What is cowboy?
by Jim Keyes, USU Extension Area Livestock Agent
Oct 14, 2010 | 1527 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As a very young man I was working on a cowboy crew in Wyoming that had nine men. The cowboss was a short, shriveled up little man that was 68 years old. He seemed ancient at that time, but with each passing year it doesn’t seem like he was quite so old. He had come up through the days when most all outfits still pulled a chuck wagon, and cowboys were really cowboys.

I was young, impressionable, and I hung on every word from the older men. I had a big, blue roan horse in my string that was your typical big outfit horse with a bad attitude. He had a number brand from his days with Cody Bill Smith’s bucking string, you had to tie up every foot when you put shoes on him, and every morning it was his turn to go you had better be screwed down tight when your butt hit the seat of your saddle.

One snowy morning, before any sign of light showed in the East, the crew saddled up and prepared to head out through the endless miles of sagebrush. It just happened to be old Blue’s turn that morning and I was puckered like a bad lemon. It was one of those times when I didn’t mind anyone having that second cup of coffee before we swung on.

When the cowboss finally stepped aboard and the rest of the crew followed suit, I cranked Blue’s head around and grabbed my stirrup. Just as I expected, he broke in two. Everything was a blur as I tried to pull his head up and get things under control. In the dark I remember going past the boss on his horse, and I remember him yelling to me. “Hang with him cowboy!”

Those words are forever etched on my mind. He actually called me “cowboy.” A man of his stature had used that word in reference to me! I couldn’t believe it. The rest of the day, as I peddled Blue behind an endless line of cows with brand new baby calves, I was on cloud nine. The boss had called me a cowboy.

Despite the fact that I had grown up with a father that had worked a horseback, and I was now making my living on the back of a horse, I had never thought of myself as a full-fledged cowboy.

In today’s world the word “cowboy” gets tossed around rather freely. I hear it used to describe everything from an out of control police officer to a spindly armed male model with a western hat on a TV reality show. What gives?

Who has the authority to bestow the title of cowboy?

No one in particular… it has to be earned. To those who live in the horse and cattle culture, the title of cowboy is something that has to be worked for. No one would ever dare bestow the title upon one’s self. I once heard a top hand answer when asked if he was a real cowboy, “I’ll do until one comes along.” I have always admired that statement.

It certainly can’t be achieved by purchasing a western hat and a pair of boots. If you ever pick up one of those “western” magazines that publish pictures from the latest poetry gathering, socialite activity, or fundraiser, you’ll see what I mean. You might see photos of folks with expensive, custom made hats and long flowing neck rags, but missing are the sun-creased faces and rough cracked hands that come from a life in the out of doors.

I can put on Los Angeles Laker’s warm-up suit, but that doesn’t make me an NBA player. If anyone were to toss me a basketball it would become readily apparent that I was not the real thing.

I once had a female friend from Pennsylvania. She came West in the 1970’s to go to college. She commented to me once about an individual who was dressed in western attire and telling big windies at the bar. I told her that the man was not really a cowboy. She could not understand why he would pretend to be one when he wasn’t. I told her that the West was full of those kind of guys.

But why? I have never pretended to be an astronaut or a jet pilot, not even to impress those of the female persuasion. I have, however, pretended to be deathly ill when my wife has wanted me to attend some kind of social function.

In reality, what is a cowboy? My definition of a cowboy is someone who works on horseback taking care of cattle. I would also add that the person needs to be able handle a horse well enough to get the job done, and also be able to handle a rope. To me, a rope is an indispensable tool of the trade, just like a good horse.

I attended a grave side service for an old fellow who had spent a lifetime in the rough country chasing cattle a horseback. The man who was speaking at the service, an old cowhand himself, said, “Melvin knew what it was like to be cold and hungry, and how to stay with a job until it was done. He was a cowboy.”

When someone who has paid their dues uses the title “cowboy” it is a term of the utmost respect. It is a term not to be taken lightly.

Along those same lines, I hear people talking about the Code of the West. In fact I hear that Wall Street workers now have an outline of the “Code” to help them be more successful. I know those folks like to have lists that they check off to make sure they are accomplishing something, but I think the code can be summed up by just one phrase, “Treat everyone like you would like to be treated yourself.” It is not fancy, it just is.

I have never worked anyplace that I couldn’t leave a silver bit or a pair of Garcia spurs hanging on the wall and have to worry about them not being there the next day. In camp there is no way to lock up your personal belongings, but no one would ever think about touching somebody else’s property without asking. If you do break the code you don’t last long.

People in the ranching industry don’t need a manual to tell them what the code of the west is. They live it every day. Ranching families look for opportunities to help their neighbor. They’re at their best when things get tough because they live on the edge. I heard a rancher say that going to Las Vegas is recreation, ranching is true gambling.
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