Spotted at a rodeo in 1990 by a modelling scout, Mike Hartman was once in the running to be the Marlboro Man. He’s been part cowboy and part fine artist since he was a kid when he began selling his mostly horse-inspired paintings to buyers as far away as Europe. He grew up in a macho cowboy setting, working on the family cattle ranch on horseback in British Columbia. That’s when horses became his passion; got into his blood.
Today, his home base in Woodburn, he makes his living training, showing, and transporting horses all over the country. His crystal blue eyes twinkle when talking about horses, especially his own.
He values his friendships and family like you’d expect a country boy in a cowboy hat would. But it seems he is completely content being by himself as long as a horse is nearby. Hartman comes with the signature Wrangers, boots, chaps, quiet confidence, and an endearing humility, the kind that makes any number of men, and women, swoon over a straight shootin’, straight talkin’ cowboy.
A lot of gay men seem to like cowboys. has that been your experience?
Ya, it has been. But I wouldn’t narrow it down that much. A lot of ladies do too. It’s a very romantic kind of image. The whole romantic image of the rough tough cowboy. But I sure wouldn’t say it is exclusive to gay men. It’s everywhere. Even straight men are attracted to it because they like the whole romantic idea of it.
On The online gay cowboy dating sites a lot of men equate cowboys as the ideal man: honest, hard-working, unpretentious, masculine, outdoorsy, faithful, say what you mean, mean what you say kind of guy. Does that sound like you?
I hope so. I know a few people like that. I love the term ‘cowboy’ — everyone does — I’ve never used it to describe myself because I think that is something someone else has to choose to call you because I’ve known a handful of cowboys in my life that I’d really call cowboys. The real deal. It’s the way they live there life. It’s not just because they ride horses or break horses or ride rodeos, it’s everything. It’s how they treat people, it’s how they are respected…
Can I call you a cowboy?
I would be proud to be called a cowboy. But I can’t call myself that.
You are that type. Are you attracted to that type?
Ya, but I don’t think it is a gay or straight thing. It’s a people thing. You are attracted to people who know who they are, who are confident, who are the real deal.
Is it true a cowboy loves his horse as much as anything else in the world?
I love mine.
What got you interested in horses and cowboy stuff?
I grew up in it. My grandparents and my father had a family ranch (in very rural British Columbia, Canada). It was 19,000 acres. Really huge. A cattle ranch. Originally that is what we used the horses for — taking the cattle to the mountains for the summer and then we’d go up and get ‘em and bring ‘em down for the fall. And the people I most admired, the guys I looked up to… I was just raised doing it so I didn’t really know anything else.
This love affair with horses and this lifestyle, has it been a hindrance to relationships or a help?
It’s probably been a hindrance I would say. It’s great. I meet a lot of new people all of the time and a lot of great people but it’s hard to establish a long term. I’m not home every night. It’s hard because it is not normal.
You physically look like a cowboy. Have you been aware of that over your life?
What you see in photos is the real stuff I wear every day. It’s all real.
For years I had no idea I had that image. I had very few pictures taken as a child. I just didn’t see myself that way for years. I was unaware of it until I stepped into the gay community I had no idea. The first time I went out I felt embarrassed. What do people wear? I was thinking ‘I can’t wear what I wear.’ But I couldn’t do it. I tried. But I looked a dork.
What is your favorite moment on a horse?
There are so many of them. I’m so blessed. And new ones happen almost every day.
One that stands out is when we rescued a horse on the side of a mountain. The rescue team had given up on him. A buddy of mine and I hiked in with food and water and shovels and equipment — and guns, just in case — and we spent the night on the mountain with him on the mountain. We had to dig a trail on the side of the hill because the stallion couldn’t go up or down. The horse had slipped and gone down the hill. The girl that was on him was okay but he kept going.
He screamed when he saw us coming. How smart he was. He just stood there and stared at us as if he was saying ‘Now what?’ We picked with the shovel and dug out a 12 inch trail along this bluff. We dug it out 4 or 5 feet in front of him and then he’d follow us. If he’d gone even an inch left he’d be off and at the bottom of the river.
We got him out. It was great. I’ll never forget it. We were really able to make a difference. That is a great memory. He was gonna die and we got him out of there. It was the best thing… there were a few tears.
Is it difficult to be gay and be around some horse people? Say, really rural conservative horse owners and ranchers?
Whether I’m sitting here in The Pearl or on the road at one of the ranches in Wyoming or Montana I don’t care…I don’t apologize for being gay. I hear some fag joke and I’m the first to interrupt it. It’s bullshit. They all get over it. Even the roughest, toughest, drunkest ones are kind of embarrassed how they sound when you point it out to them. I’m not a hero. I think anyone comfortable with themselves will stand up and say… ‘Did you just say that?’
The people that hire me as a horseman hire me because I’m really good at what I do. I know what works for me. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them know I’m gay. They don’t care. I don’t care. Many are religious. They could care less. They treat me respect and I treat them with respect.
People’s minds get changed over a period of time. Most of these crazy red-necked guys, and I can say that because they are, they don’t know I’m gay up front. We become friends. We spend years working together on projects and later they say ‘Are you serious?’ Some of them are my best friends. They’d be there for me for anything and I would be there for them.
It’s kind of one person at a time. It’s logical, right? They love you or they don’t love you. If they don’t love (me) I can’t help that. But I doubt that it because I’m gay.
Given your background, when you saw Brokeback Mountain, when you were sitting in the theatre watching the movie, what was that like for you?
What was in my head was it’s about time. I’d never seen anything like it. This was so dead on. It got criticized. But it is absolutely real. It’s just a small moment with two guys.
Was it emotional to watch?
Yes. I watched it with my friend of 19 years — I had to make him go — it was really interesting. There were so many moments in it that have happened in my life. It was beautifully done.
Me too… I didn’t want to say that.
Have you ever sat by a campfire, sipping a cup of coffee, eating beans, looking up at the stars, your horse tied up in the background?
Yes, but it wasn’t coffee. As I recall it was Jack Daniels.
So that isn’t just the movies?
When I was a kid I begged every year to go on the cattle drive. When I was 7 or 8 I got to go. That’s exactly what it is. We had a fire and we sat around and we ate beans. It was my first experience. You sleep under the stars and you look up. The horse is standing three to six feet from you and you get up before the sunlight and you start over again. It’s great.
If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing? What would you imagine your life to be without horses?
I really don’t think there is life without horses. I really can’t imagine.
What do you want on your tombstone?
Oh I don’t want a tombstone. I don’t want all of that stuff. When I lose someone I love it’s hard of course. But you have to get through it. But the best part is that it brings up all of these memories.
I’d hope that I was able to make a difference somehow. I’m not original… I’ve tried really hard to do the best I can do. I think most of us do. I don’t want to be buried. I don’t want anyone whining over me… And leave some great memories for people. I hope.
Said like a true cowboy.
About Jonathan Kipp
Jonathan Kipp, Just Out’s owner and publisher is a native Oregonian and has a background in niche magazine publishing, advertising, marketing, and journalism. His career includes a 2-year stint as a reporter for Just Out where he covered controversial stories about the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance, The Portland Police Bureau, The Boy Scouts of America and the about-to-change Burnside Triangle. He has a BA in Journalism, a BS in Biology, and is currently pursuing an MBA. Jonathan and co-owner Eddie Glenn have been life and business partners for 18 years. Today Jonathan and Eddie are dads of two young children.