Cowboying makes horse sense to Jewish wrangler

SANTA FE, N.M. (JTA) — Old cowboys never really hang up their spurs. They just ease back in the saddle a bit.

Mike Levinthal, chairman of the board of the Rodeo de Santa Fe, has been cowboying around the United States for more than 40 years. But now the 63-year-old lives in a small house in Santa Fe's barrio and there's not a horse in sight.

"People around town call me 'Cowboy Mike.' I'm kind of a minor celebrity. But I don't do that anymore," said Levinthal, who has traded in his cowboy boots and hat for more comfortable work shoes and a baseball cap. "I'm not a wannabe," he said. "I don't wear big fancy concho belts. In that bottom drawer I've got some big fancy [rodeo award] belt buckles that say some nice things.

"But see this?" he asked, pointing down to a simple silver buckle. "It's a whole lot more comfortable."

Levinthal grew up in a small seaside fishing village in Maine. He was a three-sport varsity athlete and the only Jew in his high school.

"People think it's unusual to be a Jewish cowboy. It's more unusual to be a Jew from Rockland, Maine," he said.

Levinthal's mother put him on a horse at age 3. After the Korean War, he was discharged from the Air Force into Nebraska — prime cattle country.

"I heard about a cattle ranch that was looking for workers," Levinthal said. "I talked the foreman into giving me a job. I was a cowboy for the next 41 years."

Since then, Levinthal has worked on ranches, led trail rides and pack trips, and shod and doctored horses. For the past decade, he has lived in New Mexico, spending the first three years as a wrangler leading pack trips through the mountainous Gila Wilderness in the southwestern part of the state.

He arrived here almost by accident, he said, covering his eyes and pointing at an imaginary map.

"I was traveling. I pulled into Santa Fe one day and never left." A stint at an upstate New York dude ranch was Levinthal's favorite job.

"For obvious reasons — there were a lot of women," he said. "But I've enjoyed almost everything to do with horses."

Levinthal said he experienced no overt anti-Semitism in his line of work.

"I always had the advantage of being fairly big," he said. "One of the wonderful things about the cowboy world, as long as no one has to carry you, you'll do all right.

"I've worn a Star of David all my life," Levinthal said, referring to the prominent pendant around his neck. "One person asked me once if I was a sheriff."

Growing up, Levinthal's Jewish world was small. Rockland's tiny synagogue hired a rabbi only for major holidays, and religious education was minimal.

"The elders would teach what they could," Levinthal said. "We kids growing up didn't have much opportunity to learn about our religion and culture.

"I must be a Jew from the neck down," said Levinthal, a high school graduate, adding that he doesn't fit the stereotype of Jews as highly educated and business oriented. "I've always enjoyed working with my hands." Levinthal has been called a horse whisperer, though he is somewhat scornful of the term popularized by Robert Redford's recent movie.

"It's just getting into the horse's head," he said. "Horses talk to you. They do it through body language. Years ago, they'd hit a horse on the head with a two by four. (Now), instead of making them fear you, you make them trust you. It's thinking with them. That's the word — common sense. It's not magic."

For the past five years, Levinthal, a former saddle bronc rider, has been on the board of the Rodeo de Santa Fe, an annual four-day event sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association. He prefers riding to organizing, however.

"I miss competing. You ask a 63-year-old ex-ballplayer if he misses playing ball. You know the answer," he said.

Levinthal has spent much of his life traveling around the country from one job to the next, riding in dusty pickup trucks and living in trailers.

"There are certain traditions (in cowboying)," he said. "The deal is you sign on, you work and when you're done you move on down the road. No hard feelings." But Levinthal's cowboy days are nearly over.

"I don't have a horse anymore," he said, as he showed a visitor snapshots of his days on the trail. "Now I'm back here (in town)."

But Levinthal said he has not yet reached his final destination.

"I'll probably go back to Maine some day and finish my life. I will have come full circle. However you look at it, I'm in the last third of my life. I feel my roots calling me, I feel the ocean calling me."