How We Became Cowboys Part I

The introduction to all Working Equitation rules state the discipline has “the objective of enhancing the equestrian techniques developed in countries whose riders use horses in different aspects of work in the field ( ranching)”. The aim is not only to preserve and perpetuate each country’s type of equitation, but also their various traditions, the dress, and tack comprising each nation’s unique cultural equestrian heritage.  Very few North Americans actually know our own unique cultural equestrian heritage as it relates to ranching.  Until recently movies and television portrayed cowboys inaccurately, and those images are what most people carry with them today.   With all of this in mind we have assembled this informative series.

This article is meant to provide a brief overview about the very early history of those who became the great American icon, The Cowboy. As Working Equitation riders, we have a responsibility to perpetuate and honor our unique traditions, methods, and customs involving the tack and attire of our ranching forefathers. North America, from Mexico to Canada is unique in our way of ranching and livestock work. You may be surprised to learn of the long forgotten souls behind our most charismatic of American icon .

Spanish Conquistadors become Mexican Ranchers

1494 –  Isabella, Queen of Castile, Spain recognized the importance of quickly establishing a presence in the New World. Less than two years after Columbus first spied the Americas, Isabella funded his return to the new world. Columbus, along with 1200 Spanish settlers, 24 stallions (for riding and breeding), 10 mares for breeding, and an unknown number of cattle, landed just off the

austurias horse
The Austurias, a handsome, compact breed exist yet today.

Island known as Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). King Ferdinand (husband of Isabella) decreed that the horses brought on this second voyage should be “the finest war horses available”.   Each soldier was provided a stipend for the purchase of their personal “war horse”, and it appears they did this, and rode those horses in the celebrations held prior to leaving for the “New World”.   But, those horses were probably sold and “lesser” horses purchased for the voyage.

The ships held a collection of common stock breeds, mainly Sorraia, Spanish Jennet, Asturian and Garrano, all important Spanish breeds, but surely not the majestic steeds in the decree.

Sorraia horse
The Sorraria may not be handsome, but it is a rugged breed that thrived even under challenging conditions.

It is likely these sturdy little horses fared better in the challenging environment than would their blue- blooded relatives.   While additional horses and cattle were transported from Spain to the new world, the voyages were very hard on the horses in particular, and many died in transit.  Generations of offspring spanish-conquistador-in-armor-on-horseback-new-spain-c-1500from the original livestock provided many of the mounts for future expeditions and ranchers, as well as cattle to populate the mainland.  Horses remarkably similar to these are seen all over Mexico today.

1500 – 1550 Voyages continued, as galleons from Spain arrived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico with soldiers, settlers, cattle and horses. Missions were built.  There were frequent hostilities with the indigenous natives who often liberated the cattle and horses, permitting them to wander at will, resulting in crossbreeding and generally improved hardiness, if not the aesthetics.

By 1521, Hernon Cortes had defeated the Aztecs and 20100911conquistadorrelieved them of their vast wealth.  The gold was shipped back to Spain.  The initial few hundred cattle turned into a thousand, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands and more. The livestock, both cattle and horses, had little oversight. There were no fences, no neighbors to complain about a cow in the garden, and there simply wasn’t enough manpower, skills or infrastructure to “keep and hold a herd” of more than just a few head at a time. There was minimal management of livestock for quite some time, yet the herds thrived in “New Spain.”

While the cattle and horse population was booming, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas were not doing so well. The Conquistadors frequently dealt the locals a pretty rotten hand, and the numbers of Indians had dwindled significantly from exploitation, warfare  and disease.

Thee was no freedom for the peons. The punishment for deserting was severe.
Thee was no freedom for the peons. The punishment for deserting was severe.

New Spain was a large land, and even if Old Spain had sent every available son and daughter to settle and provide labor, it would not have been enough . To bolster the number of settlers, conquistadors (conqueror soldiers) were rewarded with significant land grants in exchange for their duty to the crown. Hernan Cortes was given a land tract so large it included twenty-two Indian settlements including nearly twenty-five thousand persons. The land award included all the cattle, horses and people within the boundaries. The people were not free to come and go, and would be chased down and punished if they tried to escape.  This resolved the labor shortage, as the natives were forced into labor without pay.

Despite the harsh treatment they were experiencing, many of the Native Americans became Christianized and established a symbiotic relationship with the Spaniards. The conquistadors frequently had wives in Spain or at their side, but often they had Amerindian wives, and their children, known as “mestizos” held a status underneath the pure Spaniard, but over the pure Indians. The Aztec and Aurucona tribesmen became known as “peons” and lived a life of near servitude. With the Spaniard ranch owner as one leg, mestizo ranch manager as a second leg, and Indian peons, the labor force formed the third leg of a very sturdy stool.

Officially the peons were forbidden, under penalty of death, to ride horses, as this was very threatening to the Spanish Government. However a different perspective was held on the large ranches and missions. Without the labor, the herds of cattle and horses had no value. So the peons, alongside free blacks, (decedents of Africans who came to Mexico by way of Spain) were introduced to the horse and cattle, and proved to be most capable in every way.

Iberian Cattle in the Americas

There were no cattle (other than bison) living in the Americas at this time, but several old breeds of cattle from Spain and Portugal were brought to the New World.  Among them were the San Martinero,  a

The San Martinero is credited with providing an aggressive element to the genetics of the early American cattle. This helped the herds grow as these cattle would attack jaguars, pumas and men as well.
The San Martinero is credited with providing an aggressive element to the genetics of the early American cattle. This helped the herds grow as these cattle would attack jaguars, pumas and men as well.

slightly less aggressive cousin to the fighting bulls of that region, the Retinta, a multipurpose breed, much more docile than the San Martinero, and the Corrientes, a common, hardy breed. These Iberian breeds were lean, durable, well-horned and quickly became WILD! You could call them feral if you wish, but wild would be more descriptive. There were no quiet, complacent steers either, only cows, who fiercely guarded their calves, and bulls who defended their space assertively. The aggressive and protective character of the San Martinero was vital to cattle living in this part of the world, as jaguars and pumas were present in large numbers. When these dangerous animals needed to be herded or moved, the Spaniards

The more docile Retinta had a mellowing effect. This breed was often used as oxen.
The more docile Retinta had a mellowing effect. This breed was often used as oxen.

were usually depicted with a long, sharp-bladed lance, probably for both protection and prod. Because the cattle were primarily wandering the landscape, they crossbred frequently, and the best characteristics of each breed helped the cattle to multiply greatly.

Age of the Cattle Hunters

Today we think of meat as the valuable commodity of a cow, and the other parts are “by-products,” i.e., the icky leftovers. But for much of the first two hundred years of ranching in the Americas, the real

Corrientes are commonly used today in team roping competitions. Courtesy Circle Star Arena
Corrientes are commonly used today in team roping competitions. Courtesy Circle Star Arena

value in cattle was in the hides and tallow. Barns, corrals and even fences were not needed for this type of ranching because the cattle were not generally herded into pens, but were “harvested” right where they lived, on the vast open range. Swift horses and brave riders performed the grisly task of providing the cattle for processing. “Cattle hunters” harvested adult cattle with a pole much like our garrocia, but tipped with a sickle-shaped blade.

Rider with a hocking stick used to "harvest" cattle.
Rider with a hocking stick used to “harvest” cattle.

This “hocking stick” was used to cut through the hock tendon of a cow while the rider was in hot pursuit. Ideally only one of the hocks was cut, this way the cow remained standing and the skinners on freight wagons could easily see the standing cattle, administering the coup de grace, and relieving the hapless cow of his hide. Some meat might be cooked on the spot (usually just the tongue) or salted for later use, but not if the meat

The hocking blade is shaped like a crescent moon.
The hocking blade is shaped like a crescent moon.

would displace the hides on the wagon, for the economy was driven by the value of the cattle hides and tallow bound for Europe.


1550 – 1600 Transformation of the Amerindians of Mexico

Cattle Hunting Horsemanship was all about speed, balance and bravery. The Aztecs and Araucanian natives of the Americas quickly became skilled horsemen under the watchful eye of the Spaniards. They tamed wild horses, and rode bareback on stallions controlled with bit-less bridles like the bosal we know today. Until the natives were considered “reliable” they were denied access to bits and saddles for concern they might threaten the delicate balance of the hierarchy.   A Spaniard rode better quality horses in traditional Spanish tack and outfit, but never in pursuit of the cattle. Getting dirty was not in his job description. The peons were dressed in a mixture of native attire and Spaniard-influenced attire similar to his master’s, yet distinctively flavored by his aboriginal heritage.

1600 – 1700 Birth of the Vaquero  (for perspective, the first European Pilgrims arrived in 1620)

Old Spain was becoming concerned with the efficiency of harvesting cattle with the hocking stick, as the herds were significantly reduced in just decades.   Laws were created making it a serious crime to possess a hocking stick.   Enforcement of the anti-hocking laws dramatically changed how cattle were managed. The cow hunter system of harvesting cattle declined and a new method was in development. Hanging a loop of rope from the end of a garrocia proved that a rope could be used to manage cattle, but the rider was frequently pull off his horse.  Further adaptation was needed.

Removing the hocking blade and draping a rope over the garrocha provided a non-lethal means of capturing cattle.
Removing the hocking blade and draping a rope over the garrocha provided a non-lethal means of capturing cattle.

The original tracts of land, as large as many U.S. states, were now divided up to individually- owned estancias and missions. Ownership of all cattle, horses and residents were still part of the deal. Small towns developed around the “headquarters” and, with developing economies, and a local population to feed, the perceived value of the cattle shifted away from the hide and tallow economy, to one where the meat had value as well. The implication for the land owner was that, now, the young cattle needed to be kept alive to grow up to produce more adult cattle. The implication for the peon was to find a way to treat young cattle for injuries and sickness so they could thrive. The tools used by the peons needed to change. The hocking stick was gone, and the age of the rope had begun.

1634 The First Recorded Instance of Roping from a Saddle

Roping of the cattle became the method of capture and control.   It would seem the peons became tired of being pulled from their mounts by a cow, so they developed saddles similar to those of the Spanish landlords. Initially the rider had two options for dealing with a wild cow on the end of a rawhide or fiber rope. Either the rope was braided into the horses’ tail each morning, or it was tied to the cinch

In Argentina the braided lariat is still tied to the cinch today.
In Argentina the braided lariat is still tied to the cinch today.

just behind the riders’ leg.  While this might seem pretty exciting by modern standards it was probably business as usual when the horse became accustomed to the feel of a 600 pound cow struggling mightily against his backside. Often the cow was roped by a leg or legs and “tripped” to the ground as the initial act of subduing. While the “tied to the tail” method was very secure (if not a bit hard on the horse), the “tied to the cinch” method was not, as the saddle rigging broke frequently.  Over time the natives likely tired of the danger and the lack of control they were experiencing with the cinch or tailing method of controlling the cattle, and devised a horn on their saddles to secure the rope.

Vaqueros Roping A Steer, Charles Christian Nahl, 1866, 42x51.5".
Vaqueros Roping A Steer, Charles Christian Nahl, 1866, Courtesy of the American Museum of Western Art, Anschutz Collection,, Denver Colorado

The Saddle Horn, a Unique American Innovation

The saddle horn proved to be a significant innovative creation by the peons. It vastly improved the control of the cow, as they could now face the animal they roped. Upon roping the cow they would take a turn, or what we know today as a “take a dally,” which is wrapping the rope around the horn to aid in controlling the cow. This method posed three vitally important improvement in controlling the cattle.

  • Firstly it probably reduced the job openings on ranches considerably, as an accident likely cost only a thumb rather than the peons life (or that of his horse).
  • A better connection to the saddle  permitted the cattle to be roped around the neck as well as the legs, which was less hazardous to the cattle than the “tripping” techniques used previously.
  • The ability to slip the rope around the saddle horn also reduced the breakage of the rawhide lariats. The cow could be “played” much like a fish on a rod and reel, using enough tension to subdue the animal, but not break the lariat.
William Ranney, Hunting Wild Horses.

While roping cattle was an important innovation, roping of horses was equally important. Wild horses could now be captured more easily and selectively to furnish mounts for the increasing number of riders.

The innovation of the saddle horn and use of the riata (braided rawhide rope) were the two critical elements that distinguish ranching in the Americas from the methods used around the world. In our next installment we will visit the evolution of these skills by the Vaquero as he migrated from Old Mexico into what we know as the United States.


In The Days Of The Vaqueros, by Russell Freedman


COWBOYS of the Americas, by Richard W. Slatta

Feature Photo courtesy of the American Museum of Western Art

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