America’s first cowboys came from Mexico. Beginning in the 1500’s, vaqueros – the Spanish term for ‘cowboy’ – were hired by ranchers to drive and tend to livestock. During the early 1800’s, American settlers took their cues from the vaquero culture, borrowing clothing styles and vocabulary, as well as learning how to drive their cattle in the same way. Ultimately, the American cowboy developed a style and reputation all their own.
Typically, cowboys wear hats with wide brims to protect them from the unforgiving sun. Cattle kick up clouds of dust, so the cowboy may wrap a bandana over the lower half of his face. Chaps (pronounced ‘shaps’), or leggings, and cowboy boots are worn as protection from brush and rocky terrain.
The tack and equipment used by American cowboys varies by region. The Western saddle is versatile and used for ranch work, pleasure riding and competition. Other tack cowboys use include the bridle and bit, reins and a lariat, or rope. When living on a ranch, cowboys share a bunkhouse.
American cowboys usually ride the versatile American Quarter Horse. With quick, agile movements, powerful hindquarters, natural instinct for cattle and an intelligent, calm demeanor, the American Quarter Horse is an ideal partner for the cowboy. The breed is well-suited for western riding, cattle work, reining, cutting and rodeo competitions.
Cowboys were often referred to as ‘cowpokes,’ ‘buckaroos,’ ‘cowhands’ and ‘cowpunchers.’ Workdays are long and laborious for cowboys, and much of their time is spent on a horse. Rodeos originated from highlighting some of the working cowboys’ everyday responsibilities. While rodeos have become a source of entertainment for many, they still stem from a practical place in the life of a cowboy. Roping calves in the wide-open pastures, wrestling a steer that is on the move and riding broncs (untrained horses) are just a few of the cowboy tasks that are simulated in rodeo events. There are many regions in the United States where cowboys live off the land, care for their animals and enjoy an evening at the rodeo to show off their skills.
Over the years, the number of working cowboys has declined, but the occupation isn’t obsolete. The cowboy lifestyle and culture is still found all across the United States and has spread around the world. Cowboys continue to help run large ranches, and the American cowboy is still a symbol of persistence, self-sufficiency and a hard work ethic.