Not all cowboys are built alike. From California Vaqueros to Texas cowboys to natural horsemanship practitioners, Kristen Kovatch explains that there are a hundred little variations between regions in America alone.
Should you ever find yourself in Oklahoma City, do yourself a favor and stop in at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Home to 12 permanent collections and galleries, it’s easy to spend a full day wandering around, admiring the art and poring over every exhibit (there’s a room devoted entirely to the various types of barbed wire—something like 200 different varieties. There’s also a model western town, where my students and I pretended to be wax figures for a few moments.) When I got the chance to visit the museum with some of my high school equestrians back in June, after pretending to be wax figures in the model Western town, I spent a long time looking at the different kinds of cowboy.
A cowboy isn’t just a cowboy, as it turns out. There are a hundred little variations between regions just in America alone. In the gallery itself, I wandered from the Florida cowboy to the Texas cowboy, the Rocky Mountain cowboy, the California vaquero, the Southwest cowboy, black and Indian variations and even the Hawaiian paniolo. I learned that there IS a reason to tuck your pants into your boots (although when anyone other than the Southwest cowboy attempts to do this, the rest of us have permission to laugh at them.)
The history of the American cowboy is as rich and detailed as the history of the west itself—really, the two can hardly be unwound from each other. The distinct regional differences I mentioned earlier aside, most sources seem to agree on two main categories of cowboy—California and Texas.
Vaquero-style horsemanship is still practiced today, preserved in the traditions of reined cowhorse with the bosal hackamore, romel reins and ported spoon curb bit. The California vaqueros rode in the Spanish horsemanship traditions with highly-trained and extraordinarily responsive horses—the predecessors to today’s finely-tuned reining horses. Because of the terrain and topography of the vaquero’s home turf, cattle could be raised in the hacienda style with a centrally-located ranch and the cattle grazing on the range around it. Therefore, the vaqueros worked around a single location, often for generations, spending their entire lives on the hacienda and raising their families there.
Vaquero attire would look like a costume in today’s world: wide and flat-brimmed hats, short jackets, pants with a flare and bright buttons, vividly-colored shirts. Notably absent are cowboy boots—instead, the vaqueros wore a specialized kind of shoe which could still take a pair of rowel spurs. The spurs not only added precision to the vaquero’s leg aids, able to send a horse whipping around in a rollback to stop and turn a cow, but also to show his social status as a man who spent most of his time riding rather than walking. The vaquero was respected in his society as having a skilled job.
The Texas-style cowboy, on the other hand, was viewed as a lower-class member of society, often the place a man would go when he had no other options. Rather than operating out of a central ranch as the California vaquero, the Texas cowboy was hired by an outfit to drive cattle north from Texas and other parts of the south and southwest to the railroad towns on the Great Plains. These cowboys had a certain vagrancy, constantly on the move and making the trail their home. Many of the “old west” traditions we still celebrate today come from the Texas cowboy and the trail-drive lifestyle: chuck wagons, cowboy songs, the image of the cowboy as a lonely soul with no place to call his own.
The horsemanship style migrated from the east and south with a more workmanlike approach, designed for riding long hours and many miles. In appearance, the Texas cowboys of the frontier would blend right in on today’s working ranches, clad in work shirts, straw hats, chaps or chinks, jeans and boots. The tools of the trade are the same as well—a firearm for defending stock from wild animals, a solid working saddle and of course a rope or lariat.
In recent years, “natural horsemanship” has moved into the spotlight internationally as a method for starting young horses and helping mature horses, emphasizing working with the horse’s natural instincts free from violent and abusive “horse breaking” practices. Many of the leading names in natural horsemanship—Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman—hail from California and the Northwest, having been raised in the vaquero tradition but blending their approach and style with Texas cowboy horsemanship. Their approach to horses, their riding, training methods and even dress has become a style all its own; these horseman are on their way to being recognized as a particular “breed” of cowboy.
Ultimately, all cowboys have the same goals in mind—stewarding their cattle, developing the horse as a useful tool and partner on the job, putting the animals first, whether your hat brim is folded or flat.
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian, Take the Reins, and most recently Ranch & Reata.