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Cowboys, Rodeos, and Trail Drive Training

Updated on December 9, 2018
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish is successful at employment & training, with regional records of tens of thousands placed and retained in gainful employment.

Working Cowgirl in Action
Working Cowgirl in Action | Source

21st Century Cowhands

Cowboys and cowgirls are still active in the USA, - one reason that Americans still wear 10-gallon cowboy hats in Olympic Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies. They will likely do so again in the Vancouver Winter Olympics of 2010.

America is not the only country that supports working cowhands, though. Friends and I visited British Columbia and one wore a cowboy hat. Passersby asked him if he was from Alberta, a Canadian province known for cowboys and their hats.

Argentina also has cowboys. Cowboys and cowgirls likely work in many countries south of the US and all over Country Music as a genre. This is evidenced - in attire, at any rate - at the Country Music Awards each year.

The history of cowboys in America may be different than most people think. In a then-new traveling presentation at the Ohio Historical Society in 1995, we learned that the first cowboys in America were likely African American. They worked even before the Civil War, escaping early slavery to live with various Native American Nations and to work with bison and then cattle.

After slavery was abolished, some freemen became tenant farmers, some moved East, and some moved West to become cowhands on trail drives and ranches. Mel Brooks parodies this situation in a famous film featuring Don Cheadle: Blazing Saddles.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, 1899.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, 1899. | Source
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Branding steers.Cowboys of the 19th century.
Branding steers.
Branding steers.
Cowboys of the 19th century.
Cowboys of the 19th century. | Source

What is a Cowhand - Boy or Girl?

Briefly, a cowhand is a person that helps take care of cattle. A cowboy is one that performs this work in North America (including Florida and Hawaii) by some definitions, but South American cowboys certainly exist. Australian cowboys work very hard at their trade as well, even in a different hemisphere. Cowgirls are often rodeo participants or singers associated with rodeos. However, women and teen girls are active in the US on cattle ranches and as horse trainers and riders in Western Style.

Many historians believe that the concept of the job known as "cowboy" as a cattle herder came from Northern Mexico in the 1800s. The job called "wrangler" involves working the cattle drive horses, and "breaking" and training new horses to the team. Cowboys and wranglers work on working cattle ranches, on cattle drives, on dude ranches, in rodeos, and in film and on TV as actors and consultants.

Cowgirls have done the same work as cowboys, starting about the same time, in the pioneering spirit of the women that helped settle the West when whites first moved in to former Native American lands. Not as much documentation exists about the cowgirls as the cowboys, and the original cowboys were Mexican - and in the US territories, black.

Stepping back another distance, Native Americans handled bison herds in North America before the whites and Southern Hemisphere Natives learned to handle horses after their introduction by the Spanish. However, it was Mexican, whites and African Americans that were first called cowboys.

Film and TV cowboy Roy Rogers on TV Show "This Is Your Life."
Film and TV cowboy Roy Rogers on TV Show "This Is Your Life."

The Cowboy Humor of Will Rogers

Will Rogers, great American humorist and writer, was part cowboy and part Cherokee. He entertained audiences with provocative thoughts such as these:

If you're riding' ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it's still there.

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Will Rogers before 1900
Will Rogers before 1900

It don't take a genius to spot a goat in a flock of sheep.

— Will Rogers

Cowboy Training Today

Training on working cattle ranches today takes the shape of OJT (on the job training), sometimes after college graduation with a degree in business, farming/ranching, ranch management, agriculture, animal science or a related subject.

As another Hubber has mentioned, the candidate really does need to know how to ride and train a horse, usually needs to own his/her own gear and tack, and may even need to own a horse. Regardless, cowhand and ranch hand training take a lot of physical work and physical fitness is of primary importance to this work.

There is a difference between work and exercise. In fact, without exercise, strenuous physical work will only break down your body. The work won't build it up.

Anyone that does physical work would benefit from a physical fitness program, along with an effective diet, proper nutrition, and relaxation in addition to adequate sleep. For example, construction workers could benefit from stretching before and after the work day and from a regular regimen of exercise in order to prevent injuries and to increase productivity.

Japanese business encourages and even require exercise form workers and the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s demonstrated that required exercise and relaxation markedly reduced both employees' industrial injuries and off-duty driving accidents (Ohio Bureau of Worker's Compensation, Rehabilitation Division, Andrew Hinkle, PhD, 1986).

Working with cattle and horses requires physical fitness and it should be a part of the life of every cowboy long-term.

A modern cattle drive in 2005.
A modern cattle drive in 2005.

Additional Training Programs

One commercial cowboy school is Bob King's Cowboy School, Inc. Class size is small and prices are expensive, up to $5,000 for 4 weeks. Montana Cowboy School is similarly priced.

Training on a ranch for 2 or 3 days is available at Cowboy John's Tours in Nevada and no prices are listed onsite, but an inquiry may be made. All of these types of programs are in the nature of vacation activities and self improvement courses. Pictures of participants often depict retirees.

Typical Job Description in a Cowboy Want Ad

  • 60 hours per week, education not specified.
  • Competitive compensation package; possible housing.
  • Ranch needs experienced employee for diversified cattle/farming operation.
  • Duties: riding pens and pastures, processing cattle, reparing fences.
  • Excellent horsemanship skills are required, must have own tack.
  • Prefer strong cattle health and herd health skills.

Typical Ranch Hand Ad

  • 40+ hours per week, $18,000 per year (2018).
  • Break colts, rope & doctor yearlings, calve out heifers, feed cattle and horses, fix fences,
  • Should have skills in auto mechanics, welding, woodcutting, etc.
  • House/utilities provided, with insurance for hand and family.
  • Not interested in drifters or alcoholics.
  • Need someone who is serious about what they do long-term.

On, I found that a Bison Ranch Manager in Alberta can make $60,000 - $100,000 a year with an advanced degree and 15 years' experience.



Ranch Management Training

Top Six Ranch Management Training in the US

  1. King Ranch Institute, associated with Texas A & M University.
  2. Texas Christian University
  3. Otero Junior College - La Junta, Colorado:
  4. Dawson Community College - Glendive, Montana:
  5. Northland Community and Technical College - Thief River Falls, Minnesota:
  6. Iowa State University:

Old West Trail Culture

Cowboy Poetry

Cowboy poetry is a well received genre of literature and the spoken word, but it is becoming more popular with the media coverage afforded by the Internet and Cable TV.We formerly heard such things only on the late night talk shows, but now it's everywhere.

Yearly contests are awarding increasingly larger prizes that are perused by cowboy and cowgirl poets across the nation and all of North America.Several US States also hold their one state or regional contests.

Some interesting links that explain the genre and offer good examples are given below.

The video below presents a real American cowgirl poet, Ms. Georgie Sicking.

The film below is of poet Georgie Sicking at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

The video below is of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where Oscar Auker recites Larry McWhorter's "Cowboy Count Your Blessings."

Cowgirls in the Golden Age of Comic Books.
Cowgirls in the Golden Age of Comic Books.


  • Broussard, A. S.; Searles, M. N. Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, Behind the Badge; 2016. University of Oklahoma Press.
  • McConnell, M. M. "Mary Fields's Road to Freedom" in Black Cowboys in the American West, On the Range, On the Stage, Behind the Badge. University of Oklahoma Press; p. 156; 2016.

© 2009 Patty Inglish MS


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