Modern Working Cowboys
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.
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, though sources from
other cultures, including American Indians and Mountain Men
high crowned 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, which was designed in response to the climatic
conditions of the West.
Bandanna; a large cotton
neckerchief that had a myriad of uses from mopping up sweat
to masking the face from dust storms. In modern times, is
now more likely to be a silk neckscarf for decoration and
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.
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
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.
Lariat; from the Spanish
"la riata," meaning "the rope," sometimes called a lasso,
especially in the East, or simply, a "rope". This is a
tightly twisted stiff rope, originally of rawhide or
leather, now often of nylon, made with a small loop at one
end called a "hondo." When the rope is run through the hondo,
it creates a loop that slides easily, tightens quickly and
can be thrown to catch animals.
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.
Firearms: Modern cowboys
often have access to a rifle, used to protect the livestock
from predation by wild animals, more often carried inside a
pickup truck than on horseback, though rifle scabbards are
manufactured, and allow a rifle to be carried on a saddle. A
pistol is more often carried when on horseback. The modern
ranch hand often uses 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. In contrast, the cowboy of the 1880s
usually carried a heavy caliber revolver such as the single
action .44-40 or .45 Colt Peacemaker (the civilian version
of the 1872 Single Action Army). The working cowboy of the
1880s rarely carried a long arm, as they could get in the
way when working cattle, plus they added extra weight.
However, many cowboys owned rifles, and often used them for
market hunting in the off season. Though many models
were used, Cowboys who were part-time market hunters
preferred rifles that could take the widely available .45-70
"Government" ammunition, such as certain Sharps, Remington,
Springfield models, as well as the Winchester 1876.
However, by far the single most popular long arms were the
lever-action repeating Winchesters, particularly lighter
models such as the Model 1873 chambered for the same .44/40
ammunition as the Colt, allowing the cowboy to carry only
one kind of ammunition.
Knife; cowboys have
traditionally favored some form of pocket knife,
specifically the folding cattle knife or stock knife. The
knife has multiple blades, usually including a leather punch
and a "sheepsfoot" blade.
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.
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 that can perform a wide variety of tasks;
horses trained to specialize exclusively in one set of 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
A good stock horse is on the small side,
generally under 15.2 hands (62 inches) tall at the withers and
often 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 on a rope, 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 in North America 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
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 assorted dee rings and leather "saddle strings"
allow additional equipment to be tied to the saddle.
a blanket or pad is required under the Western saddle to
provide comfort and protection for the horse.
(leather or nylon) can be mounted to the saddle, behind the
cantle, to carry various sundry items and extra supplies.
Additional bags may be attached to the front or the saddle.
Bridle; a Western bridle
usually has a curb bit and long split reins to control the
horse in many different situations. Generally the bridle is
open-faced, without a noseband, unless the horse is ridden
with a tiedown. Young ranch horses learning basic tasks
usually are ridden in a jointed, loose-ring snaffle bit,
often with a running martingale. In some areas, especially
where the "California" style of the vaquero or buckaroo
tradition is still strong, young horses are often seen in a
bosal style hackamore.
Martingales of various
types are seen on horses that are in training or have
The most common
motorized 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 instead of
horses for some tasks, 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. However, in spite of modern
mechanization, there remain jobs, particularly those involving
working cattle in rough terrain or in close quarters, that are
best done by cowboys on horseback.
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