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Western Cowboys: Past and Present

Updated on August 21, 2015

There are few symbols of the American west as iconic and enduring as the Western cowboy… the word alone often brings to mind images of hardy, hard-working men on horseback, driving herds of cattle across land that few others would dare to tread. Even today, in this world of technology and convenience, the Western cowboy still stands out as a symbol of days gone by and the world that used to be. This doesn’t mean that the American cowboy hasn’t changed with the times, however.

In order to understand exactly how the cowboy has remained the same and how he has changed, it’s important to step back for a moment and take a look at where the cowboy came from. From the traditions of the Old West and the requirements of the job, you can see how the Western cowboy made his way from a simple hired hand to a true American icon. You can also discover the changes that have been made in the cowboy’s lifestyle in the 21st century, as well as those aspects of the American cowboy that will always remain the same.

Western Cowboys

Defining the Western Cowboy Tradition

The tradition of the cowboy didn’t actually begin in the American west… the origins can be traced back farther than that to the haciendas of Spain in the Middle Ages. The ranching system became quite popular, spreading across Spain and into Portugal; it was only natural that the herding techniques used by the Spanish would come with them as the conquistadors moved across North America and into what is now Mexico.

More important than just their herding techniques, however, is the fact that the Spanish brought horses to North America. The horse breeds that had been native to the North American continent had gone extinct during the last ice age, and the new breeds that were introduced thrived in their new environment.

As more settlers began to move into the areas which now make up Mexico, Texas, and the southwestern United States, the English and Hispanic cultures of the area began to merge. The vaqueros, who had developed from the Spanish herding traditions, were the predecessors of the American cowboy; as their techniques combined with aspects of English culture, the Western cowboys of American legend were born.

Of course, there were several different cowboy traditions that existed in the Old West… the Texas tradition was that of the migrant cowboy worker, hiring out to different ranches as he was needed, while the California tradition was that of a highly-skilled worker who worked for a single ranch. Other traditions, such as the Florida cowboy, also existed; these were distinct from the Texas and California cowboys in the fact that they did not use lassos to control the cattle that they managed.

Cowboy c1888

The End of the Open Range

As trains became more prevalent in the later years of the 19th century, the work of cowboys largely became unnecessary. Instead of having to hire several cowboys to move their herds from the ranch to market, cattle owners could needed only to get the cows to a train depot where they could be loaded into cars and shipped anywhere that the train would go. Barbed wire began to fence off the pasture lands in order to prevent overgrazing, and while it prevented mass starvation like many cattle owners had to deal with in the winter of 1886 it also meant that the days of the open range were over. While some small cattle drives still continued until after World War I, there were no longer any major drives such as those which are most commonly associated with the mythology of the Western cowboy.

Even as the reality of the old west cowboy was coming to a close, the legend of the Western cowboys were reaching new heights. With the popularity of motion pictures on the rise, a variety of western movies showed the daring exploits of larger-than-life cowboys to young and old alike. Though the films did little to depict the reality of working on a ranch and riding along the trail on a cattle drive, they did serve to cement the image of the cowboy as a symbol of all that was good and just into the American mindset and ensured that the romantic vision of the lone Western cowboy would never be forgotten.

Western Cowboys today

The 21st Century Western Cowboy

Just because the open range ended didn’t mean that there was no longer any need for Western cowboys, of course; cowboys still work at cattle ranches and fill a variety of roles. Modern cowboys are responsible for taking care of livestock and making sure that the cattle are fed, in addition to tending to injured animals and branding or earmarking the cattle. They also serve a maintenance role, patrolling fences and checking for any damaged areas that are in need of repair. On ranches that have multiple areas of pasture land, it is also the cowboys’ responsibility to move all of the cattle from one pasture to another in order to keep them from overgrazing in one area.

The specific jobs assigned to cowboys will vary depending upon the size of the ranch and the number of cowboys which are employed there. When staffing size allows, many cowboys will specialize in certain activities and deal with specific animals. On smaller ranches, they cowboys will be responsible for a wider variety of activities and often are required to maintain a heavier workload. Depending on the size of the ranch, many of the cowboys working with the livestock and performing maintenance on fences and equipment may actually be relatives of the ranch owner.


Similarities Between Western Cowboys Then and Now

Obviously, there are a number of similarities between the Western cowboys of old and those who are still working with cattle today. Modern Western cowboys still use horses when moving herds and patrolling fences, as the horses are much less likely to spook the cattle than if they were to use motorized equipment. Other equipment used by modern cowboys such as the lariats that are used to catch and hold cows which aren’t moving with the herd has also been passed down from the days of the original Spanish vaqueros.

Another similarity between modern Western cowboys and those of the old west is that they still maintain a form of solidarity created largely by the amount of work that their job requires. While many people consider the cowboy to be a classic “loner” character who simply doesn’t want to have connections with those around him, the truth of the matter is that between the long hours spent performing his duties and the amount of time that he must spend alone or with other cowboys patrolling fences and moving cattle the cowboy simply doesn’t have much time to be sociable.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Western cowboys don’t enjoy the company of others; much like the cowboys of old, modern cowboys aren’t afraid to let their hair down and have a good time when the opportunity presents itself. It may seem odd to some people who hold the romantic Hollywood image of the cowboy close to their heart, but cowboys of days gone by were just as likely to let loose and enjoy themselves when they were off of work as any modern-day cowboys who might head into town in order to relax after a long day at the ranch.

Differences Between Then and Now

With all of the changes that have happened in the world since the glory days of the Western cowboy, it would be foolish to assume that there weren’t any changes in the lives of these American icons. Modern Western cowboys often make use of advanced technologies in the marking and tracking of cattle, and generally carry a cellular phone or at least a walkie-talkie in case the main ranch needs to get in touch with them. Though they often treat injured animals within their abilities, they are also just as likely to contact a local veterinarian should they determine that the situation calls for it. Though it may seem as though the cowboy is a man out of time, he makes sure that any necessary contacts with the world beyond the ranch are close at hand if needed.

Another big change between the classic cowboy and the modern Western cowboy is the prevalence of the rodeo cowboy. Many people today may not even realize that there are still cowboys working with livestock on ranches, as the image of the modern cowboy that’s most often brought to mind is that of bullriders and trick horse riders who travel rodeo circuits. Though many of the spectacles of the rodeo are similar to the Wild West shows that were popular during the late 19th century, those shows were designed to play upon the fiction and legends of the time and reflected little if any of the actual life of cowboys. Modern rodeo cowboys are even further removed from the cowboys of old; instead of being hard-working ranch hands who perform a wide variety of services, rodeo cowboys are sportsmen who work hard at their sport for the entertainment of their fans. These consummate showmen face real danger when riding in the rodeo, but the danger is far removed from that of the old Western cowboy moving cattle across the open range.

Cowboy and his horse

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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I'm doing a project on cowboys, and I used this website as a source.

      Thanks Hub!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      you should have more differences

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      You should consider including a bibliography. It would be very useful. I'm writing a research paper about cowboys (modern and old) and I bet some of the sources you looked at were very useful. If I could I would just cite your website half the time but we're suppose to have a variety of sources we refer to.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      very good hub

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Brook, I think you are right in some things but wrong in others. There are still a lot of working cowboys using horses these days. Matter-of-fact, there are quite a few ranchers that do still use horses because they don't want to leave cowboy traditions behind. Smart cowboys do not but cheap stuff because they do not want to have problems our in the pasture. They might not buy the prettiest boots but they are going to buy good boots. Same with the hat, jeans, shirts, saddles, bridles, reins, etc. It has to last!

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      9 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      Well researched. In Australia we do have cowboys and cowgirls but we call them Jackaroos and Jillaroos.

    • P Morgan profile image

      P Morgan 

      9 years ago

      COwboy and cowygirl fan, too. Wow, you have a lot of neat HUbs - -great work therre!

    • cowgirl3678 profile image


      10 years ago

      Very informational blog! I found some informational books at the Fort along with some of the old west clothing. If anyone is interested, I saw they have an old west shop.

    • Brook Winters profile image

      Brook Winters 

      10 years ago

      Interesting information. However, clothing styles are different. Ranchers (men who work with horses) typically are the ones who dress up with the boots and the spurs and the hats and the chaps and everything. A modern day cowbody who works on fence lines and every day cattle (calving and feeding) usually wear boots, wranglers, a flannel or plaid country shirt and a trucker hat. Real cowboys know how much a nice hat coats, as well as boots and since they are outside getting dirty everyday, they want to wear cheaper clothes. They save the hat for a nice occation. Now, ranchers wear the hats and all the extra garments because it's for show. Modern day cowboys don't use horses for rounding up cattle anymore. They still do it out by wyoming/montana/colorado area because they have miles of open land to tend to. But generally, we rely on ATVs and trucks to herd cattle. Horses are really just for show now days. It's a recreation and not a need. sure, you'll find that one cocky cowboy that has to wear the hat because it's a symobol of something he doesn't understand, but the big boys just laugh at him. The clothes don't make the man :) that's the midwest for ya.

    • ElitePoetz profile image


      11 years ago from Right Near the Beach

      Thanks for the link.. Your hub is awesome.. lots of content, very informational... great job.


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