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Modern Working Cowboys

See also: Ranch

Cattle drive in New MexicoOn the ranch, the cowboy is responsible for feeding the livestock, branding and earmarking cattle (horses also are branded on many ranches), plus tending to animal injuries and other needs.  The working cowboy usually is in charge of a small group or "string" of horses and is required to routinely patrol the rangeland in all weather conditions checking for damaged fences, evidence of predation, water problems, and any other issue of concern.

They also move the livestock to different pasture locations, or herd them into corrals and onto trucks for transport. In addition, cowboys may do many other jobs, depending on the size of the "outfit" or ranch, the terrain, and the number of livestock. On a smaller ranch with fewer cowboys—often just family members, cowboys are generalists who perform many all-around tasks; they repair fences, maintain ranch equipment, and perform other odd jobs. On a very large ranch (a "big outfit"), with many employees, cowboys are able to specialize on tasks solely related to cattle and horses.  Cowboys who train horses often specialize in this task only, and some may "Break" or train young horses for more than one ranch.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics collects no figures for cowboys, so the exact number of working cowboys is unknown. Cowboys are included in the 2003 category, Support activities for animal production, which totals 9,730 workers averaging $19,340 per annum. In addition to cowboys working on ranches, in stockyards, and as staff or competitors at rodeos, the category includes farmhands working with other types of livestock (sheep, goats, hogs, chickens, etc.). Of those 9,730 workers, 3,290 are listed in the subcategory of Spectator sports which includes rodeos, circuses, and theaters needing livestock handlers.

Attire
Most cowboy attire, sometimes termed Western wear, grew out of practical need and the environment in which the cowboy worked.  Most items were adapted from the Mexican vaqueros, though sources from other cultures, including American Indians and Mountain Men contributed.

  • Cowboy hat; high crowned hat with a wide brim to protect from sun, overhanging brush, and the elements. There are many styles, initially influenced by John B. Stetson's Boss of the plains, which was designed in response to the climatic conditions of the West.

  • Bandanna; a large cotton neckerchief that had a myriad of uses from mopping up sweat to masking the face from dust storms. In modern times, is now more likely to be a silk neckscarf for decoration and warmth.

  • Cowboy boots; a boot with a high top to protect the lower legs, pointed toes to help guide the foot into the stirrup, and high heels to keep the foot from slipping through the stirrup while working in the saddle; with or without detachable spurs.

  • Chaps (usually pronounced "shaps") or chinks protect the rider's legs while on horseback, especially riding through heavy brush or during rough work with livestock.

  • Jeans or other sturdy, close-fitting trousers made of canvas or denim, designed to protect the legs and prevent the trouser legs from snagging on brush, equipment or other hazards. Properly made cowboy jeans also have a smooth inside seam to prevent blistering the inner thigh and knee while on horseback.

  • Gloves, usually of deerskin or other leather that is soft and flexible for working purposes, yet provides protection when handling barbed wire, assorted tools or clearing native brush and vegetation.

Many of these items show marked regional variations. Parameters such as hat brim width, or chap length and material were adjusted to accommodate the various environmental conditions encountered by working cowboys.

Tools

  • Lariat; from the Spanish "la riata," meaning "the rope," sometimes called a lasso, especially in the East, or simply, a "rope". This is a tightly twisted stiff rope, originally of rawhide or leather, now often of nylon, made with a small loop at one end called a "hondo." When the rope is run through the hondo, it creates a loop that slides easily, tightens quickly and can be thrown to catch animals.

  • Spurs; metal devices attached to the heel of the boot, featuring a small metal shank, usually with a small serrated wheel attached, used to allow the rider to provide a stronger (or sometimes, more precise) leg cue to the horse.

  • Firearms: Modern cowboys often have access to a rifle, used to protect the livestock from predation by wild animals, more often carried inside a pickup truck than on horseback, though rifle scabbards are manufactured, and allow a rifle to be carried on a saddle. A pistol is more often carried when on horseback. The modern ranch hand often uses a .22 caliber "varmit" rifle for modern ranch hazards, such as rattlesnakes, coyotes, and rabid skunks. In areas near wilderness, a ranch cowboy may carry a higher-caliber rifle to fend off larger predators such as mountain lions. In contrast, the cowboy of the 1880s usually carried a heavy caliber revolver such as the single action .44-40 or .45 Colt Peacemaker (the civilian version of the 1872 Single Action Army). The working cowboy of the 1880s rarely carried a long arm, as they could get in the way when working cattle, plus they added extra weight. However, many cowboys owned rifles, and often used them for market hunting in the off season.  Though many models were used, Cowboys who were part-time market hunters preferred rifles that could take the widely available .45-70 "Government" ammunition, such as certain Sharps, Remington, Springfield models, as well as the Winchester 1876.[84] However, by far the single most popular long arms were the lever-action repeating Winchesters, particularly lighter models such as the Model 1873 chambered for the same .44/40 ammunition as the Colt, allowing the cowboy to carry only one kind of ammunition.

  • Knife; cowboys have traditionally favored some form of pocket knife, specifically the folding cattle knife or stock knife. The knife has multiple blades, usually including a leather punch and a "sheepsfoot" blade.

  • Other weapons; while the modern American cowboy came to existence after the invention of gunpowder, cattle herders of earlier times were sometimes equipped with heavy polearms, bows or lances.

Horses
The traditional means of transport for the cowboy, even in the modern era, is by horseback. Horses can travel over terrain that vehicles cannot access. Horses, along with mules and burros, also serve as pack animals. The most important horse on the ranch is the everyday working ranch horse that can perform a wide variety of tasks; horses trained to specialize exclusively in one set of skills such as roping or cutting are very rarely used on ranches. Because the rider often needs to keep one hand free while working cattle, the horse must neck rein and have good cow sense—it must instinctively know how to anticipate and react to cattle.

A good stock horse is on the small side, generally under 15.2 hands (62 inches) tall at the withers and often under 1000 pounds, with a short back, sturdy legs and strong muscling, particularly in the hindquarters. While a steer roping horse may need to be larger and weigh more in order to hold a heavy adult cow, bull or steer on a rope, a smaller, quick horse is needed for herding activities such as cutting or calf roping. The horse has to be intelligent, calm under pressure and have a certain degree of 'cow sense" -- the ability to anticipate the movement and behavior of cattle.

Many breeds of horse make good stock horses, but the most common today in North America is the American Quarter Horse, which is a horse breed developed primarily in Texas from a combination of Thoroughbred bloodstock crossed on horses of Mustang and other Iberian horse ancestry, with influences from the Arabian horse and horses developed on the east coast, such as the Morgan horse and now-extinct breeds such as the Chickasaw and Virginia Quarter-Miler.

Horse equipment or tack
Main article: Horse tack
Equipment used to ride a horse is referred to as tack and includes:

  • Western saddle; a saddle specially designed to allow horse and rider to work for many hours and to provide security to the rider in rough terrain or when moving quickly in response to the behavior of the livestock being herded. A western saddle has a deep seat with high pommel and cantle that provides a secure seat. Deep, wide stirrups provide comfort and security for the foot. A strong, wide saddle tree of wood, covered in rawhide (or made of a modern synthetic material) distributes the weight of the rider across a greater area of the horse's back, reducing the pounds carried per square inch and allowing the horse to be ridden longer without harm. A horn sits low in front of the rider, to which a lariat can be snubbed, and assorted dee rings and leather "saddle strings" allow additional equipment to be tied to the saddle.

  • Saddle blanket; a blanket or pad is required under the Western saddle to provide comfort and protection for the horse.

  • Saddle bags (leather or nylon) can be mounted to the saddle, behind the cantle, to carry various sundry items and extra supplies. Additional bags may be attached to the front or the saddle.

  • Bridle; a Western bridle usually has a curb bit and long split reins to control the horse in many different situations. Generally the bridle is open-faced, without a noseband, unless the horse is ridden with a tiedown. Young ranch horses learning basic tasks usually are ridden in a jointed, loose-ring snaffle bit, often with a running martingale. In some areas, especially where the "California" style of the vaquero or buckaroo tradition is still strong, young horses are often seen in a bosal style hackamore.

  • Martingales of various types are seen on horses that are in training or have behavior problems.

Vehicles
The most common motorized vehicle driven in modern ranch work is the pickup truck. Sturdy and roomy, with a high ground clearance, and often four-wheel drive capability, it has an open box, called a "bed," and can haul supplies from town or over rough trails on the ranch. It is used to pull stock trailers transporting cattle and livestock from one area to another and to market. With a horse trailer attached, it carries horses to distant areas where they may be needed.

Motorcycles are sometimes used instead of horses for some tasks, but the most common smaller vehicle is the four-wheeler. It will carry a single cowboy quickly around the ranch for small chores. In areas with heavy snowfall, snowmobiles are also common.  However, in spite of modern mechanization, there remain jobs, particularly those involving working cattle in rough terrain or in close quarters, that are best done by cowboys on horseback.

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More US History

History of the Old West
Frontier Begins
Settling the West
Before the Civil War
Civil War in the West
After the Civil War
Frontier Life
Frontier Warfare
American Cowboy
People of the Old West
 




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