5 Truths About Becoming a Cowboy

how to be a cowboy

If you want to learn how to be a cowboy, ya gotta be tough.

1. You’re Going to Get Dirty

dirty cowgirl

This is me after moving cows all day in the wind.

Perhaps this goes without saying, but being a cowboy, regardless of the variety is not a clean job. First of all, it’s outside, so you have actual dirt to contend with, but that’s not all.

Animals are dirty. And they don’t much care because they are animals. Poop, snot, mud, eye boogers, pus, blood, saliva…at any given time one to many of these substances will likely be present on a horse or a cow or a dog or whatever other animal you are contending with.

I have been teaching my significant other’s kids to ride and recently one of our horses was having a drooling problem related to his hay. So, one of the boys got a little slobber on him when he was bridling his horse. Immediately disgusted, he informed me he was going to “wash his hands” before he got on.

Now, I’d like to preface my response by saying that I am an advocate of hand washing. You won’t find me eating a meal without washing my hands, especially if I have been surrounded by germy kids or shaking other people’s hands or pushing a shopping cart or really any other time.

However, I have eaten my share of sandwiches right after getting off my horse without lathering up. To me, horse germs don’t even count.

I promptly informed said child that he would not be washing his hands before he got on. After all, what do they make horse manes for?

Just be aware that I am not half as tough as my dad or 90% of the true-blue, ultra-rugged cowboy population. Wherever you get your “cowboy training,” be prepared to wear your filth like a badge of honor. There is no shower that feels quite as spectacular as the one you get to take at the end of a long dirty day.

2. Cows are Not Cuddly

Not surprisingly, many people make the mistake of comparing livestock to the animals that they have the most experience with – dogs and cats. Some horses can be kind of cuddly, but they are also big and fast and can hurt you without even meaning to. That is why it is really important to understand their behavior, know how to approach them , and how to stay out of their way.

But if you think horses are bad, cows are hardly ever cuddly. With the exception of our Jersey milk cow, Peaches, I can’t say I’ve ever loved on a cow much.

As Adrian Brannan once put it so eloquently, “Have you ever walked up to a barbed wire fence and scratched your neck on it? No, that’s what cows do.” or “Would you kick your newborn baby in the head? No, that’s what cows do.”

Cows are not human and they don’t have many human characteristics. If you get them cornered in a confined space and you happen to be in the wrong spot, they will kick you. I know because I have done that very thing more than I would like to admit.

They’re also sensitive to pressure, so depending on where you are trying to move them and how you are attempting to do it, they may or may not react in the desired manner. (How to be Effective on a Cattle Drive [Infographic])

It must also be noted that cows tend to be very protective mothers. Get between her and her baby calf and you better be looking for an exit strategy. Preferably a fence you can get over or under in a hurry when she decides to come after you. Or even better, be mounted on a good horse that is quick-footed with tendencies toward self-preservation.

Bulls aren’t much different. While some are docile, many are aggressive. Just watch a PBR event on TV and you’ll know exactly what I mean. And they don’t even need an excuse to come after you. Believe me, they don’t care what a nice person you are or that you don’t eat meat, either.

Some folks unfamiliar with livestock will argue that certain cattle-handling methods are “cruel” or “barbaric.” But I assure you, they were carefully developed over the years to protect both cowboys and livestock alike. A cow is not a cat or a dog. They are big, strong, thick-skinned and hard-headed. And they can hurt you if you don’t know your way around them.

 

3. Your Skin Needs to be Thick

If everything you know about cowboys was learned through watching John Wayne movies and Lonesome Dove, you’re actually on the right track. Cowboys aren’t big on sugarcoating. They tend to tell it like it is.

It’s actually an admirable quality when you think about it. You don’t ever have to guess where you stand with a cowboy. If he feels you are impacting him in a negative way or impeding his progress, he is going to let you know.

You really can’t blame him. He has a tough job and he wants to get it done, whatever he may be working on at any given time.

Imagine spending the whole morning gathering a bunch of cattle, driving them all the way into the corral, and then because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time and he didn’t want to tell you and hurt your feelings, those cattle all got away.

Now you have to waste a bunch of time doing the whole job over again, whereas if he had yelled some creative profanity at you and got you to change your behavior, that repeat work may have been avoidable. But only if you had responded rather than taking it personally, getting upset and still letting the cattle get away.

Many a marriage has been tested when husbands and wives attempt to move and especially sort cattle together. In fact, sometimes I think it’s a miracle that my parents even had me, let alone will be celebrating 40 years of marriage next year.

Perhaps because they got out of the cattle just in time.

 

4. Assume You Know Nothing

Now, if you do have a basic foundation of knowledge that you have gained through experience, it is fine to let your mentor know this. And that goes for whether you are learning the ropes at cowboy college or taking horseback riding lessons. But do not be like that annoying girl in my college economics class who was constantly raising her hand to let her fellow students and professor know how smart she was.

Listen and be a sponge. Even if you think you know something already, it never hurts to hear it again. Often, listening to someone else explain it, perhaps in a different way, helps it to sink in. Ask questions when you don’t understand something.

Plus, everyone does things a little bit differently. Being a know-it-all doesn’t make you seem smart. It just makes you look foolish when you do something wrong that you supposedly already knew how to do.

I remember when a friend of mine, who shall remain anonymous, assured me that they knew how to unsaddle a horse. After all, he had done it 100 times. The problem was, said friend had done it all those 100 times incorrectly and had just gotten lucky or had a nice docile and forgiving horse.

On this particular day, instead of unbuckling the back cinch of the saddle first (which is a “rule” for a reason), my friend started with the front cinch. And before he could get to the back cinch, the horse bogged his head and went to bucking through the yard flanked by the back cinch.

The only saving grace was that the back billet tore enough to come undone and the saddle came off. But not without some unsightly gouges and scars from having the crap kicked out of it. Fortunately it was his saddle, not mine and the horse didn’t injure himself. But you may not be so lucky.

 

5. Be Prepared to “Rub Some Dirt on it”

In the cowboy line of work, getting injured at some point is likely. Could be a broken finger, rope burn, or just your bruised pride. But here’s the thing. Cowboys are tough. You’ve heard it before, cowboys (and cowgirls for that matter) don’t cry.

A friend of mine recently lost the better part of his pinky finger team roping. It’s not uncommon to see team ropers missing digits due to accidentally dallying one between their saddle horn and rope, with a 500 pound steer attached to the other end. The only thing in that equation that is going to give is the finger.

That very day he was posting pictures of his severed finger to Facebook. Not for sympathy, more like “hey guys, check this out.”

I was listening to an interview on the Whoa Podcast recently with Mackey Hedges, author of The Last Buckaroo. He had a horse wreck one day where he got bucked off and broke his pelvis (a pretty involved part of the anatomy when riding a horse, mind you). And he had to get back on that same horse that just bucked him off to ride something like eight miles back to cow camp so that he could get someone to drive him into the hospital.

So, yeah, if you get kicked in the shin by a wily little calf it is likely going to hurt and probably leave a bruise, but you might want to keep it to yourself. Either that, or be prepared to be teased and taunted unmercifully for acting like a “little girl.” Just ask Mike Rowe how sympathetic cowboys can be.

Have your own stories and examples? Leave me a note in the comments section below.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Gerry Madden

    Alyssa,
    A few years ago while on holiday in New York we met Rosco Lee Browne, the cook from The Cowboys, in your clip. The bar was beside Carnegie Hall, my wife recognised the voice, deep and rich. We chatted and went inside but later he joined us and chatted all evening. He quoted w.b. Yeats and was sparkling and funny. He dedicated a poem to my brother and wrote it down…..he collects autographs of western movie stars. We were on an Easter holiday from Ireland.

    1. Alyssa Barnes
      Alyssa Barnes

      That is so cool! What a great story to be able to share.

  2. Hunter Corrales

    Honestly I’m just a kid researching for a YouTube video. However I am a cowboy and my dad and me work on a feed yard in Hart TX. I love working as a cowboy and roping and riding horses. I have always been around horses and I love them. No matter what I never say I am cold or hurtin or hungry. I always do my best to get through it and persevere. Thanks for the article, your article has really helped me write my script.

    1. Alyssa Barnes
      Alyssa Barnes

      I’d say your dad is raising you right! Good luck on your video!

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