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The lonely life of a cowboy is part of the fabled lore of the Old West. American cowboys had their heyday a century ago when most of the country was open range land. Cowboys on horseback guided the long cattle drives from Texas to the railheads in Kansas. They faced hardships and dangers, but they also experienced the freedom and independence that comes with a home on the range.
This kind of cattle drive exists today only on the big screen, and a modern cowboy’s life is very different from that of the cowboys of old. But the job still has its benefits and attractions. Here’s an overview of cowboy life, what it looked like in the days of the Wild West, and what it looks like today.
Is Being a Cowboy a Job?
“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys,” Willy and Waylon tell us in the country song. But millions of little kids don cowboy hats and dream of a job under the open sky, riding horses and roping cows. And some grow up still thinking of finding a job as a cowboy.
If that includes you, it’s important to realize that a cowboy job description today doesn’t include long cattle drives or months sleeping under the stars. But if riding horses and tending livestock appeals to you, you may want to consider becoming a ranch hand or wrangler, which is what today’s version of a cowboy is called. And yes, you’ll get paid to do it.
What Is the History of Cowboys?
The history of American cowboys is the history of the country itself. Cattle-herding, horseback-riding cowboys played a central role in the country’s westward expansion. Their rough, lonely lifestyle has been glamorized in television shows and movies. While it was definitely adventurous, it was anything but easy.
The first cowboys in North America were vaqueros, ranch hands tending cattle in Mexico for Spanish landowners. The vaqueros had to be excellent horseback riders and good at roping and herding. Over time, cattle ranges grew larger and spread over the border into present-day Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. A little later, cattle were introduced into California and the West as a whole.
Who Were the American Cowboys?
As the scope of cattle ranching expanded, Spanish-speaking vaqueros were joined by English-speaking cowboys as some of the settlers, hurrying westward, donned cowboy hats and chaps and started driving cattle too. Some were from Europe, other cowboys were African-American, and some indigenous Americans also took up this rugged job.
By the mid-1800s, railroads extended westward, too. To provide the rest of the country with beef, cowboys were charged with driving livestock from the central plains and prairies to railroad stations for transport.
These cattle drives were long and legendary affairs. Perhaps a dozen cowboys on horseback would work together to drive thousands of cows to a railroad depot. To distinguish the livestock belonging to different ranches, the cowboys would burn unique cattle brands into the hide of the cows. This continued for decades. By 1866, cowboys had driven millions of heads of cattle toward railway depots for transport north.
By the end of the century, much of the open range land had fallen into private hands. Private owners used barbed wire fencing to block off their property and keep cattle drives from crossing. By the mid-1900s, many cowboys left behind their life on the open trail and went to work for private ranchers in the West.
What Was the Life of a Cowboy in the 1800s?
In the 1800s, women were restricted in the types of jobs they could hold. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that cowboys in that era were almost all male, young men looking for cash wages and a life of adventure. Driving cattle wasn’t a job that paid well, with the average cowboy making just $25 to $40 a month. For that salary, cowboys worked long hours, often 12 to 15 hours of hard physical labor, and slept on the ground outdoors. On the other hand, they didn’t have many living expenses, since they slept at a ranch bunkhouse when they weren’t driving cattle, and their board was usually covered.
If you’re wondering whether cowboys really wore leather hats and bandannas, they did, following in the footsteps of the vaqueros from Mexico. Almost all of their cowboy garb was selected to protect them and serve several purposes. The wide-brimmed hats protected their faces from the sun and wind. The bandannas filtered out the dust of the trail and were also used to wipe sweat from skin. Cowboys protected their legs from cactus needles and brush by wearing chaps outside their pants legs. Cowboy boots were high enough to protect the lower leg, and their pointed toe made it easy to put your foot in the stirrup.
What Did Cowboys Do for Fun?
Just as in the books and television shows about the Wild West, cowboys on cattle drives entertained themselves by playing guitar and practicing cowboy skills like cattle roping and sharpshooting. They also spent time drinking in saloons and socializing with the ladies there. Cowboys in general gained a reputation as being wild and unruly, and some were excluded from saloons.
When they were not herding cattle, cowboys lived on the ranch and often helped repair fencing or construct outbuildings. They tested their steer wrestling and bull-riding skills against one another in rodeo competitions.
How Did the Cowboy Era End?
As the prairies and plains moved into private ownership, the vast cattle drives were no longer possible. Ranchers fenced their lands with barbed wire to keep others out, eliminating the possibility of cross-country cattle drives. At the same time, railroads expanded to the point that long drives were no longer necessary to get cattle to depots.
The number of working cowboys has declined drastically in the modern era, but some still pursue this occupation today. Modern cowboys are more often called ranch hands or livestock workers.
What Does a Modern Cowboy Do for a Living?
Most cowboys today are employed by ranches in states in the Midwest and Southwest, including Texas, Wyoming, Utah, Kansas and Wyoming. In these areas, you can still experience a cowboy lifestyle and culture, but modern cowboys are restricted to overseeing the maintenance of ranches and looking after animals.
Cowboys today may herd livestock into corrals or load them into trucks. Their duties include feeding the cattle, helping with birthing and branding, shearing sheep, roping cattle, grooming, and providing medical assistance to the ranch’s horses, cattle or other livestock. On smaller ranches, cowboys do whatever odd jobs need to be done, while on large ranches they may be able to specialize on training horses or other particular skills related to livestock.
Cowboys on Dude Ranches
Other cowboys are employed by dude ranches, establishments that welcome paying guests who wish to get a taste of ranch living. On a dude ranch, cowboys take care of the horses used for taking guests riding. Duties can include brushing and grooming, maintaining the tack equipment, clearing and maintaining trails, and performing basic veterinarian-type treatment.
To work at wrangler jobs on dude ranches, you also need to develop good people skills that allow you to interact with guests. You may be asked to lead guests on horseback on overnight hiking and fishing trips. You may take them on cattle drives, teaching basic horseback riding skills. This may sound like fun, but these jobs involve hard work, dusk-to-dawn hours, along with active participation in the guests’ evening activities like line dances or cookouts. You won’t get rich on the pay, but it usually includes room and board and use of the horses.
How Much Do Modern Cowboys Earn?
The Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”) doesn’t list “cowboy” as a specific occupation. Cowboy as a title is lumped in with other farm and ranch workers under the title “agricultural workers,” and then under the subhead “farm and ranch animal farm workers.”
The BLM describes the job duties of “animal farm workers” as caring for livestock, including cattle and horses. However, this category of worker can also care for many other types of animals, such as sheep, pigs, goats, poultry, finfish, shellfish and bees. Those working with cattle and livestock still herd, feed and brand the animals. They maintain records on the animals, clean their housing areas, and keep them healthy by administering medications and vaccinations.
How many cowboys are there today? According to the BLS, in May, 2018, there were about 269,100 workers in the subcategory “farm workers, farm, ranch and aquacultural animals.” These workers earned a median salary of $26,560 a year, which means that half of the workers made more than this amount, and half made less. The job outlook is not great, and in 2026, fewer people are predicted to be making their living in this field than today.
Training and Skills Required
Formal education and schooling are not big parts of the preparation to be a modern cowboy. The BLS reports that if you plan to pursue this type of job as a career, you won’t need more than a high school diploma, and, in most cases, you won’t even need that. Most farm and ranch workers are trained on the job. Certain skills are required, however, including manual dexterity and physical strength and stamina.
What Are the Benefits of Being a Cowboy?
So, you’re not going to get rich working as a modern cowboy, nor is fame likely to touch you with its golden finger. But more than a few people would rather work at this job than any other. What are the benefits of being a cowboy that might attract you to this type of job?
A cowboy’s life is physically difficult, but, in many other ways, it’s a very simple existence. If you dislike the complications of modern life – with technology taking over our day-to-day tasks and social media telling us what we should wear – a real attraction exists in the lifestyle of a cowboy. You’ll be spared the distractions of modern life, and you won’t have to drool over the lives of richer, younger and more attractive people on Instagram. You won’t earn enough that your possessions will overwhelm you.
A big benefit of the cowboy life is the proximity to nature. You’ll get to spend your days outdoors rather than crammed into a cubbyhole cubicle in a high-rise building. If it’s sunny, you’ll feel the sun on your shoulders; if it’s raining, the raindrops will wet your hands. You’ll work with horses every day, and, if you love horses, that alone could be enough attraction. It’s hard to find many other jobs that offer that perk.
Then there’s the company. Horses and cows may be dirty, but an argument could be made that their kind of dirt is preferable to the dirt of office politics and big business. The work is physically hard but honest, and, at the end of the day, you’ll know that you have made a difference, accomplished something positive. You’ll probably sleep well and have good dreams.
Teo Spengler has worked as a trial lawyer, a teacher and a writer at various times in her life, which is one of the reasons she likes to write about career paths. Spengler has published thousands of articles in the past decade including articles providing tips for starting a job or changing careers. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, and Working Mother websites. She holds a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley, an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in fiction.