Park City "horse whisperer" is a real cowboy
July 14, 2007
N.J. Pawley grew up never dreaming of being a cowboy. He didn’t have to, he was born to it. Pawley was born and grew up in Powell, Wyoming, a small town not far from Cody.
He’s the only child of Newt and Janie Pawley. "My dad was the real Marlboro man, an authentic cowboy and a great horseman," he says. "My mom still works full-time on a dude ranch on the south fork of the Shoshone River outside Cody."
Pawley grew up the cowboy way. His earliest memories are of watching his father shoe horses. "I’d come home from school, change clothes and spend about every afternoon and night out in the barn or the corral with my dad working horses," he remembers. "Nobody got that about me. They just didn’t understand why I was so crazy about horses. I can’t even explain it myself."
Pawley grew up tough, a character trait he inherited from his father. "The phrase, ‘cowboy up’ never came out of my dad’s mouth. If I complained about something or had a problem, he’d just say, ‘well son, I guess you’re just going to have to get tough.’ That was one of the best lessons I ever learned."
The Silver Creek resident describes himself as an enigma. Dueling personality traits define this complicated man. "I’m introverted, abrasive, loud, uncultured, gregarious, intimidating and artsy," he summarizes.
Pawley says he was an average student through high school. "I never did care much for the institution," he grunts. "I wouldn’t have got through if a couple of good teachers hadn’t helped me out. Mr. Leonard, my English teacher, saw something in me and kept me on the trail."
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"I was kind of a loner," he continues. "I had two or three close friends all the way through school and they’re still my friends today. Truth is I preferred the company of horses to people most of the time."
After high school Pawley attended Northwest College in Powell, Why., majoring in business and English. He also went to farrier [horseshoeing] school and mastered the art quickly. Although he didn’t graduate, Pawley says he got all he needed out of school. "I was on the three year plan, even though it was a two-year school," he says.
He held a variety of jobs during high school and college. "In junior high I worked for a while at a gas station down the road from my house. I’d ride my horse to work and put him out to pasture behind the station while I pumped gas."
During summers, he was a cowhand on several working ranches in the area. He also trained horses and gave riding lessons. He went to every riding clinic offered by the local college. He learned dressage, jumping, western and English riding. " the time I was 13 years old I was kicking the crap out of most of the older competitive riders," he says. "They all hated me."
Pawley studied extensively with Buck Brannaman, the "horse whisperer" made famous in Robert Redford’s film. "I followed him around for eight years and went to about every clinic he gave," he says. "The most important thing I learned from him was how to manage a training rope. I have great respect for him."
Pawley arrived in Park City in 1998. "I followed a woman down here because I thought I was in love," he explains, adding, "I’ve read books that lasted longer than that marriage."
Suddenly single again, he found work in the lucrative Park City construction business and gradually built up a modest horse training and education business.
Pawley discovered his art when he picked up a welding torch. "I learned to weld when I was doing construction work and started messing around with it." He rapidly evolved into an accomplished metal artist. He sells his work at arts festivals and has created collections for the Sundance catalog. "I do mostly consignment and custom work now," he says. He’s also a regular at the Park City farmer’s market and now the Park Silly Sunday Market.
Pawley met Picabo Street at the farmer’s market in 1998. The two paired up and were together for several years. "She got me hooked on skiing and I taught her how to ride. It worked out pretty well." They have a son, Treyjan who is 3 years old. "Trey and I are partners in crime now," jokes Pawley.
Pawley’s biggest pet peeve about Park City is that it’s not a "cowboy-friendly" town. This wayward son of Wyoming doesn’t mince words. He’s got no use for people who disrespect his western heritage and wardrobe.
"They wouldn’t dream of ridiculing the dress of a Mennonite, a native African or a Hasidic Jew, but they think it’s OK to pick on folks like me. Well, it isn’t! I don’t wear a hat and cowboy boots to look cool, it’s the appropriate attire for my lifestyle," declares Pawley. He notes that his friends don’t recognize him without his trademark cowboy hat. "Hell, I don’t even recognize myself in a mirror," he adds.
Does he feel out of place in Park City? "Sometimes," he confesses. "I keep talking about moving back to Wyoming. When I really think about it though, I realize I’d be leaving my son behind, all the people that care about me and my business. So I guess this is home now."
These days, Pawley doesn’t call himself a horse trainer or a cowboy. "I’ve been a working cowboy and I’ve seen what happens to most of them. They’re just a cut above ski bums. A lot of them live out of their pickups until they can’t work anymore. Then they’ve got nothing."
Pawley has developed a local following of horse enthusiasts who come to him to learn to ride and prepare for competitions. "I’m not a cowboy and I’m not a pure trainer. I guess you could say I’m a ‘horse mechanic.’ By the time people bring me their horses, they’re pretty well broken. I can fix them but the real challenge is teaching their humans how to treat and train them properly in the first place." Pawley’s devotees tune in religiously to hear him on KPCW radio’s Saturday horse show.
N.J. Pawley is forging a life for himself as a single dad these days. He’s chosen a life that keeps him close to his son, his horses and his art. You could say he’s still living the life of his high-riding heroes. (Yes, he’s a big Willie Nelson fan).
Age 35, single; son Treyjan is 3.
Favorite things to do in Park City area: "ride horses, rope anything that moves, keep company with interesting and amorous women."
Favorite foods: Mexican, Norwegian lefsa (a hamburger pie his mother makes) and chocolate cake.
Favorite performers: "Willie Nelson, need I say more."
Favorite authors: Larry McMurtry and Tony Hillerman.
Pets: "Horses aren’t pets, of course, but there’s Sock, the Wonder Horse, and a little filly I taken to calling Ruben because she’s rounded in all the right places."
QUOTE: "People who make fun of cowboys, who think they’re just rednecks, don’t get it."
CAPTION: Horseman and artist N.J. Pawley found friends and a career in Park City.