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On the subject of who's a cowboy

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Well-known member
Feb 14, 2005
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Western South Dakota
This is fairly long and might make some angry. The reader should remember that it is just the opinion of one person and deals in generalities and myths.

This is something I wrote somertime back and found so thought I'd just throw it out here and see what happens. Please read at your own risk!

Whats a cowboy?
I am gonn'a stick my neck out and offer up an opinion. I know that I will ketch a lot of flack about some of the following, as I have to generalize a bit and could never come close to covering all aspects of the subject in the short space provided. I don't mean to offend or put down anyone or place, by this opinion. But maybe, it will help some get a better understanding of my world.
Why on earth would anybody want to be a cowboy? To most people a cowboy is anybody who wears a big hat and boots. When the stockshow or rodeo comes around, city and town people will get a hat and a pair of boots and whatever else they think a cowboy would wear, and go out to strut their stuff. Kind'a like Halloween I guess. They are just imitating what they see and don't think there is anything wrong with that. Maybe there isn't.
So what is a cowboy? In the following , the reader should recognize that this is all a generalization and that there are few, if any, hard and fast rules to anything and there are even fewer on this subject.
There are several sub-variations in the cowboy world. Rodeo cowboys, feed lot cowboys, ranch cowboys and wanna'be or drugstore cowboys. Everyone knows what a rodeo cowboy is anymore. They work the events at a rodeo for fame or fortune or just for the adrenaline rush, perhaps. At the top of their world is the competitor who is very good at what he or she does and can make enough money to offset at least part of their expenses. Not very many can make their total income from the sport. Probably the top fifteen, who make it to the year end national finals, are making a living from the sport, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the tenth through fifteenth position holder are just breaking even. It's a hard way to make a living and seems to be mostly a young mans game. All though there have been a lot of improvements in the past ten years in the amount of prize money and help the rodeo cowboy can get nowadays.
Feed lot cowboys work at a feed lot where cattle are fattened with grains and concentrates, to be butchered for beef. Their duties run the gamut of all the work involved with the handling and care of these animals. Feeding, doctoring, and the general health and welfare of the animal. Most of the work involved would revolve around the checking for sick cattle and doctoring sick stock or doctoring to prevent sickness. Their duties might include the manual work of loading and unloading stock to be shipped to the packing plant and the fresh cattle coming into the lot. Most would use a horse as much as possible as an efficient way to get the work done, but would tend to ride in pens and lanes of the feed lot. Some lots would have pastures and the cowboys would ride on and care for the cattle in these pasturtes also.
Ranch cowboys do basically the same work as feed lot cowboys, but in a much larger environment. A ranch could be looked at as a very large feed lot, where grass is the main forage. The ranch cowboy doesn't have to spend as much time putting feed out, but more time making sure the livestock are getting the proper nutrition and are healthy. The cowboy would still do all or most of the vaccinations and processing as at the feed lot, but under different circumstances. A feed lot cowboy, would immunize the fresh cattle coming into the lot and the cattle would be mostly yearlings or weaned calves. The ranch cowboy would be dealing mostly with cow/calf pairs and immunizing the new, baby calves at branding time and again perhaps, before the calves were weaned and/or shipped to the feed lot or auction barn. The mother cows would be given their yearly immunizations either in the spring and/or the fall at shipping time. The feed lot cowboy, if he found a critter who was in need of doctoring, would be more apt to move said critter to a chute and restrain the animal there to doctor it, whereas a ranch cowboy would be more apt to rope and restrain the sick animal with his rope and horse, to administer vaccine and drugs. Basic same job, but on a different scale. Both would do the job as efficiently as possible.
The drugstore or wann'a be cowboy would have little or no understanding of any of the above and would be very hard pressed to be of any help in any given situation where a real cowboy would "make a hand". Real cowboys are who and what they are because they endeavor to be good at what they do and take pride in the work they do. Most don't do it just for the wage, as there are lots of ways to make more money with a lot less risk to life and limb. Most cowboys are not very impressed with those who represent themselves as something they are not. Cowboying as a way to make a living, is not a place for pretenders. So much of what a cowboy has to do in his/her day to day work involves large and sometimes dangerous animals and situations where a cowboy has to trust that the person he/she is working alongside, is who they say they are and capable of doing the work necessary to protect themselves and those around them. Learning the trade in any of the afore mentioned types of cowboys, involves long hours spent studying and working at the craft. To my knowledge, there are no cowboy colleges that give a paper to hang on the wall to prove that someone has passed all courses required, and graduated with top honors, and is qualified to go out and be an asset to a company or the workers around them. As with most skill involved professions, a good cowboy is always working to improve their skills, so as to improve his/her ability to get a job done as efficiently as possible.
So if we know what or who a cowboy is, why would anyone want to be called or mistaken for one? The glamorization of the lifestyle by Hollywood and sometimes the press, has probably been the reason most people want to imitate and idealize the cowboy. A cowboys work involves working out in all kinds of weather, with animals who very seldom show any appreciation for what the person is trying to do, to improve the animals comfort or welfare. Most times the cowboy is far away from most creature comforts and has to forgo his/her comfort for the benefit of the livestock. Wages are low for the skills required and many dedicate a life to the work involved, only to end up poor in worldly goods, old, worn out and unappreciated by the general public. A cowboy dedicates his/her life, and takes pride in the work they do to help provide beef to a world where he/she is misunderstood, pitied, glamorized, idealized, cussed and exalted. Sometimes all in the same day!

:shock: :lol:
Excellent post. I guess my definition of a cowboy is along the same line as Baxter Black's definition--" a guy who can replace a uterine prolapse in a 4 section pasture with nothing but a horse and a rope. "
JB.....the hubby has been called "cowboy" since he was still in diapers by all who know him...born and raised on this ranch....running cattle, driving tractor, pounding fence posts, digging ditches, picking rock, building corrals, fixin fence, haying, etc. etc. etc!!! However, we recently lost a ranch "hand" who we hired because he thought he was "cowboy material"...the guy use to be a rodeo bull-rider and thought that's all it took to be a "hand".....turns out he was seriously WRONG!!! takes alot more to be a REAL cowboy/ranch-hand/rancher than just a pair of wrangler jeans, a big hat and a pair of Justin ropers!!!
Faster horses said:
Oh, and ranchwife, don't forget the spurs. Those kind think the bigger the spurs the better the cowboy!! I hate them guthooks! YUK!

Amen....100% agreement, here!! the hubby wears his "spurs" when moving cows, but his are simple rounded "nubbins" that are small and make more of a jingling sound that anything....he would never wear anything that could do harm to his mustang!!!
ranchwife said:
Faster horses said:
Oh, and ranchwife, don't forget the spurs. Those kind think the bigger the spurs the better the cowboy!! I hate them guthooks! YUK!

Amen....100% agreement, here!! the hubby wears his "spurs" when moving cows, but his are simple rounded "nubbins" that are small and make more of a jingling sound that anything....he would never wear anything that could do harm to his mustang!!!

I have a pair I have never wore them My new horse is quite a firecracker I would'nt dare sink spurs on him unless I wanted to get piled.He has plenty of power would'nt want to turn him up a notch. :wink:
Interesting point, Denny.

You know, spurs were really meant to lift a horse up, to help him in his turns. Not necessarily to make him go faster. Old vaqueros said, " the spurs to make a horse to buck, the bat (whip) to make the horse go faster." I think they were alluding to the fact that a whip flattens a horse out, a spur makes them raise up. A spur used correctly, the way I have come to understand it, is rolled up their side, not gouged in their ribs.

When you think about it, what do they use on race horses? Interesting, huh? And what do they use on saddle broncs? Never thought about that til now.
Faster Horses;

Guess I wouldn't make it around some of you as my new spurs have about 2 and 1/2 inch rowels.

I don't know as I've ever "stuck" a horse with a pair and don't wear them unless they are needed.

I can get a lot more refined feel to my horse by pin pointing where I touch and I do mean touch, him. I've seen people abuse horses with the heels of their boots and clubs also. And yes, spurs are used to lift and elevate the stride. And if you don't know what you are doing you may just elavate the stride a whole lot more than you want!

The bigger the rowels, the more surface area, so a big set of rowels is usually less painful than a small rowel, but all in good sense. And no, mine don't have extremely sharp points either.

Kind'a like spade bits. Those who don't know how they are to be properly used think they are cruel and meant to punish a horse. Exactly the opposite! I've got a friend who grew up in California and was raised in the old "Californio" tradition. He rides a "chileano" spade bit on his trained bridle horses and you can hardly see his hands move when he asks a horse to collect. And man, is he and his horses shiney! I've never seen him abuse or misuse a horse. He's just spent a lot of time on training and learning.

Each to their own.

I've seen people who didn't know any better, cuss lots of good methods of doing, lots of different things. Most just have never been around good hands who have training and ability!
Believe me, JB, I have had the fortune of being around some of the best horsemen in the country. That, my friend, is why I know you speak the truth in your above post.

I don't know of one person in Montana that is capable of riding a horse with a spade bit. I see people do it, but it is ugly. If you know someone, that would be one person that is capable. Those guys take years to get the horse to be a true bridle horse. A horse has to pack his head parallel in order for the spade to work correctly. It is a 'signal bit' and you are correct in that the hands barely move. It is my understanding that they put a thin string on the rings to connect the reins to the bit, and if the string breaks, they are too heavy-handed. Using a spade bit is an art. The California horseman still can paint the picture, but there are very few left, IMO. It takes a lot of time and dedication, something that is a rare commodity in our times.

I have seen people try to ride with spade bits and then even tie the horse up with a spade bit. One guy tied his horse to some panels, the panels fell down and the startled horse drug the panels a ways. His mouth was a bloody mess. I mean blood was running out of his mouth, his tongue was cut, etc. There is a big responsibilty in using a spade bit. Personally, I think they are better hung on the wall and talked about. Except in the hands of a horsemen like you mentioned.

As for spurs, you are right about dull and sharp. Had a good horseman that gave clinics in Australia tell this story: There was some people from England attending his clinics, and I guess the English don't take direction very well. At least this one woman refused to listen. She would not ride with spurs and had bumped and bothered her horse with her bare-heeled boots till he was numb and dead-bellied. He just tuned her out and wouldn't do much of anything. The fustrated instructor just could not get this woman to ride with and learn to use spurs. Finally, in desperation, he had her dismount. He then went and got a tomato and a table knife. He told the woman to slice the tomato with the table knife. Of course, she couldn't and soon she had a bunch of mush in her hand. He then told her that was what her horses brain looked like.

Then he gave her a sharp knife and another tomato and told her to slice the tomato, which she did. He then pointed out that in order to do a job, you must have the right tools. His point was well-taken and she learned to ride with spurs. She and the horse both progressed nicely.

So don't take it personal, my remark about spurs. I really think you know what I meant. Right?
Jinglebob it looks like Lousiana does you alot of good. Those are pretty proper posts.

You know I agree with you on the spur subject. I'd rather ride without a bridle than without spurs. It's all about using the right tools for the right job.

As for being a cowboy..... You're not a cowboy until a cowboy calls you one. I will be judged by jury of my peers.

Glad you're back,Pard.

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