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So…What IS a Cowboy?

Oh, cowboys. How we are drawn to you.

Some may see a cowboy from a distance and look on with awe: wooed, imagining a life working with beautiful horses and riding into the sunset.

(I worked in a bookstore and piled up many books with a handsome, rustic, and romantic cowboy holding a smiling, beautiful woman in his arms. Cowboys are the making of a good romance, right??)

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And those who work with a cowboy know him as a hard-working, go-to kinda guy. He is more than able to get the job done and just might prefer being sent off by himself to do the work he loves.

There are a few words that come to mind when I think of a cowboy. These words encompass many cowboys but as with anyone, they also barely scratch the surface. There really is no way to describe any one of us in full detail, with just a few words. In its entirety, the human race is deep and complex.

And our hearts, oh, our hearts: a puzzle that no one can quite figure out.

Who are you? What are you?

What IS a cowboy?

Cowboy | Cowboy Lifestyle | Work of a Cowboy | Cowboys and horses | What is a cowboy? There are a few words that come to mind when I think of a cowboy. What is revealed when the layers are pealed away?

ICONIC

Again, referring to the romance novels, there is just something about that six o’clock shadow, tipped cowboy hat, and those jeans…

Cowboys represent a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time. They are the essence of nostalgia. Some of the first movies made were of these heroes racing across the rocked-filled, treacherous desert on their noble and fearless horse. Giving justice and protecting peace at whatever the cost to their lives. After they had finished protecting all that was theirs, these men grabbed their women in a sturdy grasp and planted a firm kiss, squarely on her lips. They knew their purpose and they were planted deeply in their destiny.

These iconic cowboys are not only from the past.

Although now, truly the times and ways of cowboys are quite different from 100 years ago, lingering in each cowboy today is that cowboy of old. That desire for wide-open spaces, the free-roaming nature that is so hard to put away, and the desire to put this world right are all hidden deep in the heart of a cowboy.

HARDENED

There are more than enough cowboys who are hardened. For whatever reason: their life stories, experiences, and the jobs they do, almost always require them to have a tough shell. They spend countless hours with their friends: those of hairier hides and superior listening skills. A cowboy’s dog and horse know more secrets than any other man and woman will ever know about him.

These hairy friends have taken part in the good days. The cowboy’s horse has felt the excitement quiver down his legs and into those boots as they chased down a cow. These loyal friends have taken part in the lighthearted fun as he kicked it up a notch to chase down an elk with a loop hanging, ready to be swung.

They also have witnessed many bad days as the discouragement dripped off the tip of his hat and down his rope. It’s tough to have a bad roping day in the branding pen. Or when it seems endless and overwhelming the amount of work needing to be done.

All through the days of sun, rain, snow, and fog, these two friends looked on. The horse always willing to give a lighthearted nudge and the dog ready to roll over and thump his tail loudly, tongue lolling.

We’ve all watched The Man From Snowy River and cried along with him when he awakes to his dear horse gone, dead. The horse gave all and that cowboy felt it. Deeply.

And when you feel things so deeply, it is natural to shut it all off. To harden. To close off.

Because hurting hurts. But it doesn’t hurt as bad when the decision to protect the inner heart and soul wins out and hardening occurs. 

This hardening happens over time over countless scenarios.

HARDWORKING

No one will deny that most cowboys are hardworking. That’s what they know. Their etiquette and their ability to manage time efficiently might be lacking. But what they see is a lot of work to be done and without a moment’s pause, they get after it. This may mean working on the closest project or the proverbial fire that needs attending at the moment.

There are a lot of fires to extinguish in the cowboy world. There are always cows or horses in the wrong pasture and therefore fences to be mended. Immediately. There is always hay to be cut, baled, and moved or located in the spring when the last stitch has been fed.

Equipment, the cowboy’s arch-nemesis, is always sorely in need of repair and all too quickly horses need to be reshod.

Life: the continual, cyclical cycle.

EGOTISTICAL

It’s gotta be said. In reality, most people have their moments of ego.

But with cowboys…there’s that swagger. Egos in the branding pen, egos about training horses, egos about anything cow. Shoot, even mending fences can bring it out.

Why? Because there’s one way to do it…and the cowboy is always right, right?

MYSTERIOUS 

Those romance novels camp on it. A cowboy is mysterious. It’s the allure. We can’t help but wonder what’s cooking under that skewed hat.

It’s true. Cowboys…well, men in general, are more than good at hiding their true feelings, keeping a tight lip on the day-to-day “stuff” and tending to a poker face. Boy, is it a mystery as to why they prefer mystery!

INSECURE

Why are they egotistical and mysterious? Maybe, just-ever-so-slightly-maybe, it’s because these fine fellas are a bit insecure. Again, everyone has their insecurities but in settings where horses, cows, dogs, wives, other men, and a destination with a time schedule, are all combined, these insecurities can run amuck. And then it seems more than likely that these insecurities easily manifest as ego.

There are so many ways and situations to be insecure in the western culture. The cowboy wonders if he could have done more for the cow who just lost her calf. He works so hard and doesn’t have nearly enough time to practice roping and “daggonit, why can’t I just catch two hind feet for once??”

“Did I do that right? Make the right decision there? Do enough with that?” It’s a job with never-ending questions and wonderings if things could have been done better or differently. And a work environment like that seems to be a ripe breeding ground for insecurity.

TOUGH

OK, these guys can handle more bodily injury than several people put together. The horse comes uncorked and leaves a snapped collarbone, separated clavicles, or broken ribs in its wake. And these cowboys get back on. Why? Because you never, ever let the horse have the final say. 

They stack, literally, hundreds of tons of hay in their life. Not to mention hauling bucket after bucket of water to horses in the cold winter months. The abuse their fingers take when they are pulling a wet, slimy calf in the frigid winter months, is far, far beyond comfortable. They get pushed around by mama cows, stepped on by sharp hooves. And yet every day they face it all over again. They probably don’t even remember the pain from the day before apart from seeing that unsightly bruise on their leg or foot when they get dressed in the morning. 

STORYTELLERS

Oh, and the stories they can tell! “That horse had me wrapped up three…no, four times, I think it was before she came uncorked and dumped me right on my head!”

“I had that cow tied upright in the middle of the pasture when my horse decided it was time to high tail it back to the barn…”

“I remember that day. It was 102 degrees and I was in a 15,000-acre pasture looking for 200 head. I was the only one on the south side of the pasture. My dog had the Hershey squirts from the rank water he drank…haha! Golly what a day!”

“I had a loop made in my 40-foot rope and I kicked up my horse. I was headed to rope that elk…”

For sure, the cowboy has his stories to tell. It is a job that is never the same and always filled with adventure. And oh, what great stories it weaves!

STUBBORN

Oh, man. These men. They.are.stubborn. It must come with the territory. Really, who would continue on as a cowboy, but a cowboy? It’s certainly not the wages or the air-conditioned offices that keep them. 

When these men get it in their heads that something is right or wrong, done this way or that way, it would take an act of God to get them out of their rut. And if it does happen to be a wrong outcome or decision…well, refer back to HARDENED and INSECURE.

DREAMERS

The west was won by its pioneers, settlers, adventurers and is long gone now. Yet it is theirs forever, for they left tracks in history that will never be eroded by wind or rain – never plowed under by tractors, never buried in the compost of events. Out of the hard simplicity of their lives, out of their vitality, of their hopes and sorrows, grew legends of courage and pride to inspire their children and their children’s children…All the heritage of a people free to dream, free to act, free to mold their own destiny.

The west was won by dreams. It seems the hardest part for cowboys is to retain those dreams when the harsh reality of the west makes itself known through hard winters, hard work, and hard circumstances. But the idea that the end of the trail will lead to green pastures and wide-open spaces, keeps the cowboys every day working their hardest, pushing through their insecurities, and stubbornly moving forward. 

FRAGILE

Have you ever seen your daddy cry? It’s the most heartbreaking tears to witness. The same for cowboy tears. When they fill up enough to let those tears loose, it means there was a deep well of a lot going on inside.

Brokenness. Even the toughest of souls find brokenness at some point in their lives. And that brokenness reveals just how fragile the tough exterior is. 

LOVERS

In outward appearances, it may appear that they are lovers of themselves. But with our understanding now of their mysterious hearts, it becomes clear that they are more than likely a little insecure and their egos can’t help but flaunt their know-how. It’s a small glimpse into a desire to be accepted and loved.  

They are gruff and tough because that’s how they were raised. They have a hard time really showing how much they are capable of love because there isn’t time for vulnerability when there is so much to get done.  

But when caught in that rare moment…

It becomes very clear that the dog truly wins his heart. Yes, we notice that piece of meat slipped under that table, the extra pat and tickle down that hairy spine. Knowing those tears would unleash if ever something were to happen to that special, one-of-a-kind dog. 

Actually, the truth is: if you have caught his heart, he will work harder and love you and the family and home you create together more than anyone else out there. 


What is a cowboy? To answer that question, it helps to have a cowboy, know a cowboy, or be a cowboy but that doesn’t mean he will be easy to figure out or understand. 

Handle with care this mysterious, tough, hard-working, dreamer. He is one of a kind. 

What words would you add to the list and why?

Cowboy | Cowboy Lifestyle | Work of a Cowboy | Cowboys and horses | What is a cowboy? There are a few words that come to mind when I think of a cowboy. What is revealed when the layers are pealed away?

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