A cowboy is an animal herder who tends cattle on ranches in North America, traditionally on horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks. The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century became a figure of special significance and legend. A subtype, called a wrangler, specifically tends the horses used to work cattle. In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work for or participate in rodeos. Cowgirls, first defined as such in the late 19th century, had a less-well documented historical role, but in the modern world have established the ability to work at virtually identical tasks and obtained considerable respect for their achievements. There are also cattle handlers in many other parts of the world, particularly South America and Australia, who perform work similar to the cowboy in their respective nations.
The cowboy has deep historic roots tracing back to Spain and the earliest settlers of the Americas. Over the centuries, differences in terrain, climate and the influence of cattle-handling traditions from multiple cultures created several distinct styles of equipment, clothing and animal handling. As the ever-practical cowboy adapted to the modern world, the cowboy's equipment and techniques also adapted to some degree, though many classic traditions are still preserved today.
The word "cowboy" appeared in the English language by 1725. It appears to be a direct English translation of vaquero, a Spanish word for an individual who managed cattle while mounted on horseback. It was derived from vaca, meaning "cow. This Spanish word has a long history, developed from the Latin word vacca. Another English word for a cowboy, buckaroo, is an Anglicization of vaquero. At least one linguist has speculated that the word "buckaroo" derives from the Arabic word bakara or bakhara, also meaning "heifer" or "young cow", and may have entered Spanish during the centuries of Islamic rule.
Originally, the term may have been intended literally - "a boy who tends cows" - but had developed its modern sense as an adult cattle handler of the American west by 1849. Variations on the word "cowboy" appeared later. "Cowhand" appeared in 1852, and "cowpoke" in 1881, originally restricted to the individuals who prodded cattle onto railroad cars with long poles. Names for a cowboy in American English now include buckaroo, cowpoke, cowhand, and cowpuncher. "Cowboy" is a term common throughout the west and particularly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, "Buckaroo" is used primarily in the Great Basin and California, and "cowpuncher" mostly in Texas and surrounding states.
The word cowboy also had English language roots beyond simply being a translation from Spanish. Originally, the English word "cowherd" was used to describe a cattle herder, (similar to "shepherd," a sheep herder) and often referred to a preadolescent or early adolescent boy, who usually worked on foot. (Equestrianism required skills and an investment in horses and equipment rarely available to or entrusted to a child, though in some cultures boys rode a donkey while going to and from pasture) This word is very old in the English language, originating prior to the year 1000. In Antiquity, herding of sheep, cattle and goats was often the job of minors, and still is a task for young people in various third world cultures.
Because of the time and physical ability needed to develop necessary skills, the cowboy often did began his career as an adolescent, earning wages as soon as he had enough skill to be hired, (often as young as 12 or 13) and who, if not crippled by injury, might handle cattle or horses for the rest of his working life. In the United States, a few women also took on the tasks of ranching and learned the necessary skills, though the "cowgirl" (discussed below) did not become widely recognized or acknowledged until the close of the 19th century. On western ranches today, the working cowboy is usually an adult. Responsibility for herding cattle or other livestock is no longer considered a job suitable for children or early adolescents. However, both boys and girls growing up in a ranch environment often learn to ride horses and perform basic ranch skills as soon as they are physically able, usually under adult supervision. Such youths, by their late teens, are often given responsibilities for "cowboy" work on the ranch, and ably perform work that requires a level of maturity and levelheadedness that is not generally expected of their urban peers.
The Spanish originated what we now consider the cowboy tradition, beginning with the hacienda system of medieval Spain. This style of cattle ranching spread throughout much of the Iberian peninsula and later, was imported to the Americas. Both regions possessed a dry climate with sparse grass, and thus large herds of cattle required vast amounts of land in order to obtain sufficient forage. The need to cover distances greater than a person on foot could manage gave rise to the development of the horseback-mounted vaquero.
During the 16th century, the Conquistadors and other Spanish settlers brought their cattle-raising traditions as well as both horses and domesticated cattle to the Americas, starting with their arrival in what today is Mexico and Florida. The traditions of Spain were transformed by the geographic, environmental and cultural circumstances of New Spain, which later became Mexico and the Southwestern United States. In turn, the land and people of the Americas also saw dramatic changes due to Spanish influence.
Thus, though popularly considered as a North American icon, the traditional cowboy actually began with a Hispanic tradition, which evolved further in what today is Mexico and the Southwestern United States into the vaquero of northern Mexico and the charro of the Jalisco and Michoacán regions. Most vaqueros were men of mestizo and Native American origin while most of the hacendados (ranch owners) were ethnically Spanish.
The arrival of horses was particularly significant, as equines had been extinct in the Americas since the end of the prehistoric ice age. However, horses quickly multiplied in America and became crucial to the success of the Spanish and later settlers from other nations. The earliest horses were originally of Andalusian, Barb and Arabian ancestry, but a number of uniquely American horse breeds developed in North and South America through selective breeding and by natural selection of animals that escaped to the wild. The Mustang and other colonial horse breeds are now called "wild," but in reality are feral horses — descendants of domesticated animals.
As English-speaking traders and settlers expanded westward, English and Spanish traditions, language and culture merged to some degree. Before the Mexican-American War in 1848, New England merchants who traveled by ship to California encountered both hacendados and vaqueros, trading manufactured goods for the hides and tallow produced from vast cattle ranches. American traders along what later became known as the Santa Fe Trail had similar contacts with vaquero life. Starting with these early encounters, the lifestyle and language of the vaquero began a transformation which merged with English cultural traditions and produced what became known in American culture as the "cowboy".
With the arrival of railroads, and an increased demand for beef in the wake of the American Civil War, the iconic American cowboy evolved as the older traditions combined with the need to drive cattle from the ranches where they were raised to the nearest railheads, often hundreds of miles away.
American cowboys were drawn from multiple sources. By the late 1860s, following the American Civil War and the expansion of the cattle industry, former soldiers from both the Union and Confederacy came west, seeking work, as did large numbers of restless white men in general. A significant number of African-American ex-slaves also were drawn to cowboy life, in part because there was not quite as much discrimination in the west as in other areas of American society at the time. A significant number of Mexicans and American Indians already living in the region also worked as cowboys.
Many early vaqueros were Indian people trained to work for the Spanish missions in caring for the mission herds. Later, particularly after 1890, when American policy promoted "assimilation" of Indian people, some Indian boarding schools also taught ranching skills. Today, some Native Americans in the western United States own cattle and small ranches, and many are still employed as cowboys, especially on ranches located near Indian Reservations. The "Indian Cowboy" also became a commonplace sight on the rodeo circuit.
Because cowboys ranked low in the social structure of the period, there are no firm figures on the actual proportion of various races. One writer states that cowboys were "… of two classes—those recruited from Texas and other States on the eastern slope; and Mexicans, from the south-western region. … Census records suggest that about 15% of all cowboys were of African-American ancestry—ranging from about 25% on the trail drives out of Texas, to very few in the northwest. Similarly, cowboys of Mexican descent also averaged about 15% of the total, but were more common in Texas and the southwest.
Regardless of ethnicity, most cowboys came from lower social classes and the pay was poor. The average cowboy earned approximately a dollar a day, plus food, and, when near the home ranch, a bed in the bunkhouse, usually a barracks-like building with a single open room.
In order to find young calves for branding, and to sort out mature animals intended for sale, ranchers would hold a roundup, usually in the spring. A roundup required a number of specialized skills on the part of both cowboys and horses. Individuals who separated cattle from the herd required the highest level of skill and rode specially trained "cutting" horses, trained to follow the movements of cattle, capable of stopping and turning faster than other horses. Once cattle were sorted, most cowboys were required to rope young calves and restrain them to be branded and (in the case of most bull calves) castrated. Occasionally it was also necessary to restrain older cattle for branding or other treatment.
A large number of horses were needed for a roundup. Each cowboy would require three to four fresh horses in the course of a day's work. Horses themselves were also rounded up. It was common practice in the west for young foals to be born of tame mares, but allowed to grow up "wild" in a semi-feral state on the open range. There were also "wild" herds, often known as mustangs. Both types were rounded up, and the mature animals tamed, a process called horse breaking, or "bronco-busting," (var. "bronc busting") usually performed by cowboys who specialized in training horses. In some cases, extremely brutal methods were used to tame horses, and such animals tended to never be completely reliable. However, other cowboys became aware of the need to treat animals in a more humane fashion and modified their horse training methods, often re-learning techniques used by the vaqueros, particularly those of the Californio tradition. Horses trained in a gentler fashion were more reliable and useful for a wider variety of tasks.
Informal competition arose between cowboys seeking to test their cattle and horse-handling skills against one another, and thus, from the necessary tasks of the working cowboy, the sport of rodeo developed.
The first large-scale effort to drive cattle from Texas to the nearest railhead for shipment to Chicago occurred in 1866, when many Texas ranchers banded together to drive their cattle to the closest point that railroad tracks reached, which at that time was in Sedalia, Missouri. However, farmers in eastern Kansas, afraid that Longhorns would transmit cattle fever to local animals as well as trample crops, formed groups that threatened to beat or shoot cattlemen found on their lands. Therefore, the 1866 drive failed to reach the railroad, and the cattle herds were sold for low prices. However, in 1867, a cattle shipping facility was built west of farm country around the railhead at Abilene, Kansas, and became a center of cattle shipping, loading over 36,000 head of cattle that year. The route from Texas to Abilene became known as the Chisholm Trail, after Jesse Chisholm, who marked out the route. It ran through present-day Oklahoma, which then was Indian Territory. However, in spite of Hollywood portrayals of the west, there were relatively few conflicts with Native Americans, who usually allowed cattle herds to pass through for a toll of ten cents a head. Later, other trails forked off to different railheads, including those at Dodge City and Wichita, Kansas. By 1877, the largest of the cattle-shipping boom towns, Dodge City, Kansas, shipped out 500,000 head of cattle.
Cattle drives had to strike a balance between speed and the weight of the cattle. While cattle could be driven as far as 25 miles in a single day, they would lose so much weight that they would be hard to sell when they reached the end of the trail. Usually they were taken shorter distances each day, allowed periods to rest and graze both at midday and at night. On average, a herd could maintain a healthy weight moving about 15 miles per day. Such a pace meant that it would take as long as two months to travel from a home ranch to a railhead. The Chisholm trail, for example, was 1,000 miles long.
On average, a single herd of cattle on a drive numbered about 3,000 head. To herd the cattle, a crew of at least 10 cowboys was needed, with three horses per cowboy. Cowboys worked in shifts to watch the cattle 24 hours a day, herding them in the proper direction in the daytime and watching them at night to prevent stampedes and deter theft. The crew also included a cook, who drove a chuck wagon, usually pulled by oxen, and a horse wrangler to take charge of the remuda, or herd of spare horses. The wrangler on a cattle drive was often a very young cowboy or one of lower social status, but the cook was a particularly well-respected member of the crew, as not only was he in charge of the food, he also was in charge of medical supplies and had a working knowledge of practical medicine.
By the 1880s, the expansion of the cattle industry resulted the need for additional open range. Thus many ranchers expanded into the northwest, where there were still large tracts of unsettled grassland. Texas cattle were herded north, into the Rocky Mountain west and the Dakotas. The cowboy adapted much of his gear to the colder conditions, and westward movement of the industry also led to intermingling of numerous regional traditions from California to Texas, often with the cowboy taking the most useful elements of each.
Barbed wire, an innovation of the 1880s, allowed cattle to be confined to designated areas to prevent overgrazing of the range. In Texas and surrounding areas, increased population required ranchers to fence off their individual lands. In the north, overgrazing stressed the open range, leading to insufficient winter forage for the cattle and starvation, particularly during the harsh winter of 1886-1887, when hundreds of thousands of cattle died across the Northwest, leading to collapse of the cattle industry. By the 1890s, barbed wire fencing was also standard in the northern plains, railroads had expanded to cover most of the nation, and meat packing plants were built closer to major ranching areas, making long cattle drives from Texas to the railheads in Kansas unnecessary. Hence, the age of the open range was gone and large cattle drives were over. Smaller cattle drives continued at least into the 1940s, as ranchers, prior to the development of the modern cattle truck, still needed to herd cattle to local railheads for transport to stockyards and packing plants. Meanwhile, ranches multiplied all over the developing West, keeping cowboy employment high, if still low-paid, but also somewhat more settled.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Western movies popularized the cowboy lifestyle but also formed persistent stereotypes. In pop culture, the cowboy and the gunslinger are often associated with one another. In reality, working ranch hands had very little time for anything other than the constant, hard work involved in maintaining a ranch. Likewise, cowboys are often shown fighting with American Indians. However, the reality was that, while cowboys were armed against both predators and human thieves, and often used their guns to run off people of any race who attempted to steal, or rustle cattle, nearly all actual armed conflicts occurred between Indian people and cavalry units of the U.S. Army.
Today, the various regional cowboy traditions have merged to some extent, though a few regional differences in equipment and riding style still remain, and some individuals choose to deliberately preserve the more time-consuming but highly skilled techniques of the pure vaquero or "buckaroo" tradition. The popular "horse whisperer" style of natural horsemanship was originally developed by practitioners who were predominantly from California and the Northwestern states, clearly combining the attitudes and philosophy of the California vaquero with the equipment and outward look of the Texas cowboy.
There are few records mentioning girls or women working to drive cattle up the cattle trails of the Old West. However women did considerable ranch work, and in some cases (especially when the men went to war or on long cattle drives) ran them. There is little doubt that women, particularly the wives and daughters of men who owned small ranches and could not afford to hire large numbers of outside laborers, worked side by side with men and thus needed to ride horses and be able to perform related tasks. The largely undocumented contributions of women to the west were acknowledged in law; the western states led the United States in granting women the right to vote, beginning with Wyoming in 1869. Early photographers such as Evelyn Cameron documented the life of working ranch women and cowgirls during the late 19th and early 20th century.
While impractical for everyday work, the sidesaddle was a tool that gave women the ability to ride horses in "respectable" public settings instead of being left on foot or confined to horse-drawn vehicles. Following the Civil War, Charles Goodnight modified the traditional English sidesaddle, creating a western-styled design. The traditional charras of Mexico preserve a similar tradition and ride sidesaddles today in charreada exhibitions on both sides of the border.
It wasn't until the advent of Wild West Shows that "cowgirls" came into their own. These adult women were skilled performers, demonstrating riding, expert marksmanship, and trick roping that entertained audiences around the world. Women such as Annie Oakley became household names. By 1900, skirts split for riding astride became popular, and allowed women to compete with the men without scandalizing Victorian Era audiences by wearing men's clothing or, worse yet, bloomers. In the movies that followed from the early 20th century on, cowgirls expanded their roles in the popular culture and movie designers developed attractive clothing suitable for riding Western saddles.
Independently of the entertainment industry, the growth of rodeo brought about another type of cowgirl—the rodeo cowgirl. In the early Wild West shows and rodeos, women competed in all events, sometimes against other women, sometimes with the men. Cowgirls such as Fannie Sperry Steele rode the same "rough stock" and took the same risks as the men (and all while wearing a heavy split skirt that was still more encumbering than men's trousers) and competed at major rodeos such as the Calgary Stampede and Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Rodeo competition for women changed after 1925 when Eastern promoters started staging indoor rodeos in places like Madison Square Garden. Women were generally excluded from the men's events and many of the women's events were dropped. In today's rodeos, men and women compete equally together only in the event of team roping, though technically women today could enter other open events. There also are all-women rodeos where women compete in bronc riding, bull riding and all other traditional rodeo events. However, in open rodeos, cowgirls primarily compete in the timed riding events such as barrel racing, and most professional rodeos do not offer as many women's events as men's events.
Boys and girls are more apt to compete against one another in all events in high-school rodeos as well as O-Mok-See competition, where even boys can be seen in traditionally "women's" events such as barrel racing. Outside of the rodeo world, women compete equally with men in nearly all other equestrian events, including the Olympics, and western riding events such as cutting, reining, and endurance riding.
Today's working cowgirls generally use clothing, tools and equipment indistinguishable from that of men, other than in color and design, usually preferring a flashier look in competition. Sidesaddles are only seen in exhibitions and a limited number of specialty horse show classes. A cowgirl wears jeans, close-fitting shirts, boots, hat, and when needed, chaps and gloves. If working on the ranch, they perform the same chores as cowboys and dress to suit the situation.
Following the American Civil War, vaquero culture diffused eastward and northward, combining with the cow herding traditions of the eastern United States that evolved as settlers moved west. Other influences developed out of Texas as cattle trails were created to meet up with the railroad lines of Kansas and Nebraska, in addition to expanding ranching opportunities in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain Front, east of the Continental Divide.
Thus, the Texas cowboy tradition arose from a combination of cultural influences, in addition to the need for adaptation to the geography and climate of west Texas and the need to conduct long cattle drives to get animals to market.
Cowboys of this tradition were dubbed buckaroos by English-speaking settlers. The term officially appeared in American English in 1889 and is believed to have originated as an anglicized version of vaquero, though there is a folk etymology that the term derived from "bucking", a behavior seen in some young or fresh horses. The words "buckaroo" and Vaquero are still used on occasion in the Great Basin, parts of California and, less often, in the Pacific Northwest.
The Florida "cowhunter" or "cracker cowboy" of the 19th and early 20th centuries was distinct from the Texas and California traditions. Florida cowboys did not use lassos to herd or capture cattle. Their primary tools were bullwhips and dogs. Florida cattle and horses were small. The "cracker cow", also known as the "native cow", or "scrub cow" averaged about 600 pounds, had large horns and large feet.
Since the Florida cowhunter didn't need a saddle horn for anchoring a lariat, many did not use Western saddles, instead using a McClellan saddle. While some individuals wore boots that reached above the knees for protection from snakes, others wore brogans. They usually wore inexpensive wool or straw hats, and used ponchos for protection from rain.
Cattle and horses were introduced into Florida late in the 16th century. Throughout the 17th century, cattle ranches owned by Spanish officials and missions operated in northern Florida to supply the Spanish garrison in St. Augustine and markets in Cuba. These ranches brought in some vaqueros from Spain, but many of the workers were Timucua Indians. Diseases and Spanish suppression of rebellions severely reduced the Timucua population. By the beginning of the 18th century, raids by soldiers from the Province of Carolina and their Indian allies reduced the Timucuas to a remnant and ended the Spanish ranching era.
In the 18th century, Creek, Seminole, and other Indian people moved into the former Timucua areas and started herding the cattle left from the Spanish ranches. In the 19th century, most tribes in the area were dispossessed of their land and cattle and pushed south or west by white settlers and the United States government. By the middle of the 19th century white ranchers were running large herds of cattle on the extensive open range of central and southern Florida. The hides and meat from Florida cattle became such a critical supply item for the Confederacy during the American Civil War that a "Cow Cavalry" was organized to round up and protect the herds from Union raiders. After the Civil War, Florida cattle were periodically driven to ports on the Gulf of Mexico and shipped to market in Cuba.
By the early 1800s, Capt. George Vancouver's gift of cattle to Pai`ea Kamehameha, monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, had multiplied astonishingly, and were wreaking havoc throughout the countryside. About 1812, John Parker, a sailor who had jumped ship and settled in the islands, received permission from Kamehameha to capture the wild cattle and develop a beef industry.
The Hawaiian style of ranching originally included capturing wild cattle by driving them into pits dug in the forest floor. Once tamed somewhat by hunger and thirst, they were hauled out up a steep ramp, and tied by their horns to the horns of a tame, older steer (or ox) that knew where the paddock with food and water was located. The industry grew slowly under the reign of Kamehameha's son Liholiho (Kamehameha II)
Later, Liholiho's brother, Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), visited California, then still a part of Mexico. He was impressed with the skill of the Mexican vaqueros, and invited several to Hawai`i in 1832 to teach the Hawaiian people how to work cattle.
Even today, traditional paniolo dress, as well as certain styles of Hawaiian formal attire, reflect the Spanish heritage of the vaquero. The traditional Hawaiian saddle, the noho lio, and many other tools of the cowboy's trade have a distinctly Mexican/Spanish look and many Hawaiian ranching families still carry the names of the vaqueros who married Hawaiian women and made Hawai`i their home.
Today, the "Salt Water Cowboys" are known for rounding up the feral Chincoteague Ponies from Assateague Island and driving them across Assateague Channel into pens on Chincoteague Island, Virginia during the annual Pony Penning.
In Australia, which has a large ranch (station) culture, cowboys are known as stockmen and drovers (with trainee stockmen referred to as jackaroos and jillaroos). The Spanish tradition also influenced Australia, both via concepts adapted from the Americas, and traditions brought directly from Spain, each of which arrived along with imports of various breeds of horses, cattle, sheep and other livestock.
The idea of horseback riders who guard herds of cattle, sheep or horses is common wherever wide, open land for grazing exists. In the French Camargue, riders called "gardians" herd cattle. In Hungary, csikós guard horses and gulyás tend to cattle. The herders in the region of Maremma, in Tuscany (Italy) are called butteros. The Asturian pastoral population is referred to as Vaqueiros de alzada.
On the ranch, the cowboy is responsible for feeding the livestock, branding and earmarking cattle (horses also are branded on many ranches), plus tending to animal injuries and other needs. The working cowboy usually is in charge of a small group or "string" of horses and is required to routinely patrol the rangeland in all weather conditions checking for damaged fences, evidence of predation, water problems, and any other issue of concern.
They also move the livestock to different pasture locations, or herd them into corrals and onto trucks for transport. In addition, cowboys may do many other jobs, depending on the size of the "outfit" or ranch, the terrain, and the number of livestock. On a smaller ranch with fewer cowboys—often just family members, cowboys are generalists who perform many all-around tasks; they repair fences, maintain ranch equipment, and perform other odd jobs. On a very large ranch (a "big outfit"), with many employees, cowboys are able to specialize on tasks solely related to cattle and horses. Cowboys who train horses often specialize in this task only, and some may "Break" or train young horses for more than one ranch.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics collects no figures for cowboys, so the exact number of working cowboys is unknown. Cowboys are included in the 2003 category, Support activities for animal production, which totals 9,730 workers averaging $19,340 per annum. In addition to cowboys working on ranches, in stockyards, and as staff or competitors at rodeos, the category includes farmhands working with other types of livestock (sheep, goats, hogs, chickens, etc.). Of those 9,730 workers, 3,290 are listed in the subcategory of Spectator sports which includes rodeos, circuses, and theaters needing livestock handlers.
Many of these items show marked regional variations. Parameters such as hat brim width, or chap length and material were adjusted to accommodate the various environmental conditions encountered by working cowboys.
A good stock horse is on the small side, generally under 15.2 hands (62 inches) tall at the withers and often under 1000 pounds, with a short back, sturdy legs and strong muscling, particularly in the hindquarters. While a steer roping horse may need to be larger and weigh more in order to hold a heavy adult cow, bull or steer on a rope, a smaller, quick horse is needed for herding activities such as cutting or calf roping. The horse has to be intelligent, calm under pressure and have a certain degree of 'cow sense" -- the ability to anticipate the movement and behavior of cattle.
Many breeds of horse make good stock horses, but the most common today in North America is the American Quarter Horse, which is a horse breed developed primarily in Texas from a combination of Thoroughbred bloodstock crossed on horses of Mustang and other Iberian horse ancestry, with influences from the Arabian horse and horses developed on the east coast, such as the Morgan horse and now-extinct breeds such as the Chickasaw and Virginia Quarter-Miler.
Equipment used to ride a horse is referred to as tack and includes:
The word rodeo is from the Spanish rodear (to turn), which means roundup. In the beginning there was no difference between the working cowboy and the rodeo cowboy, and in fact, the term working cowboy did not come into use until the 1950s. Prior to that it was assumed that all cowboys were working cowboys. Early cowboys both worked on ranches and displayed their skills at the roundups.
The advent of professional rodeos allowed cowboys, like many athletes, to earn a living by performing their skills before an audience. Rodeos also provided employment for many working cowboys who were needed to handle livestock. Many rodeo cowboys are also working cowboys and most have working cowboy experience.
The dress of the rodeo cowboy is not very different from that of the working cowboy on his way to town. Snaps, used in lieu of buttons on the cowboy's shirt, allowed the cowboy to escape from a shirt snagged by the horns of steer or bull. Styles were often adapted from the early movie industry for the rodeo. Some rodeo competitors, particularly women, add sequins, colors, silver and long fringes to their clothing in both a nod to tradition and showmanship. Modern riders in "rough stock" events such as saddle bronc or bull riding may add safety equipment such as kevlar vests or a neck brace, but use of safety helmets in lieu of the cowboy hat is yet to be accepted, in spite of constant risk of injury.
In today's society, there is little understanding of the daily realities of actual agricultural life. Cowboys are more often associated with (mostly fictitious) Indian-fighting than with their actual life of ranch work and cattle-tending. Actors such as John Wayne are thought of as exemplifying a cowboy ideal, even though western movies seldom bear much resemblance to real cowboy life. Arguably, the modern rodeo competitor is much closer to being an actual cowboy, as many were actually raised on ranches and around livestock, and the rest have needed to learn livestock-handling skills on the job.
However, in the United States and the Canadian West, as well as Australia, guest ranches offer people the opportunity to ride horses and get a taste of the western life—albeit in far greater comfort. Some ranches also offer vacationers the opportunity to actually perform cowboy tasks by participating in cattle drives or accompanying wagon trains. This type of vacation was popularized by the 1991 movie City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal.
However, many people, particularly in the West, wear elements of Western clothing, particularly cowboy boots or hats, as a matter of form even though they have other jobs, up to and including lawyers, bankers, and other white collar professionals. Conversely, some people raised on ranches do not necessarily define themselves cowboys or cowgirls unless they feel their primary job is to work with livestock or if they compete in rodeos.
Actual cowboys in general tend to value personal honesty and have derisive expressions for individuals who adopt cowboy mannerisms as a fashion pose without any actual understanding of the culture. For example, a "drugstore cowboy" means someone who wears the clothing but cannot actually ride anything but the stool of the drugstore soda fountain--or, in modern times, a bar stool. The phrase, "all hat and no cattle," is used to describe someone (usually male) who boasts about himself, far in excess of any actual accomplishments. The word "dude" (or the now-archaic term "greenhorn") indicates an individual unfamiliar with cowboy culture, especially one who is trying to pretend otherwise.
Outside of the United States, the cowboy became an archetypal symbol of American individualism. In the late 1950s, a Congolese youth subculture calling themselves the Bills based their style and outlook on Hollywood's depiction of cowboys in movies. Something similar occurred with the term "Apache," which in early twentieth century Parisian society was a slang term for an outlaw.
"Cowboy" as an adjective for "reckless" developed in the 1920s."Cowboy" is sometimes used today in a derogatory sense to describe someone who is reckless or ignores potential risks, irresponsible or who heedlessly handles a sensitive or dangerous task. For example, TIME Magazine had a cover article referring to President George W. Bush's foreign policy as "Cowboy Diplomacy, and Bush has been described in the press, particularly in Europe, as a "cowboy".
In the British Islands, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, "cowboy" is used as an adjective when applied to tradesmen whose work is of shoddy and questionable value, e.g., "a cowboy plumber". Similar usage is seen in the United States to describe someone in the skilled trades who operates without proper training or licenses. In the eastern United States, "cowboy" as a noun is sometimes used to describe a fast or careless driver on the highway.