The Earn Your Spurs Definition of “Cowboy.”

what is a cowboy

I feel like I need to clear something up that I have been grappling with in my own mind ever since I created Earn Your Spurs. And that is, the definition of the word “cowboy.”

You are probably familiar with Webster’s definition, but just in case, here it is:



Pretty simple. Pretty cut and dried, right? Except…I’m not sure if it is.

I actually touched on the topic once before in this post from last summer. There, I downplayed the importance of defining “what” you are. “Just be you,” was my advice. And it still is.

However, I know not everyone is going to agree with how use the word, and quite frankly I am ok with that. Just as long as you understand I use the term rather loosely around here.

Some people, we’ll call them the “traditionalists,” are going to say the only proper definition of a cowboy is the first one listed above. They might even leave the part about taking care of horses out of the equation arguing, “if you’re going to call yourself a cowboy, there must be cows involved.”

Then there are those folks who use the word “cowboy” quite liberally. For instance, take these recent headlines from Google News Search:

cowboy headlineNo explanation needed here. It may not fall under the dictionary definition, but it is safe to say that a Dallas Cowboy is a cowboy, just not the kind we talk about on this site.

cowboy headline2Hmmm…”Cocaine Cowboy.” I guess this one would fall under the “foolish and dangerous” part of Webster’s definition. We won’t be talking about this kind of cowboy here either.

cowboy headline3Ok, this one has something to do with the super techy, geeky side of computers. I have no idea what this headline means. But I’m pretty sure there is nothing less “cowboy-like” than some random (albeit incredibly important, I’m sure) piece of a computer.

cowboy headline4This one, again, seems to correspond with Webster’s third definition of the word. I’m pretty sure the guys he references in this article do not wear cowboy hats or boots. Just a guess…

These are all good examples, in my humble opinion, of what a cowboy is not – at least as far as this site is concerned. And then, there’s this one, which I would be remiss to omit from this lineup…

slow poke

While the publication does not refer to this man as a cowboy, I can see how they could have very easily. After all he is an aspiring bull rider (or so I presume). He probably wears a cowboy hat. On the surface, It would seem reasonable to label him as such. The problem I have with calling this guy a cowboy is, he went to a bull riding school, and likely signed a waiver saying he knew that he was going to be participating in a dangerous activity. I would venture to guess most any “reasonable” person knows that bull riding is dangerous, right?

Unfortunately, he got hurt and is now trying to sue the stock contractor for misrepresenting the bull. Bulls are animals. Some days they perform much differently than others and we as humans often have very little control over it. This guy…not a cowboy. Why? Keep Reading…

So that brings us to the Earn Your Spurs definition of what is a “cowboy.”

1.  A person (man or woman) whose job is to take care of cattle, works horseback, usually on a ranch.

2.  A person who competes in rodeo (normally referred to as “rodeo cowboy”), OR any other western-riding equine competition, including but not limited to cutting, reining, mounted shooting, team roping and barrel racing.

3. A person who rides a horse, not in competition, in a western saddle, preferably in a cowboy hat.

4. A person who identifies with the cowboy way of life, abides by the “cowboy code,” feels comfortable in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and aspires to do any of the above.

Now, I know some of you will absolutely hate this definition, or at least the last three parts of it. And to be perfectly honest, I do think in many instances a clarifying adjective prior to the word is warranted. You will see me use, “aspiring cowboy,” “beginner cowboy” or potentially, “urban cowboy,” for instance.

What I won’t do is distinguish between every single western horse discipline there is in an effort to separate “cowboy” and “horseman.” I recognize the difference, but I’m no longer going to concern myself with those traditionalists who take offense to me calling a weekend cutter or barrel racer a cowboy.

And since I touched on it, cowboy does not always mean “male.” There are plenty of females who would prefer to be referred to as a cowboy or “cowboy girl” rather than a cowgirl. These tend to be the women who identify with the traditional use of the word and don’t want to be a associated with a weekend barrel racer who is fine with the “cowgirl” label.

Sometimes I will use “cowgirl.” Sometimes I will refer to a group of men and women as “cowboys.” It’s not a slight to women who identify with the title (I happen to be one of them), it just makes the words flow more easily.

We can argue what is and what is not a cowboy for all of eternity, and we will never come to a universally agreed upon standard. We all have our opinions, life experience and biases that shape the way we feel about the man (or woman) who wears the title. There is no universal certification or credentials to be earned in order to put those letters behind your name.

Will someone call me a cowboy if I can rope a calf, or train a young horse, or ride a bull, you might ask? What must I be able to do to say, I have “earned my spurs?”

Well, here’s the thing, nobody has mastered everything there is to know about this western way of life. We are all still trying to “earn our spurs” in some way.

But, if you have listened to many episodes of the Earn Your Spurs podcast, you may have noticed a trend among my guests. At the end of each podcast episode, I ask, “What do you think is the most important quality for any good cowboy to have?” And while I get a variety of answers, here are some of the more common ones…

Try. Perseverance. Grit. Determination. Drive.

Underachievers don’t make good cowboys.

And I know you are not an underachiever because you are here looking to learn and grow and be inspired.

Many will argue that “cowboy” is a title that can only be given to you by someone else. So, to make my life easier and avoid describing every possible cowboy-related permutation that the information on this site could apply to, I am virtually bestowing the title of “cowboy” upon you.

From here forward, it doesn’t matter if you are a man, woman, child, trail rider, reiner, barrel racer or bull rider. What matters is your desire, your willingness to learn, your curiosity and your determination. The “skills” can be learned. Your mental toughness, however, is based on a conscious decision and your ongoing concerted efforts.

If you’ve got all that, you are a cowboy to me.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Aaron

    I really didn’t call myself a cowboy. My G/f, who is a long, long time cowgirl and some others we ride with finally got to calling me a cowboy, and I take pride in that. To me, it IS a name conferred upon by others who ought to know. I could tell that at first, they didn’t consider me a cowboy..just a dude on a horse. Over time, a good many years, apparently it has occured to our group that I possess what qualities they consider ‘cowboy’. I’m an all ’round cowboy. I ride, am fast and good with a gun (for what that’s worth), I can rewire a barn, good at fencing, tractor work, gentle with kids and not with loudmouths. That kind of stuff seems cowboy, so I’m good and proud with it. BTW, I did finally “earn my spurs” when a couple of the real cowboys suggested that it might be time I started wearing them.

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