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What is a Cowpoke?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

A cowpoke is a hired ranch hand who is responsible for managing cattle. Cowpokes may also be referred to as cowboys, paniolos, or vaqueros, depending on the region of the world under discussion. Although the days of huge ranching spreads in the Americas are over, cowpokes are still an important part of many ranching communities, and this occupation is still alive and well, although it is much smaller than it used to be.

The occupation of the cowpoke arose when early settlers in the Americas started to acquire large numbers of cattle. These cattle could not be managed by a family alone, and they required hired staff who could move them around, handle them, and prepare them for slaughter. Many of these settlers were Spanish, and the vaquero was the predecessor to the cowpoke. The sheer size of these ranch spreads required cowboys to work from horseback, leading to a lifelong association between cowpokes and their horses.

A cowpoke must be talented in a number of fields. He or she is a skilled rider, able to handle a horse and work with the animal to accomplish common goals. Cowpokes must also be comfortable with cattle, sometimes in large amounts, and they often perform basic medical care for horses and cows alike. On very large spreads, a cowpoke may spend a fair amount of time away from the ranch, camping in the field with other cowpokes, who take turns preparing food.

A number of pieces of equipment are taken into the field by a cowpoke. Horses wear an assortment of tack suited to long days in the saddle and hard work, and the horses also carry saddlebags and packs with supplies including medical tools, rope for catching cattle, rifles and ammunition, and food. A cowpoke may also use dogs to assist with cattle herding. Cowpokes also have practical garments, which have become iconic, including chaps to protect their legs and large floppy hats to protect their eyes from the sun.

The spread of railroads across the West slowly carved formerly huge ranches apart. Although this changed the role of the cowpoke in the Americas, it didn't stamp out the tradition altogether. Many ranches keep a staff of hired hands available to assist with cattle handling, and many of these hands are steeped in a tradition of individualism, honor, and surprising gentleness with animals. People who want to work on ranches in this capacity typically start young; many cowpokes are the children of ranch families and cowpokes who pass their skills on.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By SarahSon — On Apr 18, 2012

I live in a Midwestern state where you see a lot of cows and horses, but I don't there are any cowboys who make a living here.

I always picture a cowpoke as someone who lives on a big ranch and drives cattle all day long.

One of my friends loves horses, and he has spent some time on a ranch helping out when they bring cattle down.

Even though it is a lot of work, he has a great time when they do this. He spends most of his time in the city, so being able to get away and help the cowpokes at a ranch is one of his favorite ways to spend time away from the office.

By julies — On Apr 18, 2012

My nephew is going through a stage where all he wants to do is be a cowboy. This all started the first time he was able to ride a horse by himself.

He has a pair of cowboy boots, a hat and even a pair of chaps. His mom ordered cowpoke bedding for his room, and boy, was he excited when he saw that.

It will be interesting to see if this is passing thing, or if this is something he will have an interest in for a long time.

Since he doesn't have many opportunities to be around horses or cattle, it might not last too long.

I have never spent much time around either animal and have always been a little bit intimidated by them. Being a cowpoke would be something I would never have an interest in.

It would also bother me to be so far away from the city and all the activities I am involved with.

By LisaLou — On Apr 17, 2012

My husband didn't grow up on the farm, but he has spent time raising cattle and riding horses. These were more pastimes for him and he never made a living at it.

If he could choose anything to do and make money at it, he would love to be a cowboy. He could spend all day riding a horse and get up and do it again the next day.

He also loves working with cattle, and says each one has their own temperament and personality. Working outdoors in wide open spaces, riding horses and working with cattle would be a dream come true for him.

By andee — On Apr 16, 2012

One year we spent our vacation on a dude ranch and saw 'real' cowboys working on the ranch. While we were there for just one week, this is where they lived and worked all year long.

You could tell they spent many hours outdoors as their skin was weathered. I never saw them without wearing their typical cowboy clothing. Even though they were friendly, I think they felt the most comfortable when they were on the back of a horse.

It is hard for me to imagine spending all day riding a horse. Even after a few hours a day for a week, I was so sore I could hardly walk.

These cowboys probably grew up riding horses and this was certainly the life that suited them.

By Perdido — On Apr 16, 2012

There is a cowpoke-themed cafe in my town, and all the waiters have to dress in character. Along with the typical boots and hats, there are plaid shirts and bandanas.

The waitresses wear red and white checkered button-front shirts with red bandanas tied around their necks, and the waiters wear the blue version of this. They both wear chaps and holsters with ketchup and mustard bottles in them instead of guns.

There are cow skulls and horns on the walls, along with various displays of old guns and cow branding irons. It's a favorite with children, and the food is good enough to make adults want to come there, too.

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 15, 2012

The cowpoke is a symbol of American culture, particularly of the Old West. I know many little boys who go through a phase where they want to emulate cowpokes, and I've seen plenty of Halloween costumes in this neighborhood in this style.

My neighbor's six-year-old son wears his cowpoke costume out in the yard all the time. He has a cowboy hat that is too big for his little head and some tiny chaps with fringe hanging off the sides. He even has cowboy boots with spurs.

I think it is adorable that he wants to go back to this point in history and celebrate it. Sometimes youngsters have a better appreciation for history than adults do.

By StarJo — On Apr 14, 2012

@seag47 – Yes, it seems that the days of having to pay close attention to your cattle are over. My yard is surrounded on three sides by pastures of cows, and the guy who owns them only comes to check on them every few weeks.

They are free to roam across the fifty acres, but the tall fences keep them where they are supposed to be. The owner lives about thirty miles away, so if a cow escapes, my husband usually tries to get it back inside the fence.

The cattle owner bears no resemblance to a cowpoke, physically or in character. One of his cows died out there, and we called him twice to try to get him to come bury it, but he never did. Cowpokes of old would balk at this sort of behavior.

By seag47 — On Apr 14, 2012

Herding cattle is so much simpler than it used to be. I'm not even sure that cowpokes need horses to traverse the ranch anymore, since it can usually be walked across with no problem.

I suppose if any of the cattle tended to be vicious, then cowpokes would need horses as a method of escape. They would also keep the cowpokes high off the ground, reducing the chance that he could be trampled.

I really never hear of anyone spending the night out in the pasture anymore. The cows don't have very far to roam, and the fences keep them confined to a certain area. At least, that is how it works in my town.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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