July 11, 2010

In Search Of The American Cowboy

When visiting what was the American Wild Wild West (mostly states west of the Mississippi River such as Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming)), you will rarely find a cowboy on a horse. Sure, you will see modern-day cowboys driving pick-up trucks wearing ten-gallon hats but nothing is quite like the Hollywood image of a ranger leading a herd of cattle out in the plains.

Cowboys sprang into existence in Texas in the 1850s, when some enterprising pioneers thought money can be made by catching the free roaming, half-wild longhorns that were everywhere and herding them through a thousand mile trail to the beef-hungry markets of the East. Despite the fact that in their heyday, from about 1865 until the late 1880s, cowboys were hired hands who worked hard, often riding hours or days at a time with only a horse as a companion, got a shower only when crossing a river, and subsisted on a dreary repertoire of beans, bacons and rubbery biscuits (cattle was profit so it was rarely slaughtered for food on the trails), cowboys acquired and have retained a romantic image mainly because of Hollywood. Unlike in the movies, carrying a colt was really used mostly on rattlesnakes.

The earliest cowboys of the West were Spaniards and Mexicans. Cowboys were not only Anglo, but of many ethnic heritage, one of every four was African American or Hispanic. Some were even Native American. Yes, the American Indian – the historical nemesis of the cowboy! There were also women working in the range known as cowgirls.

The invention of the barbed wire intoned the death knell for the cowboy way of life. Barbed wire, invented in 1873 by an Illinois farmer named Joseph Glidden, made feasible the building of fences on the vast ranges of the plains, and ended open-range cattle raising. Along with the development of the railroad system and the discovery that cattle can survived in harsh winter conditions, there was no longer any need to move cattle on long trail drives by men on horses.

Today, there are still two ways of imbibing the cowboy lifestyle without having to travel too far or spend a fortune on adventure trails as in the movie City Slickers. The first is through the professional rodeo and the second is in viewing a stock show. Sometimes rodeos and stock shows happen at the same time and in the same venue as in the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado (www.nationalwestern.com).

The Rodeo

Fortunately remnants of cowboy work can still be seen today in venues known as rodeos. Rodeo comes from the Spanish word, "rodear" which means to encircle or to surround as in a cattle roundup.

The rodeo is believed to have been born in 1864 when two groups of cowboys from neighboring ranches met in Deer Trail, Colorado to settle an argument over who was the best at performing everyday ranching tasks. In the early 1880’s in the West Texas town of Pecos, cowboys would come into town on the Fourth of July, also known as Cowboy Christmas, thunder down Main Street and compete in roping and rounding up the steers in the courthouse square.

Today’s professional rodeo circuit, which takes place in 41 states including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and four provinces in Canada, are the modern-day Olympics of the old round-ups: bull and saddle bronc riding, steer (a neutered male cattle) wrestling and roping.

The R in Rodeo means riding and roping. Bronc (or bronco – a wild or semi-wild horse) riding evolved from the task of breaking and training horses to work the cattle ranches of the old West. Using only one hand, the cowboy must stay on the horse for 8 seconds, until the buzzer sounds. If the cowboy touches the animal, himself, or equipment with his free hand or if either foot slips out of the stirrup, if he drops the rein he is holding in one hand, or if he fails to have his feet in the proper position at the beginning of the ride, then he is disqualified.

Calf roping is one of the timed events in a rodeo. In the old days, when a calf was sick or injured, a cowboy roped it so that he could immobilize them quickly for veterinary treatment. The calf is given a head start and the horse and rider pursue it. The cowboy lassos and ropes the calf, dismounts, and runs to the calf. After picking it up and flopping it down on its side, the cowboy ties any three of the calf's legs together with a pigging string. The rider remounts his horse and if the calf kicks free within six seconds the run is declared invalid. The fastest roper wins.

Bull riding is always the last event, and the most eagerly anticipated. As in all riding events, the animal determines half the score. The rider cannot touch with his free hand the animal, himself or the equipment, within the allotted eight seconds.

The Stock Show

Twenty-first century meets The Wild Wild West. The sight of men and women outfitted with Stetson hats, boots, humongous belt buckles some as big as 3”x4”, Wrangler (as a common noun, is synonymous with cowboy) or Carhartt jeans and some riding on mustangs, the horse kind, gives you that Marlboro country feeling.

Stock shows are agricultural showcase, sales and auction of thousands of livestock such as cattle, horses, sheep, swine, goats, bison, llamas, yaks, poultry and rabbits. The stockyard is where you can imbibe the ranch life with every breath. Mostly cattle in sawdust pens, the yard is a showcase of animal beauty and the muscle of the cowboy or cowgirl with that walking gait that can only come from riding horses. As you stroll through the open pens and exhibits at the stockyard, ranchers are busy grooming their cattle with comb and blow dryers. There are so many cattle breeds to choose from, Angus (Black) to Red Angus, Swiss Braunvieh to French Tarentaise, or how about a white Charolais? Sounds like a winery.

Shockingly, semen can be bought starting at $20.00 a straw. A straw of a bull’s semen that is. Even embryos are available. Cattle for sale flyers hawk about superior genetics “with favorable forms of the marbling gene, or of the tenderness gene.”

There are two things any aspiring cowboy must do in a Stock Show: roam the livestock pens and attend a livestock judging or auction. Roman-style auction arenas where livestock is displayed, judged or auctioned in a similar fashion as a Faberge egg at Sotheby’s is uniquely a cattlemen experience. Hundreds of cowboys and cowgirls with grainy hands and gritty faces seriously jot down their scores.

Event Information

For more information about rodeos and a calendar of rodeos near your hometown, please see www.prorodeo.com. The sport’s annual superbowl is the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, 101 Pro Rodeo Drive, Colorado Springs, CO 80919-2301, Tel. (719) 593-8840.
In New York State, the rodeos will be in July (Ballston Spa and Vernon), August (Gerry) and September (Staten Island).

Stock Shows
Through the Links navigation bar in the Arizona National Livestock Show web site, http://www.anls.org/links.html, you can access a list of all other stock shows in the country, some with their individual web sites.

American Cowboy
For more information about the American cowboy, please contact the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63rd Street, Oklahoma City, OK 73111
Tel. (405) 478-2250

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