind the scenes." Rex Peterson, a horse trainer at cowboy camp, told Paramount+, "For all the talent they're trying to get them comfortable driving and riding, 'cuz then when they get on camera it becomes second nature to 'em. Ergo, they can remember their lines and not panic."

Garrett seconded this perspective by telling Paramount+ that repetition and practice make the cowboy skills "second nature. So when we're going through the script, that's what you can focus on, and not have to worry about where my hands are and where's the gun." For the cast of "Yellowstone," cowboy camp isn't a one-time thing; they've gone repeatedly to hone their skills. Luke Grimes told The Hollywood Reporter, "Hats off to Paramount and all the people who let us do these cowboy camps and help us learn," adding how the preparations "really [do] add something onscreen when you can see an actor actually ride their horse."

Some cast members are cowboys in real life

Some cast members had an unfair advantage while preparing for their roles because they were already experienced cowboys in real life, like Forrie J. Smith. Alex Fine, who plays Grady in two episodes of "1883," is a celebrity fitness trainer and a professional bull rider. James Landry Hérbert, who plays Wade in "1883," was raised on a reservation after being adopted. After following his acting career from Louisiana to Los Angeles, Hérbert started working as a horse trainer when he wasn't acting.

Taylor Sheridan has a minor role in "1883" and is a bona fide cowboy himself. Sheridan owns the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas, which was the inspiration for another spin-off series in development. He began his life as a cowboy at 14, when he got a job as a ranch hand in his home state of Texas. Sheridan told Texas Highways, "We didn't depend on our ranch for income, but it's where I learned how to become a cowboy."