American Cowboys
US Culture


Rhinestone Cowboys are part of the western US scene

You can see "rhinestone cowboys" all over the southwestern part of the USA, and you even find a few in the north and the east. They wear designer blue jeans and embroidered cowboy shirts with pearl buttons and rhinestone studs. Most of all, they wear $600-a-pair snakeskin or alligator boots and expensive "ten gallon" Stetson hats. You find them in restaurants, casinos, shopping malls and grocery stores. They get their name from the cheap rhinestone jewelry encrusting their fancy clothes.

Cowgirl © Corel
Rhinestone cowgirl

Most of them have never seen a real cow except at the local rodeo and have never ridden a horse. But, they listen to country western music, and dance the Texas two-step. Many of them hang around the local saloon or pool hall. They love to wear expensive cowboy clothes.

During the last century, there were lots of cowboys on the open range

Cowboys were an integral part of the American West for only a brief period. Spanish settlers in California and Mexico established the first "ranchos" in the Southwest during the early 19th century and employed "vaqueros" to handle their cattle herds. In the middle of that century, large numbers of European-Americans and freed African-American slaves from the eastern part of the US immigrated to the Midwest and southwest in search of free or inexpensive land. At that time, the great "cattle ranches" of the West were established and the American cowboys proliferated. By the early twentieth century, modern technology had made most of the cowboy's work obsolete.

The marginal lands of the southwest do not receive enough rainfall to support forests or farming. Instead, they support thousands of square miles of grass and low vegetation with some smaller varieties of trees. It is ideal for cattle herding, but many acres of land are necessary to support each cow. In the early eighteenth century, most of the grassland in Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and other southwestern states was declared "open range" which meant cattle were permitted to "range" or roam over vast areas. Cowboys were the herders that tended to these widely dispersed cattle.

Working cowboy © Corel
Working cowboy

The cowboy's life and work

Cattle often wander many miles over the open range in search of food, so the cattle owners used "branding" or burning marks into the hide of each cow to identify their property. Each ranch had its own distinctive brand. Some brands were simply the owner's initials like the "JT" brand. Other ranchers placed a line (usually called a bar) under their initials like the BQ, which became known as the famous "Bar B Q" brand. A letter tilted to one side was known as "lazy", so a tilted J became the "Lazy J" brand. A curved line under the letter was called "rocking", so a T over a curved line became the rocking T brand. The ranchers jealously guarded their proprietary brands and men were sometimes shot or hanged for stealing cattle and altering the brands.

Most of the year, the cattle wandered over the open rangeland and required little care. Each spring, after the cows gave birth, it was necessary to find all the new calves (called dogies) while they were still with their mothers, and to brand each of them to establish their proper ownership. During this "spring roundup", many cowboys searched the open range on horseback for mother cows with new calves and herded them all into temporary branding pens. The cowboys then roped each calf, quickly applied the ranch brand and released it back to its mother.

The big cattle drives are gone

During the mid-nineteenth century, very few railroads extended into the western territories, and none reached the open rangelands. At least once a year, the cowhands on a ranch rounded up all of the cattle ready for market and herded them over mountains and across deserts to the nearest railroad terminal. Saint Louis, Kansas City, Abilene and Dodge City were some of the famous railheads for cattle shipment. The "cattle drive" was often a long strenuous journey, that lasted many weeks and employed dozens of cowboys along with a "chuck wagon" or mobile kitchen. Sometimes, the cowhands drove several thousand cattle hundreds of miles to the railhead.

By the early twentieth century, railroads extended into even the remotest areas of the west and the open rangeland was divided into private parcels of land. Today, four-wheel-drive vehicles have replaced most of the cowboy horses, and cattle drives are done with eighteen-wheel trucks. There are still a few working cowboys out west, but not nearly as many. Unlike the rhinestone cowboys, working cowboys usually wear plain work jeans, a beat-up pair of work boots and a dusty, well-worn, ten-gallon hat.

Bullrider © Ronnie Allen
Rodeos are the festivals where ranch hands prove their abilities in cowboy skills. They compete at horseback riding, calf roping, wild bronco riding, bull riding and even chuck wagon racing.

Rodeos are the best places to find real cowboys today

Rodeos are the festivals where ranch hands prove their abilities in cowboy skills. They compete at horseback riding, calf roping, wild bronco riding, bull riding and even chuck wagon racing. Today, rodeos are still a favorite entertainment for working cowhands and rhinestone cowboys alike. You can find one or more rodeos throughout the summer in nearly every town across the western states. Watch the rodeo clown! He not only provides comedy, but also risks his life protecting fallen cowboys from enraged bulls and crazed broncos.

You too can be a rhinestone cowboy

There is an old sad cowboy ballad called "the streets of Laredo" in which a dying cowboy entreats a passing stranger with, "I see by your outfit, you are a cowboy". A comedian once added the phrase, "get yourself an outfit and you can be a cowboy too". At least, you can become a "rhinestone cowboy". Western shops, selling cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats, and cowboy attire can be found all over the US. They are especially abundant in the western states.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: ©
Photo Description: Western outfitter stores can be found across the United States and cater to real and "rhinestone" cowboys.