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What is a Cowboy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Mary McMahon
By 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.

Discussion Comments
By cloudel — On Oct 15, 2012

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.

By Kristee — On Oct 14, 2012

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.

By DylanB — On Oct 14, 2012

@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.

By shell4life — On Oct 13, 2012

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.

By SarahSon — On Oct 05, 2011

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.

By golf07 — On Oct 04, 2011

@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.

By drtroubles — On Oct 03, 2011

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.

By manykitties2 — On Oct 02, 2011

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.

By aaaCookie — On Oct 01, 2011

@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.

By panda2006 — On Oct 01, 2011

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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