Cowboy facts for kids

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Vaqueros
Vaqueros in California, circa 1830s

A cowboy (Spanish vaquero) tends cattle and horses on cattle ranches in North and South America. The cowboy in charge of the horses, however, is the wrangler. In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work in and participate in rodeos, and many cowboys work only in the rodeo.

The word cowboy comes from the Spanish word vaquero. They sometimes participate in rodeos. Movies about cowboys are often called western movies.

Cowboys of other nations

In addition to the Mexican vaquero, the North American cowboy, and the Hawaiian paniolo, the Spanish also exported their horsemanship and knowledge of cattle ranching to the gaucho of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil, the llanero of Venezuela, the huaso of Chile, and, indirectly through the Americans, to Australia. In Australia, which has a large ranch (station) culture, cowboys are known as jackaroos and cowgirls as jillaroos.

Indian students branding cattle
American Indian youths learning to brand cattle at the Seger Indian Industrial School near Colony on the old Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation in Oklahoma Territory, ca. 1900

Working cowboys

On the ranch, the cowboy is responsible for feeding the livestock, branding or marking cattle and horses, and tending to their injuries or other needs. They also move the livestock to market. In addition, cowboys repair fences, maintain ranch equipment, and perform other odd jobs around the ranch. These jobs vary depending on the size of the ranch, the terrain, and the number of livestock. On larger ranches, or on those with lots of cattle, a cowboys may specialize in one task or another. On smaller ranches with fewer cowboys or often just family members the cowboy tends to be a generalist employed in many tasks.

The Cow Boy 1888
American cowboy, 1887
Cattle Roundup, Great Falls, MT, Geo B Bonnell, c1890
Cattle roundup near Great Falls, Montana, circa 1890

Dress

Most cowboy dress, thought of as Western wear, grew out of the environment in which the cowboy worked. Many of the items were adapted from the Mexican vaqueros.

  • Cowboy hat; a hat with a wide brim to protect from the sun and the elements; there are many styles, probably influenced by both the Mexican sombrero and US (and Confederate) Cavalry hats.
  • Cowboy boot; a boot with a high top to protect the lower legs, pointed toes to help guide the foot into the stirrup, and high heels to keep the foot from slipping through the stirrup while working in the saddle.
  • Jeans, or other sturdy tight-fitting pants; heavy pants designed to protect the legs and snug fitting to prevent the pants legs from snagging on brush, corral equipment, and other hazards.

Tools

  • Chaps; guards worn to protect the legs when riding through heavy brush or during rough work with the livestock.
  • Lariat; a tightly twisted stiff rope with a loop at one end enabling it to be thrown to catch animals (sometimes called a lasso, especially in the East).
  • Spurs; a tool designed to help a rider communicate with the horse when the hands are busy or when it is too noisy for oral commands.
  • Rifle; a weapon needed to protect the livestock from predation by wild animals. Occasionally cowboys will carry a pistol when not physically working cattle, especially in brushy areas.
  • Cow dog; many people, including cowboys, find a herding dog invaluable in locating and controlling livestock.

Cow pony

There is no substitute for the horse on a large ranch. It travels where vehicles cannot. Horses, along with mules and burros, also serve a pack animals. The most important horse on the ranch is the cutting horse. Because the rider is busy working while riding, the horse must neck rein and have good cow sense—it must instinctively know how to anticipate and react to cattle.

Tack:

  • Western Saddle; a saddle with specially designed for working with cattle; it has stirrups to allow the rider to stand or resist the pull of livestock while working, a horn so the lariat can be snubbed, tiedowns to provide secure mountings for any additional equipment needed for work on the ranch, and various other modifications.
  • Saddle blanket; a blanket or pad is required under the Western saddle to provide comfort and protection for the horse.
  • Bridle; a Westen bridle usually has a curb bit and long split reins to control the horse in many different situations.
  • Saddle bags; a bag which can be mounted to the saddle for carrying various sundry items and extra supplies.

Vehicles

The most common vehicle driven in ranch work is the pickup truck. Sturdy and roomy, with a high ground clearance, it can haul ranch supplies from town and still handle rough trails on the ranch. It is used to pull stock trailers transporting cattle and livestock from one area to another and to market. With a horse trailer attached, it carries horses to distant areas where they may be needed. Motorcycles are sometimes used, but the most common smaller vehicle is the four-wheeler. It will carry a single cowboy quickly around the ranch for small chores. In areas with heavy snowfall, snowmobiles are also common.

Rodeo cowboys

StampedeRodeo2002
Rider at the Calgary Stampede rodeo, 2002

In the beginning there was no difference between the working cowboy and the rodeo cowboy, and in fact, the term working cowboy did not come into use until the 1950s. Prior to that it was assumed that all cowboys were working cowboys. The early cowboys worked on the ranches and displayed their skills at the roundups. The word rodeo is from the Spanish rodear (to turn), which means roundup.

The advent of professional rodeos allowed cowboys, like many athletes, to earn a living by performing their skills before an audience. The rodeos also provided employment for the many working cowboys needed to handle the livestock. Many rodeo cowboys are also working cowboys and most have working cowboy experience.

The dress of the rodeo cowboy is not much different than that of the working cowboy on his way to town. What is known as the cowboy shirt however, coming from the early movie industry, was adapted especially for the rodeo. Snaps, used in lieu of buttons, allowed the cowboy to escape from a shirt snagged by the horns of steer or bull.

Cowgirls

Although cowgirls share much with the cowboy, their history is somewhat different. There is no record of any girls or women driving cattle up the cattle trails of the Old West. Although many undoubtedly helped on the ranches, and in many cases ran them, few routinely dressed in the clothing suitable for working cattle from horseback.

It wasn't until the advent of the Wild West shows that cowgirls came into their own. Their riding, expert marksmanship, and trick roping entertained audiences around the world. By 1900, skirts split for riding came into design, freeing women to compete with the men in many events. In the movies that followed they expanded their roles in the popular culture and movie designers developed attractive clothing suitable for riding Western saddles.

Popular Culture

The long history of the West in popular culture tends to define those wearing Western clothing as cowboys or cowgirls whether they have ever been on a horse or not. This is especially true when applied to entertainers and those in the public arena who don Western wear as part of their persona.

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