Pat Gallagher, the man behind the pen name Greg Mitchell and a long time writer of BHWs helps dispel the myths surrounding the role of the cowboy in the Old West….


The popular image of a cowboy is someone riding quietly beside a herd of cattle but that is only a small part of the overall picture and the work looks deceptively easy. It would have started several hours before, usually a little before sunrise. One man would have risen before the rest, and taking a horse, kept in for the purpose, would ride out to collect the remuda and bring the horses into a large corral. If all went well he would meet his co-workers who were dressed and ready when the cook rang the breakfast bell.
The food would vary slightly depending upon the cook and what was available but bacon, beans, biscuits and coffee made up a major part of breakfast fare. When all hands were assembled, the rancher, or his foreman would allocate tasks for the day.
Let us assume that the ranch is a fairly large one covering fifty square miles. Its boundaries are fenced and there is some internal fencing with a workforce of about six cowboys plus a cook and maybe a retired cowhand for odd jobs around the ranch house.
The cowboys collect their saddles and head for the horse corral. Certain horses are allocated to certain riders depending upon the horse’s training and the rider’s ability. The cowhands change mounts regularly.

Horses are roped and saddled by their riders. Some might be fresh after a long spell and a bit of high-spirited bucking could be expected. There could be a few rogues too among horses in regular work. Some of these have learned that riders can be thrown and they will work for hours until the rider appears to have forgotten about their tricks. Then they suddenly break out in a flurry of bucking. Some riders might have horses fresh from the breaker. These have only initial training and require patient handling from a rider who will educate them rather than fight them.  A good cowboy was always a good horseman. A bad one spoiled horses and once this was known, he would not be  given good riding stock, if he was employed at all.

They were mostly young and single and prepared to take risks in a game where even the most avid thrill-seeker would be satisfied. The risk of injury was high and those who passed about thirty years of age began to temper their youthful enthusiasm with a bit of caution. Not all enjoyed bronco busting and sometimes the work was contracted out to professionals.
Necessary skills were learned on the job. Skill with a lariat (a rope used as a lasso or for tethering) was essential and horses too had to be trained to do their part. Many cowboys learned to shoe their own horses, do basic leatherwork and treat some injuries to stock. Veterinarians were scarce in the Old West and experienced cowhands could perform minor surgery on horses and cattle. Packing animals and driving teams of horses or mules were skills that most acquired. All could read brands and ear marks and could judge the general conditions of the animals they worked with, built corrals and did repairs to buildings, windmills and fences. Ranches also killed their own beef [in theory anyway] so cowboys became proficient slaughter men.
So that is the background of the working cowboy. Next we will follow our crew out onto the range for a bit of cattle work.

Cowboys did not spend every day working with cattle but that was their main task. Sometimes stock had to be moved to new pastures or collected for tasks like calf branding or gathering steers to be sent for sale. Sometimes specific animals like steers or calves to be branded had to be cut from the main herd. This could be done on the open range or the stock could be worked through corrals.

When heading out for cattle work, the cowboy of the Wild West era needed important tools, namely a horse, a saddle, a rope and a gun. Without a horse, he would be unable to catch the wild cattle that fled at the sight of a man. The horse was as much a working partner as his human comrades and teamwork with a willing horse made the job more enjoyable.

A good saddle was important; it needed to be comfortable for the horse and secure for the rider. It required strongly built girth rigging to withstand the strains placed on it by bucking horses or big cattle hitting the end of the cowboy’s lariat. Not all saddles were alike and what fitted one man might have been uncomfortable for another. A good saddle cost more than a month’s pay but it was money well-spent.
The lariat could be twisted or plaited rawhide or strong hemp. It needed a bit of weight and a degree of stiffness to ensure that it opened out as it was thrown. Cowboys did not rope every cow they met but calves had to be roped at branding time and fully-grown stock sometimes needed to be roped and thrown for treatment or inspection. A good roper could rope as required around the head, the horns, or even the feet. As the rope tightened, the cowboy took a turn around the saddle horn to take the strain when the galloping cow hit the end of the rope. This was known as `dallying’ and riders needed to beware of losing any fingers, caught as the rope pulled tight. Some `hard and fast’ ropers tied the rope’s end to the saddle horn and were prepared to risk being tied to an angry cow if things went wrong.

Cowboys trained their horses to sit back against the pull of the rope and even with the rider dismounted, the animal would step back to keep the rope tight. Good roping horses were highly prized, as were specialist cutting horses. The latter were agile and intelligent and were used to separate stock from herds. They seemed able to anticipate the movements of the selected animals and by speedy footwork, positioned themselves in such a manner as to herd the cow away from the bunch. The horse kept its eye on the cow and blocked its every attempt to regain the herd. Its high-speed stops and turns would quickly unload an inferior or careless rider.

Cowboys were not gunmen although some thought they were when suitably lubricated during rare visits to town after being paid.. Their six-shooters were not used regularly but there were times when a gun was needed and rifles were not always convenient to carry on horseback. Even in a proper scabbard, a rifle could unbalance the saddle and prolonged carrying, unless very carefully balanced, could result in a sore-backed horse.

A heavy-calibre revolver, from .38 to .45 usually met a cowboy’s needs for close-range work and a belt holster kept it close at hand. It was needed for putting down injured stock and even a noise-maker when trying to turn stampeding cattle. It was also a deterrent to predators both two and four-legged. Away from the towns, the Old West had plenty of both varieties. There were bears, wolves and mountain lions. Some old wild bulls were also shot to allow better breeds to flourish. Coyotes, foxes and skunks were dangerous because of Rabies and when rabid had been known to attack humans. There were also snakes that could be encountered around  camp sites. But most dangerous of all were roving Indian war parties or white outlaws who preyed upon people in isolated places. Sometimes too, range wars erupted between various factions and the cowboy was expected to fight for the brand that employed him
The average cowboy had little time to practice revolver shooting and ammunition, when metallic cartridges came into general use, was expensive. Bullet moulds, caps, a couple of basic tools and powder were available for those who reloaded their own ammunition and saved the empty shells but rimfire empties could not be reloaded. In some cases ranch owners provided ammunition for the men but could not cater for all the revolver types that were available.

The cowboy wore his gun fairly high on the hip where it did not get in the way and would not fall from the holster when mounting or dismounting from a horse. Holsters did not need to be tied down, and as many wore chaps, such arrangements would not be practical. Although the fictional cowboy might wear two guns and have another hideout weapon somewhere else on his person, the real cowboy was a working man who did not want himself or his horse to be cluttered up with unnecessary hardware. There was a fair bit of weight in a holstered gun and a full bullet belt.

It should be remembered though, that the cowboy was not the only character in the Old West who carried a sidearm. Lawmen,soldiers, scouts, packers, freighters,coach drivers, travellers, gamblers, farmers and many town businessmen also carried guns of various types.

A further look at them might be useful. as authors frequently use the wrong sort of gun for the job at hand or a weapon that was not invented at the time of the narrative.

5 comments on “The Role of the Cowboy in the Old West”

  1. Neil Wyatt says:

    An interesting read, thanks.

  2. Paul Bonneau says:

    Can you tell me why, in movies and paintings, riders are always carrying a rope even when not working cattle or horses?

    • mollie says:

      It’s an essential tool to their trade: a tool they’d never be without. The rope/lariat served many purposes and wasn’t just used for roping. You might be interested to read this article

  3. Gaby Pratt says:

    Helpful read and thanks for the heads-up about guns.

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