This article is about the cowboys and cowgirls of the Americas; for other uses see Cowboy (disambiguation) or Cowgirl (disambiguation).

A cowboy (Spanish vaquero) tends cattle and horses on cattle ranches in North and South America. The cowboy in charge of the horses, however, is the wrangler. In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work in and participate in rodeos, and many cowboys work only in the rodeo.

Cowgirls, are similarly employed, although most cowgirls are involved in rodeos and entertainment rather than hired as ranch hands.

American cowboy circa
American cowboy circa 1887


The Spanish were adept at herding livestock. During the 16th century, they brought the tradition with them to the New World. In the early 1800s, first Spain and then Mexico began offering empressario grants in what would become Texas to Americans who agreed to become citizens and convert to Catholicism. Following Texas independence in 1836 even more Americans immigrated into Texas and to the empressario ranching areas. Here they absorbed the Mexican vaquero culture, borrowing vocabulary and attire from their counterparts.

The buckaroo, also a cowboy of the vaquero tradition, developed in California and bordering territories during the Spanish Colonial period. Buckaroo is the anglicized pronunciation of vaquero and is still a common term in the Great Basin and many areas of California and the Pacific Northwest. Following the Civil War, their culture diffused eastward and northward combining with the earlier cowboy tradition that was following the cattle trails out of Texas northward and westward. Sharing the same base, their traditions became indistinguishable with a few regional differences still remaining.

Over time, the cowboys of the American West developed a culture of their own, a blend of frontier and Victorian values. Such hazardous work in isolated conditions bred a tradition of self-dependence and individualism, exemplified in their songs and poetry.

By the 1890s, the open ranges of the Indian Territory were gone and the large cattle drives from Texas to the railheads in Kansas were over. Smaller cattle drives continued at least into the 1940s, with Arizona cattle driven to the railhead at Magdalena, New Mexico. Meanwhile, ranches multiplied all over the developing West, keeping cowboy employment high, if somewhat more settled.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Western movies popularized the cowboy lifestyle but also formed persistent stereotypes. In pop culture, the cowboy and the gunslinger are often associated with one another.

Much has been written about the racial mix of the cowboys in the West, but cowboys ranked low in the social structure of the period and there are no firm figures. The Cattle on a Thousand Hills by John Ambulo in the March 1887 issue of The Overland Monthly states that cowboys are "... of two classes—those recruited from Texas and other States on the eastern slope; and Mexicans, from the south-western region. ...". Census records bear that out. The cowboy occupation undoubtably appealed to the freedmen following the Civil War. It is estimated that about 15% of all cowboys were of African ancestry—ranging from about 25% on the trail drives out of Texas, to very few on the northern ranges. Similarly, cowboys of Mexican descent also averaged about 15%, but were more common in Texas and the southwest. American Indians also found employment as cowboys early in the history of the West. Many of the early vaqueros were Indians trained to work for the Spanish missions in caring for the mission herds. Following the dissolution of the reservation system around 1900, many of the Indian trade schools also taught ranching skills to Indian youth.

American Indian youths learning to brand cattle at the Seger Indian Industrial School near Colony—on the old Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation in Oklahoma Territory, ca. 1900.
American Indian youths learning to brand cattle at the Seger Indian Industrial School near Colony—on the old Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation in Oklahoma Territory, ca. 1900.


The Hawaiian cowboy, the paniolo, has as rich a history and tradition as the mainland cowboy. As with the cowboy, the paniolo learned their skills from Mexican vaqueros. Kamehameha III brought these vaqueros over from California in 1832 to teach the Hawaiians how to handle their cattle. At that time California was still part of Mexico and Hawaii was known as the Sandwich Islands.

Cowboys of other nations

In addition to the Mexican vaquero, the North American cowboy, and the Hawaiian paniolo, the Spanish also exported their horsemanship and knowledge of cattle ranching to the gaucho of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and (with the spelling "gaúcho") southern Brazil, the llanero of Venezuela, the huaso of Chile, and, indirectly through the Americans, to Australia. In Australia, which has a large ranch (station) culture, cowboys are known as jackaroos and cowgirls as jillaroos.

Working cowboys

On the ranch, the cowboy is responsible for feeding the livestock, branding or marking cattle and horses, and tending to their injuries or other needs. They also move the livestock to market. In addition, cowboys repair fences, maintain ranch equipment, and perform other odd jobs around the ranch. These jobs vary depending on the size of the ranch, the terrain, and the number of livestock. On larger ranches, or on those with lots of cattle, a cowboys may specialize in one task or another. On smaller ranches with fewer cowboys—often just family members—the cowboy tends to be a generalist employed in many tasks.

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 in rodeos, the category includes farm hands working with other types of livestock (sheep, goats, hogs, chickens, etc.). Of those 9,730 workers, 3,290 of them are listed in the subcategory of Spectator sports which includes rodeos, circuses, and theaters needing livestock handlers.


Most cowboy dress, thought of as Western wear, grew out of the environment in which the cowboy worked. Many of the items were adapted from the Mexican vaqueros.

  • Cowboy hat; a hat with a wide brim to protect from the sun and the elements; there are many styles, probably influenced by both the Mexican sombrero and US (and Confederate) Cavalry hats.
  • Cowboy boot; 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.
  • Jeans, or other sturdy tight-fitting pants; heavy pants designed to protect the legs and snug fitting to prevent the pants legs from snagging on brush, corral equipment, and other hazards.


  • Chaps; guards worn to protect the legs when riding through heavy brush or during rough work with the livestock.
  • Lariat; a tightly twisted stiff rope with a loop at one end enabling it to be thrown to catch animals (sometimes called a lasso, especially in the East).
  • Spurs; a tool designed to help a rider communicate with the horse when the hands are busy or when it is too noisy for oral commands.
  • Rifle; a weapon needed to protect the livestock from predation by wild animals. Occasionally cowboys will carry a pistol when not physically working cattle, especially in brushy areas.
  • Cow dog; many people, including cowboys, find a herding dog invaluable in locating and controlling livestock.

Cow pony

There is no substitute for the horse on a large ranch. It travels where vehicles cannot. Horses, along with mules and burros, also serve a pack animals. The most important horse on the ranch is the cutting horse. Because the rider is busy working while riding, the horse must neck rein and have good cow sense—it must instinctively know how to anticipate and react to cattle.


  • Western Saddle; a saddle with specially designed for working with cattle; it has stirrups to allow the rider to stand or resist the pull of livestock while working, a horn so the lariat can be snubbed, tiedowns to provide secure mountings for any additional equipment needed for work on the ranch, and various other modifications.
  • Saddle blanket; a blanket or pad is required under the Western saddle to provide comfort and protection for the horse.
  • Bridle; a Westen bridle usually has a curb bit and long split reins to control the horse in many different situations.
  • Saddle bags; a bag which can be mounted to the saddle for carrying various sundry items and extra supplies.


The most common vehicle driven in ranch work is the pickup truck. Sturdy and roomy, with a high ground clearance, it can haul ranch supplies from town and still handle 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, 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.

Rodeo cowboys

In the beginning there was no difference between the working cowboy and the rodeo cowboy, and in fact, the term working cowboy did not come into use until the 1950s. Prior to that it was assumed that all cowboys were working cowboys. The early cowboys worked on the ranches and displayed their skills at the roundups. The word rodeo is from the Spanish rodear (to turn), which means roundup.

The advent of professional rodeos allowed cowboys, like many athletes, to earn a living by performing their skills before an audience. The rodeos also provided employment for the many working cowboys needed to handle the livestock. Many rodeo cowboys are also working cowboys and most have working cowboy experience.

The dress of the rodeo cowboy is not much different than that of the working cowboy on his way to town. What is known as the cowboy shirt however, coming from the early movie industry, was adapted especially for the rodeo. Snaps, used in lieu of buttons, allowed the cowboy to escape from a shirt snagged by the horns of steer or bull.


Although cowgirls share much with the cowboy, their history is somewhat different. There is no record of any girls or women driving cattle up the cattle trails of the Old West. Although many undoubtedly helped on the ranches, and in many cases ran them, few routinely dressed in the clothing suitable for working cattle from horseback.

Charles Goodnight, however, did invent a side-saddle following the Civil War that allowed women to comfortably ride horses while fashionably dressed. The West was too vast for walking and too rough for carriages and buggies in many places. The traditional charras of Mexico ride such side-saddles today while exhibiting superb horsemanship in charreadas on both sides of the border.

It wasn't until the advent of the Wild West shows that cowgirls came into their own. Their riding, expert marksmanship, and trick roping entertained audiences around the world. By 1900, skirts split for riding came into design, freeing women to compete with the men in many events. In the movies that followed they expanded their roles in the popular culture and movie designers developed attractive clothing suitable for riding Western saddles.

The growth of the rodeo brought about another type of cowgirl—the rodeo cowgirl. In the early Wild West shows and rodeos, women competed in all events, sometimes with the men. That changed after 1925 when Eastern promoters started staging indoor rodeos in places like Madison Square Garden. Women were generally excluded from the men's events and the women's events dropped. In today's rodeos, cowgirls compete mostly in the timed riding events such as barrel racing, and most professional rodeos do not offer as many women's events as men's events. Cowgirls seldom compete in the men’s events once they reach adulthood although several do compete in all events in high-school and college rodeos. Outside of the rodeo, cowgirls also compete in Western Pleasure Riding, Reining, and Endurance Riding competitions.

Today's cowgirls have adapted cowboy clothing and riding techniques to suit their own needs. Seldom does today's cowgirl ride sidesaddle. A cowgirl may wear either a skirt cut so as to allow her to sit in the saddle, or jeans. If working on the ranch, where they perform most of the same chores as cowboys (and are seldom referred to as cowgirls), they generally dress to suit the situation.

Popular Culture

The long history of the West in popular culture tends to define those wearing Western clothing as cowboys or cowgirls whether they have ever been on a horse or not. This is especially true when applied to entertainers and those in the public arena who don Western wear as part of their persona. Many people, however, particularly in the West, wear Western clothing as a matter of form and think of themselves as lawyers, bankers, etc.—even those raised on ranches do not consider themselves cowboys or cowgirls unless so occupied.

In art and culture

See also


Further reading

  • Beck, Warren A., Haase, Ynez D.; Historical Atlas of the American West. University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 1989. ISBN 0-8061-2193-9
  • Nicholson, Jon. Cowboys: A Vanishing World. Macmillan, 2001. ISBN 0-333-90208-4
  • Phillips, Charles; Axlerod, Alan; editor. The Encyclopedia of the American West. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-02-897495-2
  • Slatta, Richard W. The Cowboy Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, California, 1994. ISBN 0-87436-738-7

External references

External links

de:Cowboy ia:Vacchero nl:Cowboy pl:Kowboj pt:Cowboy sv:Cowboy fr:Cow-boy


  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools