A Cowboy Relied On The Horse To Carry Out His Work
The American Quarter Horse is an American breed of horse that excels at sprinting short distances. Its name came from its ability to outdistance other breeds of horses in races of a quarter mile or less; some individuals have been clocked at speeds up to 55 mph. The compact body of the American Quarter Horse is well-suited to the intricate and speedy maneuvers required in reining, cutting, and calf roping. The colonial "Quarter Horse." the breed is sometimes referred to as the "Famous American Quarter Running Horse." The resulting horse was small, hardy, and quick, and was used as a work horse during the week and a race horse on the weekends.
In the 19th century, pioneers heading West needed a hardy, willing horse. On the Great Plains, settlers encountered horses that descended from the Spanish stock HernÃ¡n Cortés and other Conquistadors had introduced into the viceroyalty of New Spain, which today includes the Southwestern United States and Mexico. These horses of the west included herds of feral animals known as Mustangs, as well as horses domesticated by Native Americans, including the Comanche, Shoshoni and Nez Perce tribes. As the colonial Quarter Horse was crossed with these western horses, the pioneers found that the new crossbred had innate "cow sense," a natural instinct for working with cattle, making it popular with cattlemen on ranches.
The Pony Express rider made his mark in an extremely short period of time. The glory days of another western figure, the cowboy, would also be brief, lasting little more than 20 years. Yet in these two decades the cowboy would become not only the West's most celebrated type but also the folk hero of a nation. And like the stagecoach and Pony Express riders, the cowboy relied on the horse to carry out his work. "A cow outfit is no better than its horses," was a popular cowboy saying, around 1870.
In the years between 1866 and 1886, some 40,000 cowboys drove more than 9 million head of cattle from Texas, where they were raised, to railroad centers in Kansas some 500 miles north. From there, the cattle were shipped to slaughterhouses in Chicago, where they were killed and turned into the meat that fed the nation and much of the world. During that period, the beef industry grew so large that 1,365,000 square miles - 44 percent of all the land in the United States - was devoted to cattle raising. The cowboy was at the center of this enormous venture.
Perhaps more books, plays, songs, movies, and television programs have been written about the cowboy than any other figure in popular American culture. Many of these depictions are romanticized, portraying the cowboy as a rugged individual in a stunning landscape. In reality, the cowboy was a tough, often lonely man with a hard job to do. And almost everything he did was on horseback.
The first cowboys were Mexicans called "vaqueros" (vaca is the Spanish word for "cow"). The early vaqueros tended the cattle on ranches operated either by wealthy Spanish landowners or by the Spanish Catholic church, which established ranches adjacent to many of their missions in Mexican territory. Throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the vaqueros tended these ranches, creating and perfecting the aspects of cattle raising that would come to mark the American cowboy's way of life.
Large-scale ranching began in the United States immediately after the end of the Civil War in 1865. Many of the American cowboys were veterans of that conflict. The type of clothes they wore, the equipment they used, the techniques they employed, even many of the terms they used in speaking were all taken in one form or another from the vaqueros. Most important, the American cowboys acquired from the vaqueros their skill on horseback.
Like the cattle they tended, most of the cowboys' horses were descendants of the animals that the Spanish had brought to the New World. Over the cen turies, these horses, like the cattle, had multiplied and roamed freely over the countryside. Cattle raising required the participation of scores of horses, and in the late spring cowboys captured wild horses and took them back to the ranch, where specially skilled cowmen known as broncobusters carried out the difficult and dangerous job of taming them.
The life of the cowboy centered around three basic activities - tending the range, the roundup, and the cattle drive. Tending the range involved riding hun dreds of miles to oversee the cattle as they roamed in search of the best grazing areas. One of the cowhand's main tasks was to keep the steers and calves from wandering onto neighboring spreads. He also had to prevent the cattle from feeding on poisonous bushes or drinking from any of the contaminated water holes that dotted the cattle country. Often the cowhands had to rescue animals that had fallen into gullies or managed to squeeze themselves between tall rocks.
The roundup was one of the highlights of the cowboy's year. Each spring, cowhands from various neighboring ranches spread out across the range and located the cattle that belonged to their ranch. They then drove the animals to a central location where the calves that had been born since the previous roundup were branded with the special mark of their ranch. Using a hot iron, a cowboy seared the brand into the calf's skin.
The work of the roundup required the skills of both the cowboys and the horses. The cowhands rode hundreds of miles locating the cattle and gathering the herds together. In order to do this, they needed three or four fresh mounts each day. In addition, the cowboys relied on specially trained horses to perform the demanding tasks of separating the calves to be branded from the herd, roping them, and dragging them to the branding area.
During the roundup, these horses were kept in a large roped-off corral called a "remuda," the Spanish word for "replacement." One of the ranch's youngest cowhands, called a wrangler, tended the horses in the remuda. His main job was to keep each horse fresh and ready when a cowboy selected it for a special task.
Separating the calves from the herd was perhaps the most demanding task. It was accomplished by using "cutting horses," which were trained to step gen tly so as not to excite the milling cattle. Once a cowboy astride a cutting horse located a calf to be separated from the herd, the horse worked itself between the targeted calf and the rest of the herd. As the frightened calf frantically tried to return to the herd, the cutting horse, trained literally to stop, start, and turn on a dime, kept moving the animal away from the rest of the cattle until it was completely clear of the herd and could be roped. A good cutting horse could accomplish this without any directions from its rider.
The job of securing the separated calves fell to other highly trained animals known as roping horses. This animal was skilled at carrying a rider alongside a racing calf or steer and placing itself in the best position for the cowboy to throw a rope around the animal. Once the rope was secure, the roping horse came to an abrupt halt and planted its feet securely in the earth, holding the rope taut while its rider dismounted and threw the calf to the ground. With the help of other cowhands, the roper tied the calf's four feet together. The secured animal was then dragged to the branding pen.
All the work of the roundup was a prelude to the long trail drive, in which some 3,000 head of cattle would be driven hundreds of miles northward over one of several trails that led to the railroad yards. Each cattle drive was a highly organized undertaking. In order to keep the cattle moving at a steady pace without straying, each cowboy rode in a designated place. At the front of the herd, the cook drove his horse-drawn vehicle, known as the chuck wagon, from which he prepared meals and fed the cowboys their breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The drive boss also rode at the head of the cattle, while other cowhands maintained positions at either side of the advancing herd.
Toward the back 'of the herd and off to one side, the wrangler led the remuda containing the various types of horses needed to complete the drive. The least experienced cowboys took positions at the rear of the pack, where they choked on the dust constantly kicked up by thousands of animals.
As in the roundup, the cattle drive required the use of a variety of specially skilled horses. Of these, the swimming horses were perhaps the most important. The long trails northward contained many rivers that had to be crossed, always a dangerous maneuver. Swimming horses were trained to find the safest place to lead the herd across a river. The cattle, afraid of water, were easily spooked, but the swimming horses had the ability to coax them into the river, keep them moving, and lead them to the opposite bank.
A trail drive could take as long as three months to complete. Once it was over and the cattle were herded onto waiting railroad cars, the cowboys were free to "relax" in one of the many rowdy towns that grew up alongside the railroad centers. When their carousing was over, many of the cowhands returned to the cattle country, where the yearly cycle of range tending, roundup, and trail drive was repeated.
As with the stagecoach and Pony Express riders, technological advances brought the heyday of the cowboy to an end. By the late 1880s, the railroad had made its way into cattle country, making it possible to ship the herds directly from the range to the slaughterhouses. The long cattle drive became unnecessary. Two other factors also played a role in altering the life the cowboys had known. As millions of settlers arrived in the West, they fenced in the open range that had been at the heart of large-scale cattle raising. And in 1886, the severest winter in its history hit the cattle country. As hurricane-force winds swept the prairies and temperatures plummeted to -20-° F, hundreds of thousands of cattle froze to death. It was the final blow to raising cattle on the range, one of the most colorful chapters in the nation's history.
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