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Myths of the Working Cowboy: No Skills Required

While researching the Texas ranching industry, I’ve uncovered some interesting information based on assumptions of the ranching lifestyle and the work of the American cowboy. One historian referred to the cow hands of the great cattle driving era as “glorified cow walkers” because “cows are dumb” and they generally move in the same direction that everybody else is moving. I would like to argue that notion. The cowpunchers who moved 27 million head up the trail between 1856 and 1896 had skill; amazing skills and it continues today.

UP THE TRAIL

Let’s remove the dumb cow element for a moment and talk about the man and his horse. Around about April or May, saddle your horse in central Texas and ride it all the way to the railway station in Dodge City, Kansas. Along the way you can eat and sleep on the ground. Plus there’s swollen rivers, wind, lightening, rain, hail storms, and then there’s hostile cattle rustlers. If you’re spotted, the Native Americans will require a cow or two as you pass through their land. But wait, you don’t have any cows with you. Better stay low and stay out of sight.

Count on seeing some of the most amazing scenery as you cross the American plains. Once you reach the cow-town, you can take your first hot bath in several months, or enjoy a whiskey, if you so desire. You might hook up with an outfit and continue on to Montana. Before you reach points north though, dress warm. You may have to survive an early snowstorm or two. When you get to the end of the trail, you need a buyer for your horse, because he’ll be smoked. And then you’ll need  a train ticket back to Texas.

A Texas Panhandle Sunset.

If you feel up to it come next spring, you can saddle up and ride back to Dodge City, but let’s throw in a couple thousand head of wild Longhorn cows. And this time before you leave, you’ll have to gather the herd, brand the new additions, and make the bulls into steers before you go up the trail. And just because you care about your horse, you’ll need to take a string of at least six well-trained, cowey mounts. In that group, a couple will need to be night horses. They have to be sure-footed with sharp vision because you’ll have to do a two-hour shift of riding night herd every night. There are no days off in the cattle business.

Looking for an exit. Sanford Ranch, Texas Panhandle.

COWBOY HAVE SKILLS

It took about ten to fifteen men to drive several thousand head of wild Longhorns to rail-heads north. The trail boss would assemble a crew of experienced cow hands. They could ride, rope, and anticipate a cow’s next move. When all heck broke loose in the middle of the night from a lightening storm, every man’s life depended on the skills of the other.

“In the excitement of a stampede a man was not himself, and his horse was not the horse of yesterday. Man and horse were one, and the combination accomplished feats that would be utterly impossible under ordinary circumstances.”

CHARLES GOODNIGHT

Sure, most outfits included youthful riders with a yearning for adventure, but by trails end they emerged as experienced cowhands. You have to admire these men back then. The majority of my research includes first-hand accounts and from what I’ve read, they really loved what they did. Their pay was around $30 to $40 per month. The dangers, the thrills, and a love of spending day after day in the saddle kept calling them back to the open range. The work was back-breaking and dangerous, but when everything went smooth there was no other life they wanted.

The crew pushes red Angus cattle through the gate at headquarters. Sanford Ranch, Texas Panhandle.

Cowboys working cattle rely on much of the same skills today. Moving a herd from one pasture to another is best done by a group of men on a horse. In modern times it’s still the least chaotic and most efficient way to get the job done. Roping a calf, dragging it to the branding fire, and flanking, which lays him on the ground, is the same method that has been done for over 150 years.  He gets an ear tag and vaccine against black leg. A hot-iron brand on a cow hide remains the most efficient and humane way to lay claim of ownership to livestock. The men who provide this service are amazingly skilled and proficient, just as they were generations before. (Read my blog post about the Mexican Vequero.)

I’m working on a new book, and as my research leads me through centuries of the ranching industry, I will be sharing the history, the dangers, and the stories with you here on my blog, Prairie Purview. The more I learn about the cattle driving era, the more I’m amazed at how similar the work done so many years ago is very similar to what we do today.

Even now, 150 years later, we continue to rely on a skilled cowboy riding a horse.

“There were many hardships and dangers, of course, that called on all a man had of endurance and bravery; but when all went well there was no other life so pleasant.”

CHARLES GOODNIGHT

Goodnight quotes came from the book, CHARLES GOODNIGHT: Cowman and Plainsman by J. Evetts Haley (University of Oklahoma Press, 1936)

All photos by N. Bright.

Natalie Bright is an author, blogger, and speaker. Her stories and articles have appeared in numerous publications and book anthologies, and she is the author of the TROUBLE IN TEXAS Series, adventure books for kids set in the Texas frontier, Ages 8-10. She also has a series of easy readers based on true stories about rescue horses. She is currently working on a book about the great cattle driving era which will feature archival photos and authentic chuck wagon recipes. The book is scheduled for publication in 2020.