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Cowboys at the roundup , the rounding up of the herds

A cowboy [ 'kaʊbɔɪ ] ( English literally: cow boy ) is the name commonly used in North America for a herdsman . In other regions of the New World they are called Gauchos ( Argentina , Paraguay , Uruguay ), Huasos ( Chile ), Charros ( Mexico ) or Vaqueiros ( Brazil ) or Vaqueros ( Venezuela ). In Australia they are called stockmen.

The prime time of the cowboys began after 1865, when huge, feral herds of cattle had to be rounded up in Texas , and ended around 1880. Up to a third of the drovers were African-Americans who were free from slavery after a constitutional amendment in 1865 , but without property or work . There were also cowboys of Mexican or Indian origin. There are still a few cowboys in North America today. However, the way of working has changed significantly as a result of the industrialization of agriculture. But modern ranchers and ranch employees also refer to themselves as cowboys and dress accordingly.

The everyday

Cowboy, South Dakota about 1888

The cowboy profession was one of the most difficult, especially in the 19th century, and it was associated with hard work and hardship. A cowboy was often in the saddle ten hours a day with few interruptions. All life in the open air took place on a cattle drive: people ate, slept and had needs outside. Often you couldn't get out of your clothes for weeks, which also posed hygienic challenges.

There were many dangers for the cowboys on the routes: Indians, cattle thieves or corrupt landowners who levied tariffs . The latter in particular escalated in the late 1870s when the "Willow Wars" broke out in Texas and New Mexico . The herds increased at the time, but the pasture area became scarce. During this time the cowboys became involved in shootings and skirmishes.

The trails became longer and longer as the herds were driven from the pasture directly to the slaughterhouses or loading stations. Centers and transshipment points were Abilene , Hays and Dodge City in Kansas at that time . If a trail was successfully completed, the cowboys were paid their wages and celebrated wildly in town. After weeks of deprivation, they usually went to a bathhouse, the clothes were cleaned or better clothes were brought with them especially for the occasion. Then the evenings were spent in saloons or brothels until the next trail started again.

An average herd of cattle consisted of 3,000 head of cattle. To tend such a herd, at least ten cowboys with three horses each were needed. The cowboys worked in shifts 24 hours a day. During the day they drove the herd in the desired direction, at night they guarded the herd to avoid stamping and theft.

The tasks of a cowboy were very diverse. He was not only responsible for driving the cattle, he was also responsible for branding the cattle and taking care of the animals' health (e.g. calving). When the cowboys were at ranches , there were a variety of jobs to be done there, such as repairing the fences. Even today, the tasks mentioned are still an integral part of cowboy work. However, quads are increasingly replacing horses in modern cattle breeding operations , although horses are still necessary for difficult terrain or certain cowboy tasks.

Equipment and clothing

The cowboy's clothes are functional work clothes - originally they corresponded to the fashion of the 19th century. The pants were coarse wool pants with leather inlays on the buttocks. The pants went a little further up over the hips and were usually worn with suspenders. At that time the shirts weren't yet buttoned through, they had to be pulled over the head. If necessary, a vest was worn over it , the gilet . Above all, the Dragriders , the cowboys riding at the end of the herd of cattle, wore scarves that they could pull over their noses to keep the dust off. For cold days you wore wool jackets or coats. The cowboy hat was a very important part, it protected the rider from sun and rain. They also wore cowboy boots that came in many different designs and designs.

The equipment consisted of the saddle , which was the most important piece of work equipment after the lasso . The boots had spurs . A revolver , knife and rifle were carried in defense . To protect yourself from thorny undergrowth, leather trousers, so-called chaps, were worn over trousers . Other items of equipment were crockery, cutlery and a blanket.

To feed the cowboys on a long cattle drive, this was accompanied by a kitchen wagon, the chuckwagon . These were perfectly designed for carrying supplies and providing the workers with food. The team included a cook who drove the mostly ox- drawn chuck wagon and a Wrangler who looked after the Remuda , the replacement horses. The cook was often not only responsible for the food, but also helped with minor injuries, butchered, sewed, mended, repaired and also worked as a barber .

The horse

In the course of the 19th century, the workhorse of the cowboy became the American Quarter Horse . When choosing the workhorse, the focus was not only on the physical characteristics, but also on the interior . It had to be possible to direct the horse without hands in order to keep the hands free for working with the lasso. For this purpose, the animals were only controlled by leg contacts or whistles or calls. These horses also had to be extremely manoeuvrable to work with fleeing cattle and possess what is known as the cow sense . Often times the horse did not belong to the cowboy, but was made available to him by his employer.

The cowboy becomes a legend

Especially in the 1930s, a nostalgic, romanticized version of the cowboy - and cowgirl too - became a fad in the United States . A certain image of the cowboy with the external characteristics of hat, boots, horse and weapon established himself as a very manly, tough and wild man.

This reflected z. B. in comics , in country music , in fashion and especially in westerns . Most classic western films don't directly depict cowboy life; A notable exception is Panik am Rote Fluss (Red River) from 1948. Some subcultural scenes cultivate this fascination with cowboys, have a real cult and stylize elements of the cowboy image. In 2005, the film Brokeback Mountain added a new facet to the cowboy cult, which clearly accentuates and relativizes the common stereotype and the underlying ideal of masculinity in some points.

The tobacco industry also uses this fascination for its advertising. In particular, the Philip Morris brand Marlboro took up the myth of the cowboy with the so-called Marlboro Man and thus created an effective advertising stereotype.

Cowboy clothes today

Today's Cowboys, Benjamin, Texas 2006

Even in clothing fashion, this topic appears at regular intervals to this day. The most striking quotes in fashion are the cowboy hat and cowboy boots , although only the boot can temporarily establish itself in the everyday fashion of the general public. In addition, cowboy clothing is worn by riders as an everyday element of use, especially when western riding , which differs in essential points from classic English riding . The cowboy hat is also named Stetson after the most important manufacturer . A decorative element is the so-called cowboy tie, which is used to close the shirt collar.


The Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site at Deer Lodge in Montana is a reminder of the days of the Open Range , when private ranchers let their herds graze unregulated on public land and driven by cowboys on the long cattle drives to the railroad. Federally owned, administered by the National Park Service , and operated as an active ranch since 1972 . Visitors can experience late-19th-century cattle farming and take part in living history demonstrations.


  • HJ Stammel : They were still men. The cowboys and their world. Econ Verlag, Munich 1985, ISBN 3-4301-8708-7 .
  • Andy Adams : A cowboy tells. From the time of the great cattle trucks. Manesse Verlag, Zurich 1981

Web links

Wiktionary: Cowboy  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Cowboys  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files