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Friday, February 7, 2014

From the Mouths of Cowboys

Cowboys branding a calf. (National Park Service)
By Kathleen Rice Adams

It’s been said that when a cowboy’s too old to set a bad example, he hands out advice. According to the National Park Service, which lists several historic ranches among its properties, old cowboys weren’t all that common, at least during the days when cattle roamed the open range.

Crusty old cowboys were mainly an invention of movies. Most cowboys were young, some only eleven or twelve. By the time they were in their mid-20s, most had taken up ranching on their own or found a less strenuous way of life. It was a young man's trade, for the hardships of six-month trail drives and the injuries sustained in working with livestock took a physical toll. Some cowboys eventually became cattlemen, while others stayed on the ranches as cooks and handymen. 
—Brochure for the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, Montana

Nevertheless cowboys have a reputation for passing along hard-earned wisdom in some downright colorful ways. Even today, folks who work ranches — and country people in general — speak a language all their own.

Here are some choice tidbits one might hear from a cowboy.

"The Cow Boy," J.C.H. Grabill, photographer
Sturgis, Dakota Territory, c. 1888 (Library of Congress)

About conversation:

Don’t expect mules and cooks to share your sense of humor.
Don’t make a long story short just so you can tell another one.
Don’t worry about bitin’ off more’n you can chew. Your mouth is probably a whole lot bigger’n you think.
If you have the opportunity to keep from makin’ a fool of yourself, take it.
Never trust a man who agrees with you. He’s probably wrong.
Speak your mind, but ride a fast horse.
When there’s nothin’ left to be said, don’t be sayin’ it.

"Branding Calves on Roundup," J.C.H. Grabill, photographer
South Dakota Territory, 1888 (Library of Congress)

About conflict:

Always drink your whiskey with your gun hand, to show your friendly intentions.
Don’t bother arguin’ with a rabid coyote.
Don’t corner somethin’ meaner than you.
Don’t wake a sleepin’ rattler.
If you climb into the saddle, be ready for the ride.
Never drop your gun to hug a grizzly.
When your head’s in the bear’s mouth ain’t the time to be smackin’ him on the nose.

Frederic Remington drawing
(Harper's new monthly magazine v.91, issue 543, August 1895)

About life in general:

Don’t get callouses from pattin’ your own back.
Don’t use your spurs if you don’t know where you’re goin’.
If it don’t seem like it’s worth the effort, it probably ain’t.
Keep skunks, lawyers, and bankers at a distance.
Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.
Never follow good whiskey with water, unless you’re out of whiskey.
Never take to sawin’ on the branch that’s supportin’ you, unless you’re bein’ hung from it.

Don’t forget to join the Prairie Roses Saturday, Feb. 8, for the Valentine’s Day Fandango! Pop in and kick up your heels for a while. We’ll be giving away prizes every hour: books, chocolate, jewelry… It’s guaranteed to be a rip-snortin’ time.


  1. Dang, you mean Gabby Hayes ain't real? I'm crushed. Sad to learn there were no old, wise cowboys hanging around. Hard to imagine a kid of 11 or 12 out there driving cattle. I cringe to think of it.
    I loved these quotes. Most of them were great ways of saying keep your mouth shut and don't mess with people when they're meaner, bigger and maybe crazy. What a goos laugh I got from this post. Nice way to start my day.
    I really liked these pictures, too.
    This was such a cool post, Kathleen. I so enjoyed it.

    1. Good mornin', Sarah! It's always a joy to see your smiling face. :-)

      You know, I was disheartened to learn old cowboys were a Hollywood invention (along with gunfights at high noon, tying heroines to railroad tracks, and the word "gunslinger"). Of course, I suppose most cowboys FELT old by their mid-20s, and may have looked old, too, considering they were probably more than a little stove up by that age due to hard living. Still, it just seems wrong when you start thinking about the stock "wise old coot" character being a 20-something kid, doesn't it? :-D

      HUGS, sweetie! I'm looking forward to tomorrow. How 'bout you?

    2. I'm positively terrified of tomorrow. But I'll do my best. Thank goodness you'll be there.

    3. Oh, posh. It's gonna be fun! Just remember the old Toastmasters' tip: Picture an entire roomful of hunky cowboys, naked. (Okay, I modified the actual tip a bit, but it's always worked for me. ;-) )

  2. Well, now, Tex, I just have to go on livin' in my own mind and believing that somewhere there were a FEW wizened old cowboys! SOMEWHERE! LOL But I can see why there wouldn't be. That would have been the hardest life EVER. I'm reading one of Frank Roderus's mss. right now about a young boy's first cattle drive. He's 15 or so. It's hard work, even for him! Love these quotes. As Sarah said, it's a good way to start the day!

    1. This is why we have fiction, right? So we don't have to give up our cherished, if possibly skewed, notions. :-D

      I'm with you, Okie. SOMEWHERE there were wizened old cowboys. I refuse to budge on that. :-)

  3. I always love Cowboy Wisdom, Kathleen...laughing out loud.

    1. Me, too, Tanya! The way cowboys and country folk phrase things always tickles me. My dad's parents, both raised in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky, both had such a charming handle on wise, old backwoods sayings. I miss that, and them.

      Hope you're feeling better, sweetie!

  4. Love the Cowboy Wisdom you share, Tex! I look forward to my daily dose.
    Far be it from me to disagree with the National Park Service **chokes** they might not be ridin' the trails, but there were and still are plenty of crusty old cowboys willing to heap their knowledge on a young tadpole whether they want to hear it or not. :)

    1. LOL, Rustler! I figured you'd have somethin' to say about the NPS's shocking revelation. Dang! Dueling historians. :-D

      Having known more than a few crusty old-timers myself over the years, I can vouch for there being plenty of the lovable old coots around these days. I have an uncle among that illustrious group. The man is as laconic as the day is long, but when he finally does say something, he darn well expects all of us "young whippersnappers" to pay attention. :-D

      Speakin' of coots: Looking forward to seeing you and Cookie at the shindig tomorrow! Now there's a cowhand who personifies "young coot" if ever I've seen one. ;-)

    2. Shoot! I forgot to tell Cookie we were attending a fandango! Now, I'm gonna hear a heap of grousing while he gets his boots all spit and polished. **Yeah, yeah, ya ol' Coot, ya have to take your bath a day early**

      LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your cover, Tex!! Can't wait for the release of Prodigal Gun!!

      Better go make sure Cookie is using soap. ;)

    3. LOL! Yes, please, by all means make sure Cookie uses soap! Love the man, but the eau de bovine he usually wears is so 19th Century. ;-)


  5. Now I'm totally disillusioned. You mean there weren't any cowboys like Sam Elliot, or Tom Selleck? Noooo! Next you're going to try and tell me they didn't look like the cowboy on the cover of your new soon to be released book. The one hugging the pretty girl in the Fandango image.

    1. Oh, but they did, Livia! Cowboys looked EXACTLY like that yummy guy! (Here's a peek at the cover for those of y'all who are wondering what we're talking about:

      I was tickled to death to see that image in the Fandango header. It's downright embarrassing the way I drool every time I see the book cover. You, dear Livia, are a cover wizard. BIG HUGS!!!!

  6. I'm gettin' all gussied up for the Fandango. Got my hair done and everything. Hope I win something. Loved the stories in HEARTS AND SPURS.

    1. Wow! You really went all out up there, Ms. Clemmons! You're gonna put the rest of us to shame. :-D (I did rub the toes of my boots on the backs of my jeans legs. Nobody's gonna accuse me of not cleanin' up for the shindig if I can help it! ;-) )

      Thanks for the kind words about HEARTS AND SPURS. The two Prairie Rose anthologies have been such fun. I'm looking forward to reading the mammoth anthology you're involved in this summer!

      We'll look for you tomorrow! HUGS!!!! :-)

  7. I just tried to publish a reply, but it looks like it disappeared somewhere! The gist of it was that, although I like Sam Elliot and he is my picture of an old cowboy, I'd rather have my cowboys looking like the ones on your cover pictures! I'd like to share a camp fire with a gang of them. But on second thoughts - Maybe not, too many beans!!!

    1. Jill, you are a nut! :-D

      If you find a campfire full of cowpokes who look like the guys on the covers Livia creates, you have to share the map. There will be no holding out on the rest of us, young lady. ;-)

  8. Your post are always so entertaining and educational. I love it! Doris

    1. Thank you, Doris! You always make me blush. :-)

      We'll see you at the Fandango, I hope! HUGS!!!!

  9. Fascinating stuff, Kathleen. I know several individuals to whom these terms could be applied. Not for me, though. You do believe me, don't you?

    1. Of course I believe you, Tom. We'd especially never apply "Don't make a long story short just so you can tell another one" to you. ;-)

      (Actually, you'd better get busy telling another one. We need more Tom Rizzo westerns! :-) )