What is a Cowboy? Types of Cowboys

Gene Autry, the ultimate singing cowboy. Image copyright radioarchives.org
Gene Autry, the ultimate singing cowboy. Image copyright radioarchives.org

So you're a fan of the Great American West? In a modern era where cowboys are relics of days gone by, the cowboy mystique lingers pervasively throughout American culture. Cowboys have an appeal and a romance that give them a legendary, even iconic status in the culture and myth of the United States.

Hollywood reinforces this stereotype. Over the years, dozens, if not hundreds of television shows, movies, and even TV commercials have iconized the American cowboy. Cowboys continue to be the subject of western fiction, its own genre. Cowboys are also immortalized in Western Art, that is, the Art of the American West. This artistic sub-genre focuses on cowboys, Indians, and western themes, and pays its cowboy artists handsomely.

I have been collecting cowboys of late. I don't mean a physical collection of cowboys. Though that would be fun too. The collection I'm speaking of is a bit more ephemeral than that. Funny isn't it? You don't usually pair the words ephemeral and cowboy together like that! There are many different varieties and flavors of cowboys that feed into the cowboy mystique. So just for fun, let's explore these different types of cowboys, real and fictional.

The Noble Working Cowboy

The working cowboy actually works with cows. The herd or drive cattle to market, and make a hard living off the land. The working cowboy is usually depicted as sleeping outside, under the stars, with his head on his bedroll and his boots nearby. His life is difficult and full of jeopardy, but he is a noble figure. The working cowboy has been the subject of western fiction since the prototypical novel of this genre was published. The Virginian by Owen Wister depicts a noble working cowboy who is the hero and protector of his isolated community in the wilderness. Modern fictional pieces often include the working cowboy as a main character. Kent Haruf, in his novels Plainsong and Eventide describe working cowboys who live lonely lives in Holt Colorado, but these ranchers/cowboys live for their work and love the land.

Wranglers are working cowboys who specialize in working with horses. Greenhorns or tenderfoots are new to working on the ranch and are often the butt of many jokes.

Plenty of real people are actual working cowboys. Mary Cooper Hammill, an artist who won a prestigious award at an art show of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, is first a rancher, and then an artist. She makes a living raising livestock on her working ranch in Arizona. Many other cowboy artists follow this same pattern, though certainly many more are merely dudes.

The Vaquero

The Vaquero is a working cowboy of hispanic or Mexican descent. Vaquero is the Spanish name for cowboy. Vaqueros wore distinctive chaps (pronounced Shaps), often made from sheep's wool, and uniquely decorated spurs. In his book Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtrey explores the two-sided relationship of the American working cowboys to the vaqueros. In his novel, the main characters respect the old vaquero's work, but are deeply suspicious of his motives. The historical photos of vaqueros from the early nineteenth century depict tough men who are proud to embrace a different heritage than the American cowboys of the same era, while sharing a deep love for the rough terrain of the southwest.

The Gunfighter

The gunfighter comes from the same breed of men as the cowboy, but his motivations are entirely different. Both types are wanderers, without a tether to family or ties to a settled hometown. Working cowboys are made rough and tough by a hard life working with cattle and horses, driving them across difficult terrain. Gunfighters are hardened by a life that is ruled by the quickness of the draw and the accuracy of aim. Gunfighters can be found all over the west, on both sides of the law. Sometimes they are soldiers of fortune, and sometimes they are card sharps. Other times they find their calling in law enforcement. Their skill with a gun is the key to their survival and success. Many of the categories of cowboys are also skilled gunfighters, but the cowboy who is a gunfighter first and foremost is a most dangerous breed. Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood often played gunfighter characters.

Historical figures who were gunfighters include Doc Holiday, a gambler who was a friend of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Arizona. Doc Holiday was a gambler in poor health, but he was quick to the draw. Despite his poor physical health he was a dangerous and deadly foe, because his reflexes were so quick.

The Outlaw

The outlaw wasn't a type of cowboy per se, but like the gunfighter, he shares a common heritage. And what would a cowboy be without a few outlaws around. Rustlers, or cattle thieves, are a common outlaw of the old west, but not the only types. 

Lawlessness is one of the catchwords of the old west, and outlaws thrived there. Outlaws found easy prey in poorly-policed territories, and could hide from the law easily for weeks or even months in remote canyons and other hideaways. Some outlaws masqueraded as Native Americans and preyed upon stage coaches and other people on the move. The blame was easily cast upon the Indians.

It is easy to name famous outlaws. Billy the Kid, the Gatling Brothers, and Butch Cassidy are just a few. 

The Caballero

Caballero is a Spanish term that literally means knight, and refers to knights of the middle ages. Caballeros are gentleman cowboys, and are often wealthy enough to pay attendants and a staff to assist them with the care of their horses and cooking while on the trail. Cabelloros are nobility of cowboy kind.

Zorro is a famous caballero of TV and movie fame. He is a swash-buckling swordsman and a gentleman in every sense of the word.

In Wickenburg, Arizona, the locally famous DC Ride is a by-invitation-only event, and its sponsor is the DC Riders, which stands for the Desert Caballeros Riders. The trail ride is over 40 years old, and takes the riders (almost exclusively wealthy older men) on a three-day catered trail ride into the Arizona back country. The riders hire grooms to care for their horses and have a really good time relaxing after a long day in the saddle. A similar woman's ride, sponsored by Las Damas (the women) has a similar feel. Being a dude myself, I was never invited to go. (boo hoo!)

City Slickers starring Billy Crystal is about a bunch of dudes.
City Slickers starring Billy Crystal is about a bunch of dudes.

The Dude

A dude is a weekender who is interested in playing at being a cowboy and then going home. Dudes are tourists experiencing the thrill of the west. Dudes can experience the west by visiting dude ranches, also renamed Guest Ranches, for people who want to have an experience that is completely other than their own urban lifestyle. At a dude ranch, people are paid to do the work of ranch hands, then are put up in a sparsely furnished bunkhouse.

When I lived in Wickenburg, the dude ranch capital of the West, I readily admitted to being a dude myself. I knew I'd never pass as a real cowgirl. Trouble is, many people would love to be a cowgirl or cowboy, but just weren't born to it. So I guess I'm not alone.

Over the years, being a dude has come to have an ironic and humorous meaning. The very funny 1992 movie City Slickers depicts urbanites working on a guest ranch and stars Billy Crystal.

The Hollywood Cowboy

The Hollywood cowboy isn't a real cowboy, but he plays one on TV. All dressed up for the silver screen, he hasn't a misplaced hair on his head. He's a pretty boy and a character, usually with a catch phrase, a nickname, and half a dozen movies to his credit. John Wayne, "The Duke" is the most famous of them all. He's the big daddy of Hollywood cowboys. Hollywood cowboys come in different flavors, too. Look for a new hub soon about famous Hollywood cowboys.

The Loner

The Loner or Wanderer. A cowboy who lives alone and avoids the company of other men. He is a drifter. Without a tether to family or community, the wandering cowboy is viewed with great suspicion. Usually the loner nurses a troubled past, which he keeps heroically and tragically buried to protect the few people he gets close to. When the moment is right, the loner proves his worth as a hero, and is accepted into the community. At this point, the loner packs his bags and rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Clint Eastwood played many loners in his western roles, including one of my favorite cowboy movies, Pale Rider. Loners are often gunmen, and sometimes outlaws, but usually they are just deeply troubled.

Joe Beeler, Charlie Dye and others present at the founers meeting of the Cowboy Artists of America.
Joe Beeler, Charlie Dye and others present at the founers meeting of the Cowboy Artists of America.
L.H. Larsen, self-proclaimed dude artist.
L.H. Larsen, self-proclaimed dude artist.

The Cowboy Artist

The cowboy artist is a subcategory of cowboy that seems modern, but dates back to the mid and late nineteenth century. The cowboy artist is anyone who primarily chooses cowboys, Indians, the American West, or horses as the subject of their art work. Cowboy artists can also be singers and poets, too. Some cowboy artists are working cowmen (or women, as the case may be), who, being naturally inclined to work with their hands, have turned to some form of artistic expression.

A popular form for cowboy artists is sculpture. It is surprising how easily cowboys turn to this difficult craft. Many a cowboy artist has created spectacular works of art with little or no previous art experience. 

Cowboy art is a well-paid niche for artists who want to make a little money from their work, so the arena of western art is filled with dudes and wannabes like me (though I am a wannabe, I am unfortunately no artist). One of the most famous groups of cowboy artists was created by a group of artists who met at a Scottsdale bar and founded the Cowboy Artists of America (A men's only group, I might add.). The fact that a photographer was on hand to capture this important meeting says that it wasn't entirely the casual, impromptu decision that stories suggest.

An urban cowboy pictured in the British Telegraph newspaper.
An urban cowboy pictured in the British Telegraph newspaper.

The Urban Cowboy

The urban cowboy lives in the city and looks dang good in his cowboy hat and six-hundred dollar cowboy boots as he angles to a Manhatten bar for a straight up martini, no rocks. I thought the urban cowboy was a passing fad of the 1980s movie bearing the same name starring John Travolta. But after the movie Brokeback Mountain popularized cowboy culture in the gay and lesbian community, the London Telegraph reports a resurgence of urban cowboy style. I think the manicured fingernails and carefully messed up hair style give this urban cowboy away.

Urban cowboys don't even angle at being dudes. Their interest is in the look, not the lifestyle.

More by this Author


Comments 20 comments

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I remember as a kid in grade school my father would discuss with people how Tom Mix was a "real" cowboy, not like these singing cowboys such as Gene Autry. Later in life I learned that Autry had worked as a ranch hand and that Tom Mix was more of a "rodeo" cowboy. Excellent hub.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 7 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thank you very much dahoglund! Gene Autry was a real pretty boy, so it's easy to see why your father thought he was more of a dude. I think Tom Mix wins hands down between the two, just because he had the biggest hat of all the Hollywood cowboys!


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 7 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

Wonderful hub, wannabwestern. I'm sure you had a great time writing this one as it's right up your alley. City Slickers was a funny movie which I almost forgot about. If I had to choose one cowboy to be a fan of, it's Clint Eastwood, although Tombstone and the newer western 3:10 to Yuma were some of my favorites. I'm also a big fan of Cormac McCarthy novels, especially his Border Trilogy. Thanks!


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 7 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thank you dohn121. I like Clint Eastwood too, but I must say that my parents are his biggest fans. You are the second person to recommend the Cormac McCarthy novels, so now I will have to read them for certain!


cowgirl3678 profile image

cowgirl3678 7 years ago

This was an awesome blog!!! I was in a western store a while back and they had an old west store built inside of their store. I loved seeing all of the dresses and gun replicas! Makes you want to go back in time! if anyone wants to see, here's the link... http://www.fortwestern.com


The Rope profile image

The Rope 6 years ago from SE US

Having experienced the life of a "nobel working cowboy" by spending 3 weeks out on the range with 100 head of cattle, I can appreciate your collection. Congrats on a great hub! If you or anyone wants to see the story of my summer driving cattle across Wyoming, check out http://hubpages.com/travel/wyomingcattledrive


Dim Flaxenwick profile image

Dim Flaxenwick 6 years ago from Great Britain

I enjoyed every word of that. It's the 1st time today I've felt relaxed. Thank you for the therapy, you didn't know you were giving me.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks Dim, I'm so glad you enjoyed the western ride. I didn't know that I was giving therapy, but glad to help.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

Great hub! Don't we just love our cowboys of all stripes. Not to fond of the urban cowboy, though. It's just weird. I'd like to be a cowboy artist. Or cowgirl artist. I could paint pictures of cowboys, especially Clint Eastwood!


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Funny you should mention that about cowgirl artists, Delores. My husband worked at an art and history museum in Wickenburg that hosts an all cowGIRL artist show in March and April. If you are ever in western AZ in the spring, check out Cowgirl Up!. I bet you'd do a great job with your painting of Clint Eastwood, too. Cheers! Carolyn


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 6 years ago

Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott are among the most authentic Hollywood cowboys.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Randolph Scott was one I need to see. He sounds intriguing. The reviews say he matured into an actor who often played the "man who had seen it all." I'm going to have to check out some of his Zane Grey Movies now. Thanks for the heads up and the comment!


Michael Shane profile image

Michael Shane 6 years ago from Gadsden, Alabama

Very nice hub! What about the rodeo cowboys?


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks Michael Shane, I appreciate that. Yes, rodeo cowboys fit in their own niche too. I actually included one in my novella called Wash Hut. Rodeo cowboys are athletes and fortune seekers, some of them make a living this way. Others are ranch workers who want to prove themselves in the rodeo arena. Thanks for bringing them up.


Ghost32 6 years ago

With some fairly serious (not dude!) cowboy background of my own, I'd like to add another chunk of meat to this truly excellent hub. Here we go:

The rodeo cowboy comes from either the working ranch cowboy upbringing (as I did) or from catching "rodeo fever". In my day, most of us grew up working cattle and/or horses, and we usually held onto the bareback rigging, buck rein, or bull rope with our "off hand". That is, I'm right handed, so I rode left handed. If you're a working cowboy, that leaves your major hand free to throw a rope, snap a bullwhip, or handle a firearm.

Today, though I've no idea of the precise numbers, there are definitely more top riders--especially bull riders--out there on the circuit who did NOT come from an agriculture-based family but who possessed the drive and athleticism to take on the sport. In many cases, those riders will use their major hands since the concept of needing a "good hand" free to do other work doesn't even cross their minds.

I entered the fray a few years behind--but still competing with--Montana greats like John Reynolds, his World All Around Champion kid brother Benny Reynolds, World Champion Bull Rider Ronnie Rossen (deceased, killed by a bull at an Old Timers Rodeo in 1992--after he'd won first place with that ride), and others. Generational peers and sometimes traveling companions included top bronc riders Ross Loney and the unbelievably talented Shawn Davis.

But the cowboy that comes to mind more than any other is a gentleman who'd done it all before I was old enough to put on my own britches: Working cowboy, then Champion rodeo clown, and finally a movie great...Slim Pickens.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks Ghost for that fantastic comment. I will have to defer the cowboy expertise to you. You have it in spades. I never knew that about "handedness". Just goes to show what a strong bunch cowboys are.

I've been offline for quite awhile and back into the fray for now. Baby number four on the way and lots of hubbub here. Thanks for the fascinating comment. Hope many readers will stumble over into your arena! Regards!


wheelinallover profile image

wheelinallover 5 years ago from Central United States

I had no idea my life was so different until I read this hub. I have never been an urban cowboy, my experience with this subject was as a working cowpoke. I won't use the word cowboy as it was always cowboys VS Indians and my Indian heritage fights tooth and nail against that label.

In my youth the only thing I herded was horses. At this time neither hand was required on the reins. I had been riding the same horse for years and it needed no rein commands. It was usually neither or both in emergencies.

Later when herding cattle it was always the "weak" hand on the reins and the rope in the strong one. I never herded cattle while my legs worked, so had no choice other than use rein commands.

I had been wheelchair bound for four years when I started riding again. I didn't have my memory so shouldn't have known how to ride. It was just natural once I was in the saddle.

My first time herding cattle wasn't planned. A herd had taken over the yard, since I was the one who mowed, their little gifts in the yard were something I didn't want to deal with. I had the oldest girl saddle a horse and herded them far enough away they didn't come back. From then on when they wanted the cattle moved I was always part of the crew.


triciajean profile image

triciajean 4 years ago from Bantam, CT

A fun read. Voted up.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 4 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks triciajean, I appreciate that!


Mark Tulin profile image

Mark Tulin 21 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

Thanks for this well written hub. When I was a kid I wanted to be a gunslinger. Needless to say while living in Philly I didn't have that as a career option.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working