Jake Copass — cowboy, comic, ranch-hand, and poet — was born in 1920 on the flatlands of central Texas. With his parents and seven siblings, he grew up during the Great Depression, but did not let hard times dampen his spirits. “The times I thought were the hardest and most abusive were actually the most valuable of my life,” he recalled.
The rural outlook of the country provided a perfect classroom for horsemanship, and with his parents’ encouragement Copass chose to be a cowboy. But at the age of 20, World War II called him away from his homeland and landed him in New Guinea, where for two years he applied veterinary care to 1,600 Army mules. Upon returning to American pastures in 1945, he found work as a wrangler at the Alisal Guest Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, where he still works today. “It’s tough,” explained Copass. “A wrangler’s got to understand something about both horses and people. We have to get 30 to 60 horses ready by 6:30 a.m.; then we take these people out riding, who know nothing about horses, and get them back to the ranch in one piece.”
In 1992, Copass published a collection of cowboy poems in a book titled It Don’t Hurt to Laugh. His second, published in 1997, is a memoir called I’ll Be Satisfied. As an author, Copass pokes fun at city slickers who visit the ranch country, brag of their horsemanship, and wind up on their behinds in the dust. Copass also writes about cowboys and their own silly quirks, such as the five-gallon hat. “It’s his prize possession,” mused Copass. “A cowboy wants his hat nice. He wants it clean and always creased just right. Cowboys are crazy.” Yet he enjoys the rigorous cowboy life that has sustained him in the Santa Ynez Valley since the 1940s. “It was all wide open then,” he recalled. “It was about 1960 when the grapes began coming in, but we all agree that we’d rather see grapes than houses, anyway.”
Like a proper California cowboy, Copass enjoys a slug of wine on occasion. In fact, some of his friends make wine to supplement their cattle endeavors. Copass, however, abandoned his own cattle business in 1985, and, ever since, has worked full-time at Alisal Guest Ranch, where city folk come to admire the hills, whack golf balls, fish the lake, and bumble across the property on horseback.
When Copass isn’t tending to clients’ fancies and keeping them from harm’s way, he may be found writing in his journal at the side of a country road or reading his work to an audience. He often reads at schools, where he strives to deliver to children some of the values he picked up from his elders more than seven decades ago. Copass also takes gigs at taverns, churches, and social functions — wherever he is invited. “If you work for nothing,” he advised, “you’ll always have a job.”