Even though cattle drives have almost been entirely replaced by road and rail, and horses and covered wagons by pickup trucks, real, honest-to-goodness cowboys (and cowgirls) aren’t going away any time soon. They're still getting up before the sun even thinks about rising to knock out the day’s chores, care for their animals, and repair miles of fencing around whatever piece of the middle of nowhere they call home.
“It’s monotonous but I guarantee when you’re riding out there through the pasture, it’s God’s country,” says Lee Lowrey, the foreman of the Chisholm Ranch in Pampa, TX. “It’s peaceful and you don’t have to deal with the hustle and bustle. It’s a good deal.”
The life of the cowboy persists despite most people’s assumption that it’s been relegated to western films. It endures because it’s not just a job that rewards a lot of hard work. It’s a guide for living that’s learned from an early age and seared into the psyche like the brand on a cow’s hide. The calling teaches cowboys how to be self-sufficient, hard working, and appreciative for the things they have, and the things they can do for others. Spiritually speaking, “good deal” might be an understatement.
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It starts early (very early)
“It’s actually something I guess you’re born into,” says Mike Lemons, the program director of agriculture and horsemanship at Odessa College in Odessa, TX. “You fall in love with it and spend the rest of your life doing it.” Lemons grew up the cowboy way, learning alongside his father and other men who imparted the lessons of a vanishing world to him.
It’s not uncommon to hear; cowboys and cowgirls grow up around horses and learn how to ride them at an early age, ultimately entering a career cutting cattle, or its sports equivalent in the rodeo.
Lindy Burch first got the bug to pursue a life in training cutting horses -- the quarter horses that have been used since the mid-1800’s to separate and guide cattle on drives and ranches -- when she was barely a teenager. She went on to become one of the top National Cutting Horse Association riders in the country and continues to train and ride at her Oxbow Ranch in Weatherford, TX.
“I started when my father rode horses and I rode horses with him just for fun. And one day, I saw a cutting horse show,” Burch says. “It intrigued me and I decided that’s what I’m going to do. I started to work for a cutting horse trainer when I was 14 and the pay was nothing but he taught me how to ride.”
Technology has improved old traditions…but not changed them
Science and technology have crept into the lifestyle in many small ways, but all things being equal cowboys still prefer to minimize the reliance on modernity. Some ranches even still utilize the traditional cattle drive to move their cattle from place to place instead of expensive trucks and trains for transportation. Lemons says that driving cattle can actually be more beneficial for them.
“Anytime you put them in the truck, you have to separate the mommas from the babies so they don’t get trampled and that puts stress on them,” Lemons says. With the old-fashioned drive, “You don’t see them lose as much weight and you don’t see sickness from stress. It’s a dying art but scientifically, it’s really healthier for cattle if we work them on horseback instead of throwing them in a trailer.”
Telecommunications have made it easier for ranchers to share and educate, and that’s a development they’ve embraced. Barbra Schulte, a professional cutting horse trainer and author who trains cutting horses in Brenham, TX, grew up on her family’s ranch in Illinois, with 400-500 horses to keep her company. These days, internet and mobile keep her in touch with her colleagues.
“I don’t think it’s really changed the spirit,” Schulte says. “It’s changed the communication that we all have with each other.”
Cowboys never sleep
Of course, even with technological advances, some eschew phone alarms and note-taking apps. Lowrey's wife wakes him up every morning at the very early hour of 4:30 a.m. and he doesn’t finish his work until as late as 9 p.m. if he’s transporting horses or cattle to another city. He does daily checks on his herds of cattle with a simple tally book that he keeps in his pocket.
Burch and Schulte have two different routines for their cutting horses depending on the weather: one for the winter and one for the brutal Texas summer.
“In the winter when the weather is decent and not so hot,” says Schulte, “I usually start at 6 a.m. in the morning in order to train horses and I have to have fresh cattle meaning cattle that haven’t been worked before,” she says. Summer is “a little more challenging because of the heat. We try to keep the horses out of the heat because it’s too hard to work on them and it’s the same with the cattle so we start about 3 a.m. and try to be done with the riding and working by 9 or 10 a.m.”
Even with technology it remains a tough lifestyle…
Lowrey notes that though the solutions have improved in response time and efficacy, the same problems remain.
“We have everything in the world from respiratory problems to water belly [similar to kidney stones] and occasionally some will get a touch of pinkeye,” he says. “We’ve been in several years of drought but for the last two years, we’ve gotten a lot of rain. The calves will be standing in it and get foot rot standing in that old muddy water.”
For all the advancements in treatment, no technology for problems at the base level; all a cowboy can do is tend to his herd and try to keep them away from threats.
"I just happened to step out in the driveway and I saw cows’ butts going the other way."
“Every day when you get up, something different is gonna happen,” Lemons says. “You might even plan it and something else happens. For instance, we were building gates today […] and the boy who was helping me left the gate open. So we go back in the shop and work on something else and I just happened to step out in the driveway and I saw cows’ butts going the other way.
"Luckily, someone was coming down the road in a truck and blocked them at one end and we were able to get them back -- it could have been a disaster. You never know when something like that is gonna happen.”
…But a rewarding life they pass on to others
So what keeps them on the ranch and the riding circuit, and living the life of the American cowboy? They have different reasons depending on what they do with their time but they all come back to their love for the lifestyle.
"The cowboys up there are like another dad to you."
Lemons wrote a book called the “Cowboy Philosophy” based on his experiences driving cattle across the Rio Grande with his father, and the wisdom he passes on to the next crop of cowfolks. That deep, intergenerational camaraderie is essential to keeping the tradition alive -- if it were left up to TV, every young cowboy would have taken on a profession centered around either law, or order.
“I had to look back and think where did I pick all this up, and I picked up from cowboys being on ranches across the Pecos River up in the Alpine in the mountains,” he says. “I worked on a ranch there and the cowboys up there are like another dad to you.”
That mentorship can be formal as well. Lemons has a unique career combo of a traditional cowboy and a teacher. When he’s not in the classroom, or the “classroom” (as you’d expect, class is often held outdoors), he takes care of his own ranch and grows his own alfalfa and grass hay for his horses and cattle. He even builds his own riding gear.
These days, Schulte trains eight to 10 horses at a time for show competitions and rodeo riders. It takes a lot of work to keep horses in top condition, and many never make it to a competitive level. But for all its demands, Schulte cherishes the art of training horses (and their riders) to be the best they can be.
“It’s an awesome privilege to be with horses every day because they are very, very powerful and incredible animals that have a spirit about them that can be really very comforting or healing or empowering or fun,” she says. “It’s just fun for me to be a leader and a teacher who builds confidence in a person or a horse.”
Ultimately, it's about doing things for yourself
Burch says being a cowgirl has taught her how to live her own life and take care of her own problems.
“You don’t have to depend on anybody,” Burch says. “You have the can-do attitude and whatever comes up, you try to handle it. You don’t wait for somebody else to take care of it or you don’t feel entitled or that that’s not your job and someone else should do it. When you’re a cowgirl on a ranch and you have that responsibility and have live animals depending on you when a water line breaks or a storm breaks, I’m out there with them trying to fix whatever problem there is.”
The life also requires a particular spirit of determination and courage -- a drive to be the very best at something many people don’t even realize still exists.
“I think being a cowgirl embodies a spirit of never giving up, of hard work, spirit and a love for animals and a desire to make a difference,” she says. “I think the courage of our life is unique because each one of us is still unique and cowgirls aren’t afraid to go for it and be who they are and go for their dreams.”