Riding the Trail of Dreams: Ty Nitti, the first and only Sri Lankan Cowboy

Jul 26 2023.

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On a sunny afternoon at the Ceylon Riding Club in Port City, I had the privilege of meeting Ty Nitti, a remarkable individual who is rewriting the narrative of what it means to be a cowboy. Hailing from Kotahena in Sri Lanka, Ty proudly holds the title of the first Sri Lankan cowboy. A seasoned horse trainer, a versatile wrangler, and an actor, Ty's life story is a fascinating journey from the vibrant streets of Kotahena in Sri Lanka to the vast plains in Apple Valley, California. As we settled into our conversation, I couldn't help but be intrigued by the man who wears many hats - both literally and figuratively. His passion for horses, dedication to his craft, and remarkable history of training the most difficult horses was evident as he shared stories from his adventurous life.

What was your life like growing up?
Full of fun. I was born in India, and I grew up in Sri Lanka. And as a teenager, I emigrated to the United States. And that's where my career began as a cowboy. As a child, just like every other kid in Sri Lanka, I had no cares in the world. I had a very, very good childhood because my uncles owned horses and had farms. The only thing was that everybody rode an English saddle, but I always wanted a cowboy saddle, and they didn't have it at that time. 

Were there any specific influences or experiences during your early years that sparked your passion for horses and the cowboy lifestyle?
My father was a huge inspiration to me. He loved everything Western. Even as a kid, we would listen to Western musicians like Willie Nelson, Marty Robbins, and all the old greats. And so it kind of stuck with us. He loved horses and the Western genre, and that carried on to his son, and God willing will pass onto my son, and hopefully the next generation to come. He was, I think, the most significant influence on my career and lifestyle choices. He taught me about passion and the importance of following my dreams. And he was always telling me - son, pick a job that you love. Because when you pick a job you love, you'll never work a day in your life. And he was right. And he was spot on. And then there were a couple of other inspirational people to me as a teenager as well, some really good cowboys back in the States. They helped me, guided me, they took me under their wing. And that shows you Western hospitality - that if you come to them and ask them for help, they'll never turn their back on you. 

What really inspired you to pursue a career in horse training and wrangling? 
Passion. Horses have always been a part of my life since I was a kid. I was also very inspired by cowboy movies and the aura of a cowboy. And when I got the opportunity to go to the United States, I realized this was the home of the Cowboys, and my dream can come true here. I never even thought about the fact that I was the first Sri Lankan cowboy. And I knew at a very, very young age that this, and everything that came with it, was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was amazing. And it's been a fantastic journey. It's been an adventure. I mean, you can't ask for anything better than that.

I'm a professional horse trainer. I've been a horse trainer for 30 years, actually 30 plus. Trained every horse you can imagine, every breed. And now I'm a wrangler. Wrangler is basically somebody who supplies horses for Hollywood. And we train the horses, we train the actors, the stunt people, and we provide everything for production to complete a movie. So that is pretty much my job right now.

What is the story of your journey which led you to become the pioneering Sri Lankan cowboy and one of the few Asian cowboys in the world?
A lot of people have this misconception about what makes a cowboy. It's not just hats and boots. Cowboy is a lifestyle. And it's something that you do all your life. And like I was a rodeo cowboy. I rodeoed for 10 years professionally. I did professional training and everything down that line. Competed in every sport you can imagine on horseback and rode bulls too. And then I'm a rancher who also breeds my own horses. So it's a lifestyle. And that's what makes a cowboy. And so for me to be blessed with this honour of being the very first Sri Lankan cowboy - we're talking, out of 23 million people in this country. And then somebody says, well since I have some Indian origins to this story, I might just very well be the first Indian cowboy too. Now that just blew my mind because that's 1.4 billion people. 

Over the years, how did you cultivate your exceptional skills in riding, breaking, training, and schooling horses, allowing you to become a master in the art of horsemanship? 
I would put it to this - I surrounded myself with people who are highly knowledgeable and who I can always learn from and they made sense. It has to make sense. And the best sense you can ever make is common sense. And that's one thing I learned in the horsemanship world. And I had amazing cowboys and trainers at a very young age that I worked with, and they basically showed me a path and I developed my own training techniques. I developed my own products for horses and this and everything that goes with it is because that passion takes you there. So I would attribute it to having really, really good inspirational people around you.

What were some of the most memorable experiences or challenges you encountered during your time as a lead wrangler and horse trainer?
That's a huge world, that's over 30 years of stuff. But I would say that as far as the Wrangler goes,  every movie set we go on, every production set we are in, it's challenging. And the other thing is, I have a record of nobody ever getting hurt. I'll tell you that in every project my outfit - that's the Double Six Ranch - has been a part of, we've never had one stunt person, one actor, or any horse ever injured on set. So we're really, really proud of that. So that's pretty memorable for me as far as training goes. I made a name for myself by training the most difficult horses that other trainers won't even touch. And I just had a connection with horses and whatever it is, I have it and utilise it. The results are amazing.

Do you have a favourite horse?
Oh, of course, I think every cowboy and cowgirl has a favourite. Mine is a horse called Trickster. He passed some years ago, but I had him for 28 years. And I can honestly tell you, he was my best friend.

You transitioned from all of this into acting, how did that come about?
I'm always going to be a horseman till the day I die. The acting was, truth be told - I never wanted to be in front of the camera. I used to always dread it. I love being behind the scenes, controlling the horses, and choreographing the sequences. And when the opportunity came, the first very first movie I've ever been in was in Canada. And I did a movie out there called Foe. And then when I came back stateside, we did a lot of projects, again, behind the scenes. And then I had an opportunity for my son and me to be in a movie together. And I couldn't say no. It was a historical movie. So it was the icing on the cake.

Among all the movies you've acted in, which one holds the most special place in your heart?
I would have to say, out of all the projects I've done, it's a movie called Sins. That's because it was based on a true story. That was a challenging role, but it was the most fun for me. And I got to play a real-life character who was actually a hero, the actual hero. So that’s the thing that's the most memorable for me.

As you are currently in Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Ceylon Riding Club, what are your plans and endeavours during your time here?
I came over here in association with the CRC Port City. It's owned by Ineke, who is a wonderful individual and she's done amazing things for the last 25 years for Sri Lanka, and she has built this beautiful facility. I wanted to work with her to come to Sri Lanka and bring something that's different because everything that Sri Lanka knows is all English riding. I wanted to bring a little Western cowboyism back here and I think that'll transition well here. It'll get people more excited and help develop the horse culture here.

In what ways do you intend to impart your valuable experience and expertise to the equestrian community here in Sri Lanka?
All the years of knowledge and all the trials and tribulations that I've overcome, I've learned from those, and I want to bring that here. And what I really want to do with Sri Lanka is really introduce a new horse culture, not the existing one. We have to raise somewhat of our standards a little bit. And I think what I can offer to the country is bringing back knowledge, actual horsemanship knowledge, not just getting on a horse and riding it. Actual knowledge and sustainability, help build the infrastructure and give everything I got to this country I love so much. To have more Sri Lankan cowboys come out of here, so we can show the world something. Our Resilience really has no limits.

In your opinion, how do you believe that working with horses and acquiring cowboy life skills can positively impact children and young individuals?
I think every parent in the world has to get their children into horses. And I'll tell you why. If you get them into the horses, it teaches them responsibility. It shows them that they have somebody else who depends on them. And that value you can't learn in school. The thing is, it keeps them out of trouble. It keeps them active. And I think we live in a TikTok generation where every kid is on a mobile. And by having around horses now, this is something really not just physical in nature, but it's actually tangible. You can see the progression. And horses, believe it or not, react better to children. And the reason they do that is that there's a kindred spirit they feel because an adult horse is basically a teenager. It's a human teenager. So kids will mesh with kids.

Sometimes you'll see horses, where a grown-up can get on the horse and a light bit of pressure and the horse starts racing. But a kid can get on the same horse kick it, kick it, kick it and the horse walks. So horses can delineate the difference between adults and children. That is the case with a majority of the horses in the world. So I've seen it happen time and time again and then also the ramifications for special needs. It's a huge factor. Getting special needs children on horses. People with PTSD. And actually, you'll see most people leave the pharmaceuticals and actually have more physical contact. So I think it's a win-win situation all the way around. 

What are your thoughts on the possibility of establishing an equestrian culture here in Sri Lanka, do you believe there is sufficient space for it to flourish?
I know it will be. Because you know, we have something called cowboy diplomacy that we bring to the table. Because it's something new. This version of it and one thing Sri Lanka loves is new things. And that's what I'm banking on. And I also believe that you know, if we all can unite together, we can that we can actually get stuff done here. I think this culture will thrive.

Given that this lifestyle and career path are considered unorthodox choices for Sri Lankans, what advice would you offer to someone who aspires to pursue something outside the norm or their comfort zone?
I would say that it's not actually an unorthodox career choice because for 2000 years Sri Lanka had a very robust horse culture from the time of the kings, and there were cavalries there were so many horses in Sri Lanka. But after the colonization of it, the colonial times, that culture went away. So it's still ingrained in our DNA as Sri Lankans. We still have it. But I think we have to, we have to get out of this mindset of, you don't always have to be a doctor, a lawyer or engineer. And that's what everybody strives to be. There's a bigger world out there. And what I want to bring to the table is from the perspective of horses.

The horses have helped me travel all over the world, meet amazing people, you know, and I'm just a  Sri Lankan boy that grew up in Kotahena. And if I can do this, I mean, the sky's the limit for anybody here. And Sri Lankan boys and girls have amazing talent. They have amazing work ethic, amazing morals that we were brought up with. And I think the biggest part is resilience. I've never been to another country where I've seen this much resilience as Sri Lanka, and I think that's what it takes to succeed in any field. So as far as unorthodox, no, I don't think so. I think it's very viable to see in the very near future, lots of cowboys and lots of cowgirls who are Sri Lankan.  

What’s next for you?
Next for me is - I came in with a mission to bring Western horsemanship to Sri Lanka. I'm going to dedicate a lot of time and a lot of effort, as I said earlier, to build and redevelop the horse culture here. Because I think it's it's very important for Sri Lanka, because the ramifications to the positive that this has for our entire nation are immense. And if I can be a part of that, and if I can teach a few aspiring trainers, maybe future Hollywood actors to come out of here, stunt people, agriculturists, veterinarians, then I'm on cloud nine, I've done my job. That's what's next, for me. And one thing about cowboys, they never quit until the job is done.  

Pics Pethum Bandara

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rihaab Mowlana

Rihaab Mowlana is a journalist specializing in feature writing. With a commitment to authenticity and a genuine love for her craft, she brings stories to life by delving deep into captivating subjects and offering unique perspectives. Beyond journalism, Rihaab is a content creator, entrepreneur, and educator. Stay connected with Rihaab on Twitter & Instagram: @rihaabmowlana


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