If a character has a “Y” branded on their chest in Yellowstone, it means they are committed to the ranch forever. Many wranglers who work on John Dutton’s ranch have the brand, and they all received it for different reasons. However, when it comes down to it, the meaning behind the Y is pretty simple, it’s a way to guarantee commitment and loyalty between these ranchers and the ranch. With that said, let’s go over the characters who have received the brand, and why they got it.
One of the first things we see in Season 1 of Yellowstone is Rip approaching Jimmy to join the ranch. Rip tells him that he’s a “two-time loser,” and explains that if he messes up again he’ll go to prison forever. While he’s doing this, he’s heating up the “Y” to brand on Jimmy.
The guy gets two options, take the brand or go to prison, and he gets that because John is friends with his grandfather. He chooses the brand and Yellowstone, and then he spends the better part of the next three seasons proving himself to Rip, the bunkhouse and John.
After Jefferson White’s character asks why John would care about him, Rip reveals that he also has the brand, and says that while the patriarch won’t care about him at first, he eventually will. In Jimmy’s case, the brand commits him to the farm and ultimately bettering himself.
Kayce Dutton is the only one of John’s kids to wear the brand, that we know of. While Lee was a cowboy for Yellowstone until he died, and Jamie has worked on the farm too, the only sibling to wear the Y is Kayce, and it’s because of a major conflict he had with his dad.
When he was younger, Luke Grimes’ character went to his father to explain that he and Monica, who is now his wife, were going to have a child, Tate. John wanted his youngest son to talk to his partner, and ask her to abort the child, but Kayce said no. This was an act of disobedience in Kevin Costner’s character’s eyes, and to send his son a message he branded him.
The youngest Dutton then left the ranch, and this branding caused a major rift between him and his father. However, throughout the seasons of Yellowstone, their relationship has slowly been mended.
Like Jimmy, Walker is recruited to the ranch by way of an ultimatum. John sent Rip to the prison he was in to hire a convict because they were looking for someone who needed a job and could handle some of the more illegal activities on the ranch. After he tells Rip about his past, the longtime Yellowstone cowboy tells him to get in the car, and explains:
Cons gotta pay a price to work the Yellowstone.
That price is of course the brand, and Walker gets it.
Ryan Bingham’s character doesn’t fully buy in or understand the commitment his fellow cowboys have to the ranch, and his unease about some of the choices made by his colleagues leads to a rift between him and Rip.
Eventually, the cowboy is sent away, and instead of going to the train station, Kayce lets him go, telling him never to return. Eventually, Rip and Lloyd find him, get him back to the Yellowstone, and for the last few seasons he’s been proving his loyalty to the brand.
Like Kayce and Rip, Lloyd had the brand before the show started. We don’t know much about Lloyd’s history at the ranch, however, we have seen that he is branded, and we know he’s uber-committed to the Yellowstone. It’s unclear why Forrie J. Smith’s character got the Y, but we do know that it’s the reason he wasn’t booted from the farm when his dispute with Walker caused major issues in the bunkhouse.
Wade Morrow is the only character, that we know of, who had the brand, betrayed the Yellowstone and lived to tell the tale (until he was killed in Season 3). Over the course of the Western's third season, Wade and his son work for the primary antagonist, Roarke Morris. They instigate chaos with Dutton’s ranch, and eventually, we learn that he once worked for the farm and has the brand, although we don’t know why he got it.
When Rip and the Bunkhouse Boys killed Wade, he instructed Walker to cut the Y off the cowboy's chest, showing just how important loyalty is and how far the Yellowstone is willing to take it if one of their own betrays them.
Ryan, Colby, Ethan, Jake And Teeter
In the matter of one episode, the number of branded characters in the Yellowstone cast just about doubled. In Season 3, five of the Bunkhouse Boys – Ryan, Colby, Teeter, Ethan and Jake – all get the brand.
The five wranglers were branded by Rip, without the knowledge of John, after they killed Wade. Cole Hauser’s character explains that since they wanted revenge, and they got it, there was a price to pay. That price was the brand.
Now, these five characters are bonded to the ranch, and as Teeter actress Jen Landon explained it helped her wrangler feel a “sense of belonging.” As the Bunkhouse Boys have become more beloved, it felt right that they also wore the Y on their chest, because they truly are part of the Yellowstone family.
After seasons of seeing Rip rep the brand and give it, we finally found out why he got it in Season 5 of Yellowstone. It turns out, that the man who has become a leader of the ranch was branded when he was a teenager because he was responsible for the death of another ranch hand who spoke ill of Beth.
Even though the hand tells young Rip to tell John a horse trampled him, the young cowboy still tells his boss the truth. In the patriarch’s mind, the only fix to this problem is by branding Cole Hauser’s character, permanently committing him to the farm.
Right before John leaves and Rip gets branded, the owner of the ranch says:
You’re committing yourself to this ranch for the rest of your life. And this ranch is committing itself to you. You will have a home until the day you die or this ranch is no more.
That right there is the spirit of the brand and the reason cowboys wear it with both pride and fear. Along with this explanation, the Dutton patriarch explained why they started branding ranch hands, saying:
You find out real fast who is willing to ride for the brand when they learn they got to wear it.
Well, Rip was willing to ride and commit his life to the Yellowstone, and so were most of the other cowboys mentioned in this story. For the most part, the brand signifies a commitment from both the wrangler and the ranch, and it uniquely bonds a person to John Dutton’s farm forever.
You can stream all five seasons of Yellowstone and see how most of these characters received their brand with a Peacock subscription. You can also stream all the other Yellowstone spinoffs with a Paramount+ subscription.