A cowboy is someone who works on a ranch handling cattle and horses. Cowboys are most closely associated with the American West, thanks to art and literature that featured this iconic figure. The exact number of modern cowboys employed is unclear, but it is certainly far fewer than in the heyday of the American West. They work actively on ranches and also compete in rodeos to demonstrate their unique skills.
The word has been in use in English since at least the 1700s. In England, it was used to refer to a young boy who was responsible for minding livestock. In many cultures, younger members of society are responsible for looking after cows and other animals, because it is a relatively simple task when the livestock do not need to be moved.
The modern sense of the cowboy arose when cattle raisers started to see the potential for selling their animals in other parts of the country, where they could command higher prices. Handlers drove the cattle across the massive grazing grounds of the West to help rotate pasture as well. Since herding cattle across long distances requires more skill, the occupation began to be reserved for older and more experienced men.
Cowboys acquired their skills from the Spanish vaqueros, who were skilled at handling cattle. The title of vaquero was corrupted by English speakers into “buckaroo,” a term still used in some regions of the United States. Their skills came to include herding, cutting, roping, cooking, and veterinary care, as they were often isolated from assistance by outsiders. Someone who specifically works with horses is known as a wrangler.
Along with the cowboy goes the cow horse, or stock horse. A cow horse should be sturdy, agile, and fast when necessary. Larger, stronger horses are used for roping, so that the horse can hold its own against a large cow or bull. One of the most common breeds used for this purpose is the American Quarterhorse, a popular breed throughout the West for use on ranches and in competitions.
Other things are closely associated with the cowboy, including the wide brimmed hat, which protects the eyes and face from the sun, and boots. Their apparel usually includes heavy pants, chaps, and shirts designed to protect them from the elements. Cowboys and their horses also have accessories such as saddles, spurs, medical kits, rifles, and other tools of the trade. The job is often quite difficult, and it has been heavily romanticized by many Americans.