I am not a cowboy by birth. No, I was born in the big city. A city slicker. I only became a cowboy, in my dreams, through Saturday morning Westerns on TV and Western movies starring John Wayne and James Stewart. So when I started to write Westerns, a friend of mine asked what were the essential items a cowboy needed? To be honest, I was stumped. What does a cowboy need to be a cowboy?
First off, this is kind of a no brainer. He’s got to have a horse—a well-trained and strong horse. It doesn’t matter if it’s Appaloosa or Paint as long as it is young, smart and a good horse. No swaybacks need apply, and no lumbering plow horses, either.
Then you can ride a horse without a saddle but not that well. So the saddle is essential to being a cowboy because you can hang a rope off it, your rifle scabbard, and tie your bed roll to the rear edge of it. The saddle also is used extensively when wrangling cattle or horses. Once you lasso the critter, you tie off the rope the saddle horn, thus freeing up your hands to do other work. It also keeps the critter from pulling you off the horse when it decides not to cooperate.
It stands to reason, I guess, if you’re going to be wrangling cattle or horses or maybe a wayward lady or two, you’ll need a rope with which to lasso the critters. It’s got to be a strong rope at least thirty feet long. In fact, you might want two ropes in case you need to scale down some rocks to chase a wayward calf or rescue some greenhorn, who fell down the steep hill face.
The cowboy also has to be prepared to defend himself against rustlers, Indians and wild animals, so he’s gonna need his six shooter and a repeating rifle. Of course, that’s two items, but I’ll classify them as being two parts of the whole, under protection. I think most cowboys, at least in the movies, preferred a Colt cartridge revolver and a Winchester rifle. If a man is smart, he makes sure both weapons fire the same caliber cartridge. That way he always has cartridges for either weapon. Of course, under protection, he also needs to have a knife. It’s good for fighting off Indians and for skinning that varmint for dinner. It’s also handy for cutting ropes, cow hide and whittling around the campfire after riding herd all day.
It seems to me, I’ve never seen a cowboy without his hat. So a hat must be an essential tool of the cowboy, too. It keeps the sun from beating down on his head and causing heat stroke. It helps shed the rain and snow, and it’s really good at hiding the bad haircut the cook gave you on the trail.
Right next to a man’s hat is his bandana. It’s a multi-purpose tool. First, it keeps the sun off your neck. Next, it catches the sweat that drips down your neck. Then you use it to wipe the dust, dirty, sweat and blood off your face. When you need to cool down, you can pour cool water over it and wipe or wrap it around your neck. If you get hurt, it functions as a bandage, tourniquet or a sling. If you lose your hat, you can wear it on your head to keep the sun off you. Yeah, your bandana is an essential tool, too.
And then there’s a cowboy’s chaps. If you’re gonna go into the brush after strays, you had better be wearing chaps because otherwise the thorns will shred your pants in short order.
Next, you’ll need to have a solid pair of gloves. Rawhide gloves. Can’t be wrestling ropes and critters all day long with your bare hands. Talk about a blister buster. Plus, the brush is mighty prickly, and if you’re spreading those branches with your bare hands, you’re just asking for trouble.
And what about a cowboy’s boots? You bet they have to be functional and comfortable, if a cowboy was going to wear them. They have to protect his feet. They help keep him from twisting his ankle on the rough, uneven ground. They also protect him from snake bite by running up his leg to nearly half-calf. Plus, a man’s boots are where he wears his spurs. They kind of go hand in hand with his boots. A good cowboy uses them judicially, so as not to harm the horse. They are a reminder to the horse it needs to dig a little deeper in certain situations, like running away from Indians or trying to pull a full grown cow out of the mud.
I thought I was done at this point until I remembered the cowboy needed to have some way to transport his earthly belongings with him. The cowboy typically doesn’t own much, but what he does own, he has to carry with him. So the last item, essential to a cowboy, is his saddlebags. In them, he carries his one extra change of clothes, his extra ammo, maybe a good book (if he can read), tools to fix his horse’s shoes, a sewing kit, and utensils to cook his food and eat it.
Yes, the cowboy carries his world with him on his back and on his horse’s back. If it isn’t an absolutely essential item to his work or to save his life, or is close to his heart, he doesn’t carry it with him. The cowboy is typically a man of few words, direct actions and simple lifestyle. It sounds almost idyllic, until you realize you’ll be eating beans and bacon for months at a time. Talk about hot house gases!
By Cliff Roberts
You can learn more about Cliff Roberts Westerns by downloading your copy of his Western latest novel “Draw!“