Reclaiming the Cowboy Way

Time constraints and mechanization can get in the way of horseback cowboying traditions. 

6941 512Photograph by Paul HomsyBy Tim O'Byrne

Ranch people, those who own cattle and have a horse or two, often say they'd love to spend more time cowboying their own cattle or maybe helping with their neighbors' herds when the opportunity arises. Such people want to use their horses more, work afoot in the corrals less, count on their roping skills, and work cattle in the open.

They want to cowboy. And they want those around them - family, friends and neighbors - to share the satisfaction of working cattle quietly, efficiently and from the back of a horse.

For horsemen, these reasonable requests are fundamental to healthy souls. The ability to use horses in harmony with the land and cattle, and the people we hold dear, is a liberty few are lucky enough to enjoy.

So, if cowboying is so important to them, why can't they make it happen? The answer is simple: They've lost touch with the Cowboy Way.

What Is It?

The Cowboy Way might be best described as several large volumes of information, mostly tried and tested procedure and methodology, that's accumulated through the years. The information's origin might be obscure at times, but the many contributors span centuries, oceans and cultures. The Cowboy Way is about recognizing right from wrong, and establishing relationships with live animals that depend on the cowboy for almost everything. Working horseback is a key part of this philosophy.

Getting back in touch with horseback cowboying involves considerable work. The first step: understanding why some traditional cowboy skills are on the endangered species list.

  1. Time constraints of today's beef industry. Ranch owners running cattle for revenue now find that the complexities in remaining competitive with today's beef industry eat up large portions of their days. All the little things – marketing calves, running to town for parts, irrigating the hay crop - cause daylight hours to evaporate quickly. The stress that comes with the turf can be brutal, and often there's not enough time left in the week to hang out with like-minded folks.
  2. Our fascination with timed events. Rodeo is great, and most of us revel in it. For competitive reasons the clock was introduced into roping events, creating a sense of urgency to complete the run. But any good cowboss will tell you that urgency for the sake of a quick time belongs in the arena, not with the herd. Forget the clock and concentrate on functioning to the best of your ability in a given situation.
  3. Mechanization and modernization. A drastic shift in the way ranches function occurred in the 1950s. Before the tractor arrived on the scene, workhorse teams filled stately red-board ranch barns dotting the countryside. We recovered from that, somewhat, and even learned to live with the introduction of trucks and horse trailers. But we never forgot that a ranch colt's mind and body benefit more from trotting miles than from trailering miles.

It's a New Day

When agricultural practices changed dramatically in the 20th century, fencing increased, and additional fences created a shift in traditional cowboying methods. Free-ranging cattle with one's neighbors became less common, and supervising company-owned cows' rotational grazing on company-owned land became more common. Spring and fall wagons started to disappear, and those that remained were fitted with rubber tires and ball hitches on the tongues, so they could be towed by the ranch pickup instead of a horse team. Trailering entire cowboy crews to worksite emerged at this point, forever changing the working cowboy's daily ritual.

Trailers and rubber-tired wagons didn't kill the Cowboy Way. In fact, they enhanced it. 

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Tags: Cowboy StyleThe Cowboy Way