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What is a Cowboy?

A cowboy is an iconic figure of the American West, embodying rugged individualism and a connection to the land. They are skilled horsemen, cattle herders, and often, symbols of freedom. Cowboys represent a unique blend of history, myth, and culture. How has the cowboy's role evolved over time, and what truths lie behind the legend? Explore the cowboy's enduring legacy with us.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A cowboy is someone who works on a ranch handling cattle and horses. Cowboys are most closely associated with the American West, thanks to art and literature that featured this iconic figure. The exact number of modern cowboys employed is unclear, but it is certainly far fewer than in the heyday of the American West. They work actively on ranches and also compete in rodeos to demonstrate their unique skills.

The word has been in use in English since at least the 1700s. In England, it was used to refer to a young boy who was responsible for minding livestock. In many cultures, younger members of society are responsible for looking after cows and other animals, because it is a relatively simple task when the livestock do not need to be moved.

Roping is one of the many skills required of a cowboy.
Roping is one of the many skills required of a cowboy.

The modern sense of the cowboy arose when cattle raisers started to see the potential for selling their animals in other parts of the country, where they could command higher prices. Handlers drove the cattle across the massive grazing grounds of the West to help rotate pasture as well. Since herding cattle across long distances requires more skill, the occupation began to be reserved for older and more experienced men.

Handling cattle and horses is the primary job of a cowboy.
Handling cattle and horses is the primary job of a cowboy.

Cowboys acquired their skills from the Spanish vaqueros, who were skilled at handling cattle. The title of vaquero was corrupted by English speakers into “buckaroo,” a term still used in some regions of the United States. Their skills came to include herding, cutting, roping, cooking, and veterinary care, as they were often isolated from assistance by outsiders. Someone who specifically works with horses is known as a wrangler.

A cow.
A cow.

Along with the cowboy goes the cow horse, or stock horse. A cow horse should be sturdy, agile, and fast when necessary. Larger, stronger horses are used for roping, so that the horse can hold its own against a large cow or bull. One of the most common breeds used for this purpose is the American Quarterhorse, a popular breed throughout the West for use on ranches and in competitions.

A cowboy hat.
A cowboy hat.

Other things are closely associated with the cowboy, including the wide brimmed hat, which protects the eyes and face from the sun, and boots. Their apparel usually includes heavy pants, chaps, and shirts designed to protect them from the elements. Cowboys and their horses also have accessories such as saddles, spurs, medical kits, rifles, and other tools of the trade. The job is often quite difficult, and it has been heavily romanticized by many Americans.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the historical origin of cowboys?

Cowboy accessories include saddles.
Cowboy accessories include saddles.

The term 'cowboy' originated in the 18th century, primarily associated with cattle herders in Spanish America. These individuals were known as 'vaqueros' from the Spanish word 'vaca' (meaning cow). The cowboy tradition was later adopted and transformed in the United States, particularly in Texas after the Civil War, where the cattle industry boomed, and the iconic image of the American cowboy emerged, blending Spanish equestrian culture with the demands of frontier life.

What were the typical duties of a cowboy in the American West?

Cowboys in the American West were responsible for a variety of tasks related to cattle ranching. Their duties included herding cattle, managing livestock on open ranges, branding, castrating, and treating injuries. They also drove cattle over long distances during roundups, a practice known as cattle drives, which were essential for bringing cattle to market. Cowboys had to be skilled riders, ropers, and familiar with the rugged terrain and harsh conditions of the frontier.

How did the cowboy lifestyle contribute to American culture?

The cowboy lifestyle has had a profound impact on American culture, symbolizing freedom, adventure, and individualism. Cowboys became emblematic of the American frontier spirit, celebrated in literature, music, and film. The cowboy archetype has been romanticized in Westerns, which have played a significant role in shaping global perceptions of American history and identity. The cowboy's influence extends to fashion, with items like boots, hats, and denim becoming cultural staples.

Are there still cowboys today, and how has their role changed?

Yes, cowboys still exist today, although their role has evolved with technological and agricultural advancements. Modern cowboys, or ranchers, continue to manage herds and maintain ranch operations, but they often use vehicles, helicopters, and advanced equipment for tasks that once required only a horse and lasso. Despite these changes, the core skills of horsemanship, cattle handling, and a deep understanding of the land remain central to the cowboy profession.

What is the significance of rodeos in cowboy culture?

Rodeos are a significant aspect of cowboy culture, originating from the skills required for cattle ranching. They began as informal competitions among cowboys and evolved into organized events showcasing skills like bronc riding, steer wrestling, and barrel racing. Rodeos serve as a celebration of the cowboy heritage and continue to be popular events, reinforcing the cowboy's cultural importance and providing a connection to the historical aspects of the cowboy lifestyle.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

cloudel

Many young boys are obsessed with cowboy culture. As a kid, my brother went around trying to wrangle imaginary cows all the time.

The old western movies really romanticize the lifestyle. I think that's where my brother got the idea that being a cowboy was so cool.

Kristee

There are many men in my Southern town who dress like cowboys whenever they go out on the weekends. If they go to a bar or go dancing, they show up in the hat and boots.

Since mostly country music is played around here, they fit in just fine. It just tickles me to think how out of place they would look in a different bar, though.

DylanB

@aaaCookie - I wonder if cowboys ever had wives who tagged along with them. It seems like they would get awfully lonely out there, and if they had wives back home somewhere, they would be lonely and vulnerable, too.

It was probably considered no life for a woman back then, especially if she were pregnant or had babies to care for, but then again, she would have a hard time raising them alone. It would most likely have been ideal for a cowboy to be single.

shell4life

I think it's kind of strange how cowboy boots have become so popular with city people. Why they would want to dress like someone who lives a lifestyle they could never handle is a mystery to me.

I don't wear cowboy boots, because I feel like they should be reserved for those who actually do handle cattle and horses. I refrain from wearing them out of respect for uniform of the occupation, as strange as that may sound. It's just a weird pet peeve of mine.

SarahSon

One of the best vacations we ever took was to a dude ranch in Colorado. We had the opportunity to work right along with the cowboys on the ranch.

We were there at the end of the season and even got to help them bring some cattle down from the high country.

Even though I enjoyed every minute of this trip, I don't know if being a cowboy would be something I would like to do all the time. It is hard to imagine that people really do make their living being a cowboy.

It takes a lot of hard work, but for those people who could be on a horse many hours a day every day of the week, it is a perfect job for them.

They probably would have a hard time functioning in a big city job after working in such wide open spaces all of their life.

golf07

@drtroubles - I have been to many cowboy rodeos and have enjoyed every one of them. These have ranged from small town rodeos to large, well known rodeos in Wyoming and Las Vegas.

Even though I am familiar with the events that take place, you never know quite what to expect. Sometimes the horses and bulls can give even the most experienced cowboys a run for their money.

The bull riding is always my favorite event, but I also enjoy the saddle bronc riding. I don't know how those cowboys stay on even for a second. If they make it to 8 seconds they are getting a lot of cheers from the crowd.

drtroubles

Has anyone ever seen an actual rodeo cowboy perform before? How did you enjoy the show?

I have been watching some shows on TV that feature rodeo cowboys roping bulls, riding bareback, and doing some pretty fantastic horsemanship. I am thinking that if it really looks that cool in person I may be willing to travel a bit to see real cowboys in action.

I am a bit worried that the stuff on television is mostly stuntmen and that if I go to a real rodeo I won't be able to see as many tricks. I would really love to see a cowboy do his thing, just like in the old John Wayne movies.

manykitties2

There has been a huge trend lately to add cowboy clothing to your wardrobe. I think the rugged look associated with cowboys is really fun to mix into a city look.

I usually like to wear a cowboy shirt, which from my point of view, is usually something like a plaid top, or a collared shirt with lots of Old West style details, with a pair of skinny jeans.

The cowboy boots are always a really nice addition to your wardrobe, though they can be really expensive. If you want a real leather pair of boots you can expect to pay a few hundred dollars for it.

aaaCookie

@panda2006- I think that it was probably really lonely. I know that it drew attention for all sorts of other themes, but one thing that struck me about Brokeback Mountain when it first came out was just how isolated everyone was. The towns were isolated, the cowboys were even more isolated out on the prairies and the mountains, and no wonder they had so much trouble living their lives when they were back in the "real" world, and had so much trouble trying to reconcile their true feelings with their situations, not just the main characters, but everyone.

I also love how that movie was so different from stereotypical cowboy movies, which are almost all just cowboy outfits and shootouts and things like that.

panda2006

I remember when I was a kid I thought the wild west was all about the cowboy costumes and rodeos and all of those sorts of stereotypes. But really, it was a pretty difficult career to be a cowboy, it seems to me. Lots of long hours, hard work, and not much companionship.

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    • Roping is one of the many skills required of a cowboy.
      By: Sascha Burkard
      Roping is one of the many skills required of a cowboy.
    • Handling cattle and horses is the primary job of a cowboy.
      By: John Sfondilias
      Handling cattle and horses is the primary job of a cowboy.
    • A cow.
      By: Margo Harrison
      A cow.
    • A cowboy hat.
      By: Michael Flippo
      A cowboy hat.
    • Cowboy accessories include saddles.
      By: virgonira
      Cowboy accessories include saddles.