Dale Brisby’s Facebook bio describes him as a “legendary bull rider and Snapchatter”—a twenty-first-century duality of man if there ever was one. There’s some debate about the former: although Brisby spends most of his new Netflix reality series, How to Be a Cowboy, talking himself up as the greatest rodeo cowboy alive, the champion bronc-busters he fraternizes with politely beg to differ.
But Brisby is indeed a legendary Snapchatter, not to mention YouTuber and TikTok star, where he’s successfully lassoed hundreds of thousands of subscribers with his comedy videos about the cowboy lifestyle. Brisby’s also an expert in branding—if not cattle, then himself. There’s a whole line of “Dale Wear” to that effect: T-shirts, ball caps, patches, and coffee mugs emblazoned with Brisby’s face and catchphrases (“Just Ranchin’”; “It’s Rodeo Time, Ol’ Son”) that you’ve probably seen if you’ve dared to venture outside a city. His ability to sell people on Dale Brisby has made him arguably the most famous cowboy of the modern age. He may not be a legendary bull rider, exactly, but he’s an epic bulls—er.
That talent is on full display in How to Be a Cowboy, its six episodes taking viewers to the gorgeous, sprawling Radiator Ranch in Winnebago, where Brisby trains “the next generation of cowboys” in riding, roping, and realizing their full market potential. These hopefuls come to Brisby as interns, culled from his loyal fan base. As the series opens, we meet his newest recruit: Jorden Halvorsen, a bull rider from North Carolina who’s hoping to get back into the arena after suffering a demoralizing knee injury.
Halvorsen’s comeback forms the through line of How to Be a Cowboy’s brief first season, as Brisby and his crew assist with her training and rehabilitation, while also putting her through the paces of ranch life. Along the way, Brisby imparts various maxims, to both Halvorsen and the audience, about the cowboy way: “Cowboys look after their own,” for example, or “Cowboys are always prepared.” But mostly, Dale Brisby talks about himself . . . a lot.
Brisby’s massive ego is the primary focus of How to Be a Cowboy, a show that is not so much the instructional look at rodeo life that its title suggests, but rather a breezy, sitcom-like hang with Radiator Ranch’s various colorful personalities—all of whom pale beside Brisby himself, of course. With his long hair, Jesus beard, and permanently affixed aviators, Brisby doesn’t resemble your typical rancher so much as a member of the Doobie Brothers. When he’s not wearing a T-shirt with his own name or face on it, Brisby prefers pearl-snaps in garish, cartoonish prints and rainbow colors, like a child playing cowboy dress-up. He also frequently refers to himself in the third person, and he makes outrageous boasts that are plainly not true, like the idea that Radiator Ranch is “the largest ranch in Texas.”
Of course, Brisby is in on his own joke; his Instagram outright calls him a “comedian.” His arrogance and fashion choices are put-ons, regularly mocked by the more traditionally rough-hewn cowboys he meets on the show, as well as by his own team—and especially by his more sedate brother, Leroy Gibbons (oddly pronounced as the French-sounding “La-roy”). But they are also, very clearly, just part of a character Brisby is playing. Like a lot of reality shows in the post-Kardashians age, How to Be a Cowboy is fully aware of the camera; familiar with the genre’s tropes and how to manipulate them. The dialogue of quippy insults and light bickering feels, if not explicitly scripted, then at least directed. The show takes pains to position Brisby’s ranch hand, Cheech, as the quirky comic relief, with Cheech cracking self-deprecating jokes about his weight and fussily explaining his many “bugaboos” of petty personal annoyances. Meanwhile, scenes that capture the gritty adrenaline rush of the rodeo are interspersed with a lot of clearly staged moments, like when Brisby takes a phone call while he’s shoulder-deep inside a cow’s birth canal.
There are no villains in How to Be a Cowboy, and no table-upending fights. Although everyone on the Radiator Ranch crew likes to give the others a hard time, they’re too supportive of each other to create the kind of drama that might make the show more compulsively bingeable. Nevertheless, How to Be a Cowboy gives us the kind of heightened personalities and outlandish contrivances we’ve come to expect from “reality” shows. Like Dale Brisby himself, it knows that being authentic matters way less than being entertaining.
Because, of course, there is no Winnebago, Texas. There’s not even a Dale Brisby. A minimal amount of Google sleuthing will tell you that Brisby is just the alter ego of one Clint Hopping, a moderately successful bullfighter and bronc rider from Newcastle (where Brisby’s DaleWearHouse is currently located). “Leroy Gibbons” is really Tate Hopping, Clint’s brother and fellow veteran of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. The Hoppings are far from fakes. Their father was Vergil “Coke” Hopping, a rancher, former rodeo competitor, and onetime Texas Tech Masked Raider; Clint and Tate were raised with cowboying in their blood. Clint even earned a master’s in agriculture from Texas A&M. But whatever ranching know-how the brothers possess, and whatever respect they might have commanded on the rodeo circuit, they’ve had a much bigger impact by pretending to be these slightly exaggerated caricatures. As (actual) rodeo champion Trevor Brazile says of Brisby in one episode, “I think everything he does just furthers the cowboy cause.”
After all, there is an argument to be made that a lot of modern cowboying is pretending. Ever since John Travolta put on a starched Western shirt to ride the mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy—or really, since the end of the nineteenth century—being a “cowboy” has largely been a “lifestyle,” just like Brisby says. Even in Texas, it’s not a job for most people; it’s an attitude with a dress code. (“If you don’t have on a long-sleeved button-up and a cowboy hat, you ain’t no cowboy,” Brisby says at one point.) Rodeo requires real passion and skill, but at the end of the day, it’s also a sport that people play—“like gymnastics, but cooler,” in Brisby’s own words. Dividing time between riding the plains and dreaming up sponsored content, Dale Brisby represents a natural peak for this kind of performative cowboying.
And yet, the show argues, it all contributes to the cause. “Cowboys keep the tradition alive,” Brisby says in his sixth lesson, and today that means expanding cowboy culture’s market reach and finding newer, younger recruits for this old-fashioned way of life. Whenever How to Be a Cowboy steps outside Radiator Ranch, we see plenty of awestruck kids crowding Brisby for autographs. In the show’s most plainly touching moment, we also meet one of Jorden Halvorsen’s biggest fans, a young girl who found Halvorsen through TikTok. Because of Halvorsen’s videos, the girl’s mother explains, now she wants to be a bull rider someday. It’s a dream she might never have latched onto without people like Dale Brisby, who are bringing the old ways of cowboying into the age of streaming and social media. Brisby might not be the rodeo legend he claims to be, but he could end up inspiring the next generation all the same.