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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Linda Broday: A Cowboy's Life on the Frontier

For many of us, if you're like me, we’re unsure about the cowboy’s job on an early day ranch other than the obvious of working the cattle. Years ago, I wanted to learn about the other chores involved because I wanted my cowboy to be realistic. So I went looking......

The cowboy’s job began just as the first rays of dawn were breaking and he didn’t crawl out of saddle until after dark. The days were long and the work was hard. But the cowboy loved his life. It was in his blood. He didn’t “work” for the ranch; he “rode for the brand” and he was very loyal to the animals entrusted in his care and to the one who employed him.

But let’s get back to daily life.

Upon “rolling out” of the sack, a few of the men would saddle their mounts and round up the scattered band of ponies that had wandered near and far, grazing during the night and herd them into the corral while the cook set about making breakfast. The outfit would fill their bellies then carry their saddles and bridles to the corral and mount up. (On cold days the compassionate cowboy would warm the bit for a second before putting it in the horse’s mouth. I’m sure it was appreciated.) Once mounted, the wrangler would get to the business of checking the herds and looking for signs of trouble. The cattle required constant care and vigilance.

Daily chores in addition to riding herd on the cattle:
Keeping horses shod and in good physical shape
Gentling horses
Branding Cattle
Repairing saddles and wagons
Mending ropes and harnesses
Cleaning their guns
Skinning carcasses of any cattle that died and drying hides
Riding fence and repairing any downed ones
In general, doing whatever the foreman asked, be it painting and fixing up or putting out bait to catch or kill any predators that threatened the stock.

Simply put, when he was on the time clock, the cowboy was at the beck and call of his employer.

Life was much easier in warm weather. Spring and fall saw roundups and trail drives. Once the cattle drives were a thing of the past sometime in the 1880’s, the cowboys drove cows to the nearest railroad shipping point. A note of interest: The biggest year for Texas cattle drives was 1871 when more than 700,000 cattle were driven up the trails from Texas.

In the mountainous areas, the saddle wranglers would herd the cattle twice a year to summer or winter ranges for better grazing. They used the high country in summer because it was normally a little cooler. The low country was preferred in winter as it wasn’t usually as cold. Of course, on the plains I’m sure they had no need to shift the herds since the land was flat.

Part of the cowboys’ duties was to inspect the herds to see if they had enough food and water. They also directed the cattle away from any patches of known loco weed. This was called “outriding.” In addition, the outriders “rode sign” to determine if any cattle had strayed too far from the herd and if so to turn them back. They looked for bogged down steers or horses, laid traps for coyotes and wolves, and kept their eyes open for signs of rustling. And the outriders “blabbed young calves that were too old to be nursing their mothers. This involved clipping a board onto the calf’s nose. It allowed the animal to graze but not to nurse. Usually, this was only done in the case of a lusty calf with an emaciated mother. It allowed the mother to gain weight.

Outriders also kept on the lookout for diseased or injured animals. When they found any, the cowboy either inspected and treated the animal or destroyed it.

Mother Nature brought her own set of problems. Lightning and prairie fires were the most feared. But there were also gullywashers that could trap scores of cattle in flash floods; tornadoes and cyclones; and drought and freezing temperatures that could devastate entire herds. The bottom line was protecting and saving the cattle. They were money on the hoof.

Winter brought some of the cowboys’ hardest work. They lived in “line camps” which were outpost cabins situated on the far reaches of the ranch. And the punchers who wintered there were called line riders. The difference in line riders and outriders was the fact that line riders had a specific area to patrol whereas outriders roamed everywhere. The line rider’s main job was looking after their herd. They made sure the cattle had food and water and protected them from hungry coyotes and wolves. Whatever it took to get the herd through the freezing winter months that’s what they did. It was lonely boring work for the line rider and they were always grateful for springtime when they could rejoin their fellow cow punchers.

To sum it up, the cowboys’ job consisted of doing whatever they could to make the ranch run smoothly and turn a profit.

According to the book “The Cowboy” by Philip Ashton Rollins (which is excellent by the way,) in the late 1800’s top hands earned $40.00 a month. Lesser hands were paid $25.00 and upward. Foremen earned $10 to $40 over and above what the top hands drew. And they were all given free room and board. That wasn’t much money for what was expected of them.

I’m curious about why we think the cowboys’ life was and still is so glamorous, why we’re attracted to men who ply that trade. Or is it simply that it’s hard dangerous work so the men have to be tough as nails to survive on the unforgiving land. We want them to dig in their heels and face life head on no matter the challenges. And the women too. I’d like to hear your thoughts.


  1. They are our knights, the myth of the free person who follows his 'grail'. They are the dream of freedom. They are the unique story of our heritage. Doris

    1. Doris and Linda,

      To add to the knight motif, here is the url to an excellent article that delves into the 'knight' and 'cowboy' connection. The article is titled: The Cultural Myth of the Cowboy, or, How the West Was Won

      It's also interesting to me that the 'golden age' of the American cowboy lasted from just after the American Civil war to around 1900 (give or take). When you think about it, thirty some years is not very long to have the era of the Old West leave such a strong and lasting legacy in American history.

  2. Thank you, Doris. I couldn't have said it better myself. No wonder we admire and love them so much. And I think deep down we strive to be like them. Have a great day.

  3. Linda, what an informative post. I guess I just never thought about every single thing that was expected of a cowboy--we tend to just think of lumping it all together as "out there with the cows" and that's it. But they had to have a lot of knowledge, innate and learned, to be able to survive.

    I grew up in Oklahoma, and my immediate family was not a "rodeo" family or even a country one--I mean, we didn't live on a farm or raise cows on a ranch or anything like that, but I think that feeling of being part of the land, and learning from it, and living with it, just permeates from generation to generation, and so I guess a lot of the "cowboy ways" from before are passed down, too. (I did have a LOT of ancestors who were cowboys.)

    Great post, and you made me think today!

    1. Cheryl, I'm glad you found this interesting. The laundry list of chores was quite informative. The bottom line was that the cowboy was expected to do whatever was asked of him, be it big or small. He worked in unison with the rancher to assure the ranch worked the very best it could. And it was to the cowboy's best interest. If he didn't make the rancher any money he was out of a job.

    2. Jim Griffin, one of our Painted Pony Books authors, is writing a series about a young teen boy whose family was killed by raiders, and he's taken in by the Texas Rangers as a provisional Ranger. I love the way Jim goes about having the other Rangers teach Nate about what's expected and has to be done in daily live (he was not only the youngest one of the bunch, but also hasn't lived in Texas very long--his family came to TX from Delaware.) It interesting to learn, but also fun to watch his learning process, too. Lots of things we just don't think of today that had to be done then, and simple things could get you killed if you didn't know the right way to go about doing them.

  4. Great information. Sometimes we forget the handsome cowboy also had to work hard for a living.

    1. Hi Agnes! Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed my post. It's great stuff for anyone who wonders what all the cowboy had to do in the running of the ranch. Lots and lots of chores to do. Their work was, and still is, unending. They got up well before daylight and worked until after dark, 7 days a week come rain or shine. It would be a hard life. Certainly nothing romantic about it. Have a good day.

  5. Linda, what a great blog! I learned things I didn't know and you know me ... I'm a know it all anyway! LOL Thanks for sharing. Big hugs, Phyliss

  6. Linda, what a great post! Even though I have relatives who ranch to this day, I learned a thing or two. Thank you!

    "Money on the hoof" -- I've always loved that phrase. Ranchers live by those words.


  7. Very interesting post. I think we are still attracted to the cowboy way of life for many reasons. Being out in nature, riding horses, and there was a certain sense of freedom in how they went about their job. It's a shame that the work ethic of the cowboy is pretty much been genetically removed from the youth of today.

  8. Awesome blog, Linda. And isn't that cowpoke Duel McCall? Sigh...

  9. Dang, that's a job as bad as Deadliest Catch. Any man that tough deserves a good woman. Raising my hand to volunteer.
    That part about doing whatever the boss says to do sticks with just about every job unless you ARE the boss.
    Great post, Linda. I have no idea how to do any of those jobs, and I sure ain't volunteerin' to learn either. I'd be broke down within the first hour.