''Cowgirl redirects here

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A classic vision of the American cowboy, as portrayed by C.M. Russell.
A cowboy (Spanish: vaquero) tends cattle and horses on cattle ranches in North and South America. The cowboy is normally an animal herder most commonly in charge of the horses and/or cattle, whereas the wrangler's work is more specific to horses. In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work in and participate in rodeos, and many cowboys work only in the rodeo.


The English word cowboy has an origin from several earlier terms that referred to both age and to cattle or cattle-tending work.

The word "cowboy" first appeared in the English language about 1715–25 CE.[1] It appears to be a direct English translation of vaquero, a Spanish word for an individual who managed cattle while mounted on horseback. It was derived from vaca, meaning "cow."[2] This Spanish word has a long history, developed in part from the Latin word vacca. In addition to Latin roots, there may be Arabic influence as well. Another English word for a cowboy, buckaroo, an Anglicization of vaquero,[3] reflects the archaic Spanish pronunciation of vaquero, suggesting the possibility of a close relationship to the Arabic word bakara or bakhara, also meaning "heifer" or "young cow."[4][5] The Spanish language contains a number of words based on Arabic, most originating with Islamic people from North Africa and the Middle East, who had a powerful influence on Spanish history beginning with the Muslim conquest of Hispania in the 8th century and the Andalusian society they established.

The word cowboy also had English language roots beyond simply being a translation from Spanish. Because of the time and physical ability needed to develop necessary skills, the American cow "boy," (as well as the vaquero) often began his career as an adolescent, earning wages as soon as he had enough skill to be hired, (often as young as 12 or 13) and who, if not crippled by injury, might handle cattle or horses for the rest of his working life. In the United States, a few women also took on the tasks of ranching and learned the necessary skills, though the "cowgirl" (discussed below) did not become widely recognized or acknowledged until the close of the 19th century.

Originally, the English word "cowherd" (similar to "shepherd," a sheep herder) was used to describe a cattle herder, and often referred to a preadolescent or early adolescent boy, who usually worked on foot. (Equestrianism required skills and an investment in horses and equipment rarely available to or entrusted to a child, though in some cultures boys rode a donkey while going to and from pasture) This word is very old in the English language, originating prior to the year 1000 CE.[6] In Antiquity, herding of sheep, cattle and goats was often the job of minors, and still is a task for young people in various third world cultures.

Though the term "cowboy" became somewhat disassociated from age (even today, the phrase "old cowboy" is not considered an oxymoron), the low wages and low social status of the job kept the term "boy" in use, though ultimately it became simply a label for the job itself, and even a term of pride However, the word "boy" was also used to refer to any hired help (sometimes with racist overtones), or, more positively, to refer to closeknit groups of men as in the expression "one of the boys" — a brotherhood. Today, use of the term "boy" to refer to hired help is an anachronism, and terms such as "hand," "ranch hand" or "hired hand" are used to refer to ranch workers in general.

On western ranches today, the working cowboy is usually an adult. Sole responsibility for herding cattle or other livestock is no longer considered a job suitable for children or early adolescents. However, both boys and girls growing up in a ranch environment often learn to ride horses and perform basic ranch skills as soon as they are physically able, usually under adult supervision. Such youths, by their late teens, are often given responsibilities for "cowboy" work on the ranch, and ably perform work that requires a level of maturity and levelheadedness that is not generally expected of their urban peers.


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American cowboy circa 1887

The Spanish developed what we now consider the cowboy tradition, beginning with the hacienda system of medieval Spain. This style of cattle ranching spread throughout much of the Iberian peninsula and later, was imported to the Americas. Both regions possessed a dry climate with sparse grass, and thus large herds of cattle required vast amounts of land in order to obtain sufficient forage. The need to cover distances greater than a person on foot could manage gave rise to the development of the horseback-mounted vaquero.

During the 16th century, the Conquistadors and other Spanish settlers brought their cattle-raising traditions as well as their horses and cattle to the Americas, starting with their arrival in what today is Mexico and Florida. The traditions of Spain were transformed by the geographic, environmental and cultural circumstances of New Spain, which later became Mexico and the southwestern United States. In turn, the land and people of the Americas also saw dramatic changes due to Spanish influence.

The arrival of horses was particularly significant, as equines had been extinct in the Americas since the end of the prehistoric ice age. However, horses quickly multiplied in America and became crucial to the success of the Spanish and later settlers from other nations. The earliest horses were originally of Andalusian, Barb and Arabian ancestry, but a number of uniquely American horse breeds developed in North and South America through selective breeding and by natural selection of animals that escaped to the wild. The Mustang and other colonial horse breeds are now called "wild," but in reality are feral horses — descendants of domesticated animals.

Thus, though popularly considered as a North American icon, the traditional cowboy actually comes from a Hispanic tradition, which evolved further, particularly in the Central States of Mexico, Jalisco and Michoacán, where the Mexican cowboy would eventually be known as a "charro", as well as areas to the north that later became the Southwestern United States. Most vaqueros were men of mestizo and Native American origin while most of the hacendados (owners) were ethnically Spanish.[7]

As English-speaking traders and settlers moved into the Western United States, English and Spanish traditions, language and culture merged to some degree, with the vaquero tradition providing the foundation of the American cowboy. Before the Mexican American War in 1848, New England merchants who traveled by ship to California encountered both hacendados and vaqueros, trading manufactured goods for the hides and tallow produced from vast cattle ranches. American traders along what later became known as the Santa Fe Trail had similar contacts with vaquero life. Starting with these early encounters, the lifestyle and lingo of the vaquero began a transformation which merged with English cultural traditions and produced what became known in American culture as the "cowboy".

Development of traditions in the United States

Geography, climate and cultural traditions caused differences to develop in cattle-handling methods and equipment from one part of the United States to another. In the modern world, remnants of two major and distinct cowboy traditions remain, known today as the "Texas" tradition and the "Spanish", "Vaquero", or "California" tradition. Less well-known but equally distinct traditions also developed in Hawaii and Florida.

Texas tradition

In the early 1800s, the Spanish Crown, and later, independent Mexico, offered empresario grants in what would later be Texas to non-citizens, such as settlers from the United States. In 1821, Stephen F. Austin and his East Coast comrades became the first Anglo-Saxon community speaking Spanish. Following Texas independence in 1836, even more Americans immigrated into the empresario ranching areas of Texas. Here the settlers were strongly influenced by the Mexican vaquero culture, borrowing vocabulary and attire from their counterparts, but also retaining some of the livestock-handling traditions and culture of the Eastern United States and Great Britain. The Texas cowboy was typically a bachelor who hired on with different outfits from season to season.[8]

Following the American Civil War, vaquero culture diffused eastward and northward, combining with the cow herding traditions of the eastern United States that evolved as settlers moved west. Other influences developed out of Texas as cattle trails were created to meet up with the railroad lines of Kansas and Nebraska, in addition to expanding ranching opportunities in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain Front, east of the Continental Divide.

Thus, the Texas cowboy tradition arose from a combination of cultural influences, in addition to the need for adaptation to the geography and climate of west Texas and the need to conduct long cattle drives to get animals to market.

California tradition

The vaquero, the Spanish or Mexican cowboy who worked with young, untrained horses, had flourished in California and bordering territories during the Spanish Colonial period. Settlers from the United States did not enter California until after the Mexican War, and most early settlers were miners rather than livestock ranchers, leaving livestock-raising largely to the Spanish and Mexican people who chose to remain in California. The California vaquero or buckaroo, unlike the Texas cowboy, was considered a highly-skilled worker, who usually stayed on the same ranch where he was born or had grown up and raised his own family there. In addition, the geography and climate of much of California was dramatically different from that of Texas, allowing more intensive grazing with less open range, plus cattle in California were marketed primarily at a regional level, without the need (nor, until much later, even the logistical possibility) to be driven hundreds of miles to railroad lines. Thus, a horse- and livestock-handling culture remained in California and the Pacific Northwest that retained a stronger direct Spanish influence than that of Texas.

Cowboys of this tradition were dubbed buckaroos by English-speaking settlers. and the term officially appeared in American English in 1889. It is believed to have originated as an anglicized version of vaquero. Buckaroo also contains derivations from "bucking", which is folk etymology for a behavior seen in some young horses. The words "buckaroo" and Vaquero are still used on occasion in the Great Basin, parts of California and, less often, in the Pacific Northwest.

Florida Cowhunter or "Cracker cowboy"

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A cracker cowboy
artist: Frederick Remington.
The Florida "cowhunter" or "cracker cowboy" of the 19th and early 20th centuries was distinct from the Texas and California traditions. Florida cowboys did not use lassos to herd or capture cattle. Their primary tools were bullwhips and dogs. Florida cattle and horses were small. The "cracker cow", also known as the "native cow", or "scrub cow" averaged about 600 pounds, had large horns and large feet.[9]

Since the Florida cowhunter didn't need a saddle horn for anchoring a lariat, many did not use Western saddles, instead using a McClellan saddle. While some individuals wore boots that reached above the knees for protection from snakes, others wore brogans. They usually wore inexpensive wool or straw hats, and used ponchos for protection from rain.[10]

Cattle and horses were introduced into Florida late in the 16th century. Throughout the 17th century, cattle ranches owned by Spanish officials and missions operated in northern Florida to supply the Spanish garrison in St. Augustine and markets in Cuba.[11] These ranches brought in some vaqueros from Spain, but many of the workers were Timucua Indians.[12] Diseases and Spanish suppression of rebellions severely reduced the Timucua population, plus raids by soldiers from the Province of Carolina and their Indian allies reduced the Timucuas to a remnant and ended the Spanish ranching era by the beginning of the 18th century.

In the 18th century, Creek, Seminole, and other Indian people moved into the former Timucua areas and started herding the cattle left from the Spanish ranches. In the 19th century, most tribes in the area were dispossessed of their land and cattle and pushed south or west by white settlers and the United States government. By the middle of the 19th century white ranchers were running large herds of cattle on the extensive open range of central and southern Florida. The hides and meat from Florida cattle became such a critical supply item for the Confederacy during the American Civil War that a "Cow Cavalry" was organized to round up and protect the herds from Union raiders.[13] After the Civil War, Florida cattle were periodically driven to ports on the Gulf of Mexico and shipped to market in Cuba.[14]

Hawaiian Paniolo

The Hawaiian cowboy, the paniolo, is also a direct descendant of the vaquero of California and Mexico. Experts in Hawaiian etymology believe "Paniolo" is a Hawaiianized pronunciation of español. (The Hawaiian language has no /s/ sound, and all syllables and words must end in a vowel.) Paniolo, like cowboys on the mainland of North America, learned their skills from Mexican vaqueros.

By the early 1800s, Capt. George Vancouver's gift of cattle to Pai`ea Kamehameha, monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, had multiplied astonishingly, and were wreaking havoc throughout the countryside. About 1812, John Parker, a sailor who had jumped ship and settled in the islands, received permission from Kamehameha to capture the wild cattle and develop a beef industry.

The Hawaiian style of ranching originally included capturing wild cattle by driving them into pits dug in the forest floor. Once tamed somewhat by hunger and thirst, they were hauled out up a steep ramp, and tied by their horns to the horns of a tame, older steer (or ox) that knew where the paddock with food and water was located. The industry grew slowly under the reign of Kamehameha's son Liholiho (Kamehameha II)

Later, Liholiho's son, Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), visited California, then still a part of Mexico. He was impressed with the skill of the Mexican vaqueros, and invited several to Hawai`i in 1832 to teach the Hawaiian people how to work cattle.

Even today, traditional paniolo dress, as well as certain styles of Hawaiian formal attire, reflect the Spanish heritage of the vaquero.[15] The traditional Hawaiian saddle, the noho lio,[16] and many other tools of the cowboy's trade have a distinctly Mexican/Spanish look and many Hawaiian ranching families still carry the names of the vaqueros who married Hawaiian women and made Hawai`i their home.

Ethnicity of the traditional cowboy

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Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho youths learning to brand cattle at the Seger Indian School, Oklahoma Territory, ca. 1900.
Much has been written about the racial mix of the cowboys in the American West, but because cowboys ranked low in the social structure of the period, there are no firm figures. One writer states that cowboys are "… of two classes—those recruited from Texas and other States on the eastern slope; and Mexicans, from the south-western region. …".[17] Census records bear that out. The cowboy occupation also appealed to freed slaves following the Civil War. It is estimated that about 15% of all cowboys were of African-American ancestry—ranging from about 25% on the trail drives out of Texas, to very few in the northwest. Similarly, cowboys of Mexican descent also averaged about 15%, but were more common in Texas and the southwest.

American Indians also found employment as cowboys. In fact, many early vaqueros were Indian people trained to work for the Spanish missions in caring for the mission herds. Later, particularly after 1890, when American policy promoted "assimilation" of Indian people, some Indian boarding schools also taught ranching skills to Indian youth. Today, some Native Americans in the western United States own cattle and small ranches, and many are still employed as cowboys, especially on ranches located near Indian Reservations. The "Indian Cowboy" also became a commonplace sight on the rodeo circuit.

End of the open range

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Waiting for a Chinook, by C.M. Russell. Overgrazing and harsh winters were factors that brought an end to the age of the Open Range.
By the 1890s, railroads had expanded to cover most of the nation, making long cattle drives from Texas to the railheads in Kansas unnecessary. The invention of barbed wire allowed cattle to be confined to designated area to prevent overgrazing of the range, which had resulted in widespread starvation, particularly during the harsh winter of 1886-1887. Hence, the age of the open range was gone and large cattle drives were over. Smaller cattle drives continued at least into the 1940s, as ranchers, prior to the development of the modern cattle truck, still needed to herd cattle to local railheads for transport to stockyards and packing plants. Meanwhile, ranches multiplied all over the developing West, keeping cowboy employment high, if still low-paid and somewhat more settled.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Western movies popularized the cowboy lifestyle but also formed persistent stereotypes. In pop culture, the cowboy and the gunslinger are often associated with one another. In reality, working ranch hands had very little time for anything other than the constant, hard work involved in maintaining a ranch. Likewise, cowboys are often shown fighting with American Indians. However, the reality was that, while cowboys were armed against both predators and human thieves, and often used their guns to run off people of any race who attempted to steal, or rustle cattle, nearly all actual armed conflicts occurred between Indian people and cavalry units of the U.S. Army.

Development of the modern cowboy

Over time, the cowboys of the American West developed a personal culture of their own, a blend of frontier and Victorian values that even retained vestiges of chivalry. Such hazardous work in isolated conditions also bred a tradition of self-dependence and individualism, with great value put on personal honesty, exemplified in their songs and poetry.

Today, the Texas and California traditions have merged to some extent, though a few regional differences in equipment and riding style still remain, and some individuals choose to deliberately preserve the more time-consuming but highly skilled techniques of the pure vaquero tradition. The popular "horse whisperer" style of natural horsemanship was originally developed by practitioners who were predominantly from California and the Northwestern states, clearly combining the attitudes and philosophy of the California vaquero with the equipment and outward look of the Texas cowboy.

Cowboys in Canada

Ranching in Canada has traditionally been dominated by one province, Alberta. The most successful early settlers of the province were the ranchers, who found Alberta's foothills to be ideal for raising cattle. Most of Alberta's ranchers were English settlers, but cowboys such as John Ware — who brought the first cattle into the province in 1876 — were American.[18] American style open range dryland ranching began to dominate southern Alberta (and, to a lesser extent, Saskatchewan) by the 1880s. The nearby city of Calgary became the centre of the Canadian cattle industry, earning it the nickname "Cowtown". The cattle industry is still extremely important to Alberta, and cattle outnumber people in the province. While cattle ranches defined by barbed wire fences replaced the open range just as they did in the US, the cowboy influence lives on. Canada's first rodeo, the Raymond Stampede, was established in 1902. In 1912, the Calgary Stampede began, and today it is the world’s richest cash rodeo. Each year, Calgary’s northern rival Edmonton, Alberta stages the Canadian Finals Rodeo, and dozens of regional rodeos are held through the province.

Cowboys of other nations

In addition to the original Mexican vaquero, the Mexican charro, 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 (with the spelling "gaúcho") southern Brazil, the "chalan" in Peru, the llanero of the llano (South American prairie-like plains, as in 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 stockmen and drovers (with trainee stockmen referred to as jackaroos and jillaroos).

The idea of horseback riders who guard herds of cattle, sheep or horses is common wherever wide, open land for grazing exists. In the French Camargue, riders called "gardians" herd cattle. In Hungary, the csikós guard horses. The herders in the region of Maremma, in Tuscany (Italy) are called butteros.

Modern working cowboys

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Cattle drive in New Mexico, USA
On the ranch, the cowboy is responsible for feeding the livestock, branding and earmarking cattle (horses also are branded on many ranches), plus tending to animal injuries and other needs. The working cowboy usually is in charge of a small group or "string" of horses and is required to routinely patrol the rangeland in all weather conditions checking for damaged fences, evidence of predation, water problems, and any other issue of concern.

They also move the livestock to different pasture locations, or herd them into corrals and onto trucks for transport. In addition, cowboys may do many other jobs, depending on the size of the "outfit" or ranch, the terrain, and the number of livestock. On a smaller ranch with fewer cowboys—often just family members, cowboys are generalists who perform many all-around tasks; they repair fences, maintain ranch equipment, and perform other odd jobs. On a very large ranch (a "big outfit"), with many employees, cowboys are able to specialize on tasks solely related to cattle and horses. Cowboys who train horses often specialize in this task only, and some may "Break" or train young horses for more than one ranch.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics collects no figures for cowboys, so the exact number of working cowboys is unknown. Cowboys are included in the 2003 category, Support activities for animal production, which totals 9,730 workers averaging $19,340 per annum. In addition to cowboys working on ranches, in stockyards, and as staff or competitors at rodeos, the category includes farmhands working with other types of livestock (sheep, goats, hogs, chickens, etc.). Of those 9,730 workers, 3,290 are listed in the subcategory of Spectator sports which includes rodeos, circuses, and theaters needing livestock handlers.


Most cowboy attire, sometimes termed Western wear, grew out of practical need and the environment in which the cowboy worked. Most items were adapted from the Mexican vaqueros.
  • Cowboy hat; a hat with a wide brim to protect from sun, overhanging brush, and the elements; there are many styles, initially influenced by John B. Stetson's "Boss of the Plains", a design blending elements of the Mexican sombrero and both Union and Confederate Cavalry hats of the Civil War period.
  • Bandanna; a large neckerchief that had a myraid of uses from mopping up sweat to masking the face from dust storms. In modern times, more likely to be a silk neckscarf for decoration and warmth.
  • Cowboy boots; 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; with or without detachable spurs.
  • Chaps (pronounced "shaps") or chinks protect the rider's legs while on horseback, especially riding through heavy brush or during rough work with livestock.
  • Jeans or other sturdy, close-fitting trousers made of canvas or denim, designed to protect the legs and prevent the trouser legs from snagging on brush, equipment or other hazards. Properly made cowboy jeans also have a smooth inside seam to prevent blistering the inner thigh and knee while on horseback.
  • Gloves, usually of deerskin or other leather that is soft and flexible for working purposes, yet provides protection when handling barbed wire, assorted tools or clearing native brush and vegetation.
Many of these items show marked regional variations. Parameters such as hat brim width, or chap length and material were adjusted to accommodate the various environmental conditions encountered by working cowboys.


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Modern Texas cowboys. Note that their clothes are similar to those of the 19th century cowboy above
  • Lariat; from the Spanish "la riata," meaning "the rope," 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, or simply, a "rope").
  • Spurs; metal devices attached to the heel of the boot, featuring a small metal shank, usually with a small serrated wheel attached, used to allow the rider to provide a stronger (or sometimes, more precise) leg cue to the horse.
  • Rifle; a firearm used to protect the livestock from predation by wild animals. A pistol might also be carried. The 19th and 20th century American cowboy favored repeating rifles with inexpensive, fairly low powered, centerfire cartridges such as the .44-40 Winchester and .25-20 Winchester. The pistol often used the very same cartridge on a dual-use basis. Modern cowboys may carry a .22 caliber "varmit" rifle for modern ranch hazards, such as rattlesnakes, coyotes, and rabid skunks. In areas near wilderness, a ranch cowboy may carry a higher-caliber rifle to fend off larger predators such as mountain lions.
  • Knife; cowboys have traditionally favored the pocket knife, specifically the folding cattle knife evolved into the stock knife still popular today. The knife has multiple blades, usually including a leather punch and a "sheepsfoot" blade.
  • Other weapons; while the modern American cowboy came to existence after the invention of gunpowder, cattle herders of earlier times were sometimes equipped with heavy polearms, bows or lances.

Horses & equipment

The traditional means of transport for the cowboy, even in the modern era, is by horseback. Horses can travel over terrain that vehicles cannot access. Horses, along with mules and burros, also serve as pack animals. The most important horse on the ranch is the everyday working ranch horse; horses trained to specialize exclusively in skills such as roping or cutting are very rarely used on ranches. Because the rider often needs to keep one hand free while working cattle, the horse must neck rein and have good cow sense—it must instinctively know how to anticipate and react to cattle.

The horse

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A stock type horse suitable for cattle work
A good stock horse is on the small side, generally under 15.2 hands (62 inches) tall at the withers and under 1000 pounds, with a short back, sturdy legs and strong muscling, particularly in the hindquarters. While a steer roping horse may need to be larger and weigh more in order to hold a heavy adult cow, bull or steer, a smaller, quick horse is needed for herding activities such as cutting or calf roping. The horse has to be intelligent, calm under pressure and have a certain degree of 'cow sense" -- the ability to anticipate the movement and behavior of cattle.

Many breeds of horse make good stock horses, but the most common today is the American Quarter Horse, which is a horse breed developed primarily in Texas from a combination of Thoroughbred bloodstock crossed on horses of Mustang and other Iberian horse ancestry, with influences from the Arabian horse and horses developed on the east coast, such as the Morgan horse and now-extinct breeds such as the Chickasaw and Virginia Quarter-Miler.

Horse equipment or tack

Main article: Horse tack
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A western saddle
Equipment used to ride a horse is referred to as tack and includes:
  • Western saddle; a saddle specially designed to allow horse and rider to work for many hours and to provide security to the rider in rough terrain or when moving quickly in response to the behavior of the livestock being herded. A western saddle has a deep seat with high pommel and cantle that provides a secure seat. Deep, wide stirrups provide comfort and security for the foot. A strong, wide saddle tree of wood, covered in rawhide (or made of a modern synthetic material) distributes the weight of the rider across a greater area of the horse's back, reducing the pounds carried per square inch and allowing the horse to be ridden longer without harm. A horn sits low in front of the rider, to which a lariat can be snubbed, and "saddle strings" allow additional equipment to be tied to the saddle.
  • Saddle blanket; a blanket or pad is required under the Western saddle to provide comfort and protection for the horse.
  • Bridle; a Western bridle usually has a curb bit and long split reins to control the horse in many different situations. In some areas, especially where the "California" style of the vaquero tradition is still strong, young horses are often seen in a bosal style hackamore.
  • Saddle bags (leather or nylon) can be mounted to the saddle, to carry various sundry items and extra supplies.
  • Martingales, or "tiedowns" are occasionally seen on horses that have training or behavior problems.


The most common vehicle driven in modern ranch work is the pickup truck. Sturdy and roomy, with a high ground clearance, and often four-wheel drive capability, it has an open box, called a "bed," and can haul supplies from town or over 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

Main article: Rodeo
The word rodeo is from the Spanish rodear (to turn), which means roundup. 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. Early cowboys both worked on ranches and displayed their skills at the roundups.

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

The dress of the rodeo cowboy is not very different from that of the working cowboy on his way to town. Snaps, used in lieu of buttons on the cowboy's shirt, allowed the cowboy to escape from a shirt snagged by the horns of steer or bull. Styles were often adapted from the early movie industry for the rodeo. Some rodeo competitors, particularly women, add sequins, colors, silver and long fringes to their clothing in both a nod to tradition and showmanship. Modern riders in "rough stock" events such as saddle bronc or bull riding may add safety equipment such as kevlar vests or a neck brace, but use of safety helmets in lieu of the cowboy hat is yet to be accepted, in spite of constant risk of injury.


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"Rodeo Cowgirl" by C.M. Russell.
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Fannie Sperry Steele, Champion Lady Bucking Horse Rider, Winnipeg Stampede, 1913
The history of women in the west, and women who worked on cattle ranches in particular, is not as well documented as that of men. However, institutions such as the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame have made significant efforts in recent years to gather and document the contributions of women.[19]

There are few records mentioning girls or women driving cattle up the cattle trails of the Old West, even though women undoubtedly helped on the ranches, and in some cases (especially when the men went to war) ran them. There is little doubt that women, particularly the wives and daughters of men who owned small ranches and could not afford to hire large numbers of outside laborers, worked side by side with men and thus needed to ride horses and be able to perform ranch work. The largely undocumented contributions of women to the west were acknowledged in law; the western states led the United States in granting women the right to vote, beginning with Wyoming in 1869.[20]

Following the Civil War, Charles Goodnight developed a western-styled side-saddle that allowed women to ride horses while fashionably dressed. The traditional charras of Mexico preserve a similar tradition and ride side-saddles today while exhibiting superb horsemanship in charreadas on both sides of the border.

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. Women such as Annie Oakley became household names. By 1900, skirts split for riding astride, allowing women to compete with the men without scandalizing Victorian Era audiences by wearing men's clothing or, worse yet, bloomers. In the movies that followed, women expanded their roles in the popular culture and movie designers developed attractive clothing suitable for riding Western saddles.

The growth of the rodeo brought about another type of cowgirl—the rodeo cowgirl. In the early Wild West shows and rodeos, women competed in all events, sometimes against other women, sometimes with the men. Performers such as Fannie Sperry Steele rode the same "rough stock" and took the same risks as the men (and all while wearing a heavy split skirt that was still more encumbering than men's trousers) and gave show-stopping performances at major rodeos such as the Calgary Stampede and Cheyenne Frontier Days.[21]

Competition for women changed after 1925 when Eastern promoters started staging indoor rodeos in places like Madison Square Garden. Women were generally excluded from the men's events and many of the women's events were dropped. In today's rodeos, men and women compete equally together only in the event of team roping, though technically women today could enter other open events. There also are all-women rodeos where women compete in bronc riding, bull riding and all other traditional rodeo events. However, in open rodeos, cowgirls compete in the timed riding events such as barrel racing, and most professional rodeos do not offer as many women's events as men's events.

Boys and girls are more apt to compete against one another in all events in high-school rodeos as well as O-Mok-See events, where even boys can be seen competing in barrel racing. Outside of the rodeo, women compete equally with men in nearly all other equestrian events, including the Olympics, and western riding events such as cutting, reining, and endurance riding.

Today's cowgirls generally use clothing indistinguishable from that of men, other than in color and design, usually preferring a flashier look in competition. Sidesaddles are only seen in exhibitions and a limited number of specialty horse show classes. A cowgirl wears jeans, close-fitting shirts, boots, hat, and when needed, chaps and gloves. If working on the ranch, they perform most of the same chores as cowboys and dress to suit the situation.


Other names for a cowboy in American English include cowpoke, cowhand, cowherd, and cowpuncher.

The term "cowpuncher" was especially popular with cowboys who worked in the Cherokee Strip since they were entitled to join the Cherokee Strip Cowpunchers Association which was organized in 1920.

A rancher who owns land and livestock is often referred to as a "cattleman," or less often, "cowman."

Popular culture

As the frontier ended, the cowboy life came to be highly romanticized. Exhibitions such as those of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show helped to popularize the image of the cowboy as an idealized representative of the tradition of chivalry.

In today's society, there is little understanding of the daily realities of actual agricultural life. Cowboys are more often associated with (mostly fictitious) Indian-fighting than with their actual life of ranch work and cattle-tending. Actors such as John Wayne are thought of as exemplifying a cowboy ideal, even though western movies seldom bear much resemblance to real cowboy life. Arguably, the modern rodeo competitor is much closer to being an actual cowboy, as many were actually raised on ranches and around livestock, and the rest have needed to learn livestock-handling skills on the job.

However, in the United States and the Canadian West, as well as Australia, dude ranches offer people the opportunity to ride horses and get a taste of the western life--albeit in far greater comfort. Some dude ranches also offer vacationers the opportunity to actually "play" cowboy by participating in cattle drives or accompanying wagon trains. This type of vacation was popularized by the 1991 movie City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal.

The cowboy is also portrayed as a masculine ideal via images ranging from the Marlboro Man to the Village People.

Regional identification

The long history of the West in popular culture tends to define those clothed in 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 wear western wear as part of their persona.

However, many people, particularly in the West, wear elements of Western clothing, particularly cowboy boots or hats, as a matter of form even though they have other jobs, up to and including lawyers, bankers, and other white collar professionals. Conversely, some people raised on ranches do not necessarily define themselves cowboys or cowgirls unless they also compete in rodeos or feel their primary job is to work with livestock.

Actual cowboys in general tend to value personal honesty and have derisive expressions for individuals who adopt cowboy mannerisms as a fashion pose without any actual understanding of the culture. For example, a "drugstore cowboy" means someone who wears the clothing but cannot actually ride anything but the stool of the drugstore soda fountain--or, in modern times, a bar stool. The phrase, "all hat and no cattle," is used to describe someone (usually male) who boasts about himself, far in excess of any actual accomplishments. The word "dude" (or the now-archaic term "greenhorn") indicates an individual unfamiliar with cowboy culture, especially one who is trying to pretend otherwise.

Cowboy symbolism

Outside of the West, the cowboy became an archetypal symbol of American individualism. In the late 1950s, a Congolese youth subculture calling themselves the Bills based their style and outlook on Hollywood's depiction of cowboys in movies. Something similar occurred with the term "Apache," which in early twentieth century Parisian society was a slang term for an outlaw.

The state of Wyoming's nickname is The Cowboy State.

Negative associations

Worldwide, the term "cowboy" can be used in a derogatory sense to describe someone who is violent, impulsive, or who behaves in a hot-headed and rash manner. For example, TIME Magazine had a cover article referring to George W. Bush's foreign policy as "Cowboy Diplomacy," and Bush has been described in European newspapers as a "cowboy".

In the British Isles, Australia and New Zealand, "cowboy" is used as an adjective when applied to tradesmen whose work is of shoddy and questionable value, e.g., "a cowboy plumber". Similar usage is seen in the United States to describe someone in the skilled trades who operates without proper training or licenses. In the eastern United States, "cowboy" as a noun is sometimes used to describe a fast or careless driver on the highway.

In art and culture

See also



1. ^ Definition of "cowboy"
2. ^ Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary
3. ^ Cassidy, F.G., Hill, A.A. "Buckaroo Once More." American Speech, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Summer, 1979), pp. 151-153 doi:10.2307/455216
4. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary
5. ^ Cassidy, F.G. "Another Look at Buckaroo," American Speech, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Spring, 1978), pp. 49-51 doi:10.2307/455339
6. ^ Definition of "Cowherd"
7. ^ [1]Haeber, Jonathan."Vaqueros: The First Cowboys of the Open Range." National Geographic News. August 15, 2003. Web page accessed September 2, 2007
8. ^ from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company:2000. Web site accessed January 19, 2007
9. ^ Tasker, Georgia. 2007. "Rancher preserves Florida's Cracker history". Miami Herald. February 06, 2007. Web site. Retrieved February 21, 2007
10. ^ Tinsley, Jim Bob. 1990. Florida Cow Hunter. University of Central Florida Press. ISBN 0-8130-0985-5 Pp. 42-3
11. ^ Friends of Payne's Prairie: Spanish Florida retieved February 21, 2007
12. ^ Florida Cracker Cattle and Cracker Horse Program retrieved February 22, 2007
13. ^ Raid on Gopher Ridge retrieved February 21, 2007
14. ^ Tinsley, Jim Bob. 1990. Florida Cow Hunter. University of Central Florida Press. ISBN 0-8130-0985-5 Pp. 47-51
15. ^ Jason Genegabus. Photos by Ken Ige (17 March2003). Paniolo Ways: Riding the range is a lifestyle that reaches back 170 years in Hawaii. Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
16. ^ Rose Kahele. Photos by Ann Cecil (June/July 2006). Way of the Noho Lio. Hana Hou! Vol. 9, No. 3.
17. ^ Ambulo, John. "The Cattle on a Thousand Hills" The Overland Monthly March 1887.
18. ^ Government of Alberta - About Alberta - History
19. ^ Cowgirl Hall of Fame website
20. ^ "This Day in History 1869: Wyoming grants women the vote"
21. ^ McKelvey Puhek, Lenore. "Fannie Sperry Made the Ride of Her Life"

Further reading

  • Beck, Warren A., Haase, Ynez D.; Historical Atlas of the American West. University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 1989. ISBN 0-8061-2193-9
  • Jordan, Teresa; Cowgirls: Women of the American West. University of Nebraska Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8032-7575-7
  • Nicholson, Jon. Cowboys: A Vanishing World. Macmillan, 2001. ISBN 0-333-90208-4
  • Phillips, Charles; Axlerod, Alan; editor. The Encyclopedia of the American West. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996. ISBN 0028974956
  • Roach, Joyce Gibson; The Cowgirls . University of North Texas Press, 1990. ISBN 0-929398-15-7
  • Slatta, Richard W. The Cowboy Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, California, 1994. ISBN 0-87436-738-7
  • Ward, Fay E.; The Cowboy at Work: All About His Job and How He Does It. University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 1987. ISBN 0-8061-2051-7

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Rodeo (IPA: /ˈroʊdioʊ/ or /roʊˈdeɪoʊ/
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ranch is an area of landscape, including various structures, given primarily to the practice of ranching, the practice of raising grazing livestock such as cattle or sheep for meat or wool.
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H.O.R.S.E. is a form of poker commonly played at the high stakes tables of casinos. It consists of rounds of play cycling among:
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