Buckaroos & Cowpunchers
Cowboy gear used in California and the Great Basin differs greatly from the trappings found in the Southwest. Regardless of the region, equipment design has been shaped primarily by the landscape and unique methods of working cattle.
On a late spring morning in West Texas, riding through a vast pasture overgrown with mesquite trees and cedar brush, a cowpuncher pushes a wild yearling calf into a clearing. The animal needs to be roped and doctored for an abscess on its jaw, and the clearing offers a small window of opportunity.
The cowboy quickly throws a loop around the yearling’s neck, and its escape back into the brush is halted by the 30-foot rope tied to the saddle horn. A thousand miles away in Nevada, a buckaroo works a rodear, roping calves that will be branded and vaccinated. He tosses a big loop toward an unsuspecting calf standing 30 feet away, then dallies his 60-foot rope around a large saddle horn. Until another roper catches the heels, he handles the calf as quietly as possible, sometimes letting his dallies run, or slip, so the calf doesn’t choke pulling against the rope.
The buckaroo rides a Wade saddle, wears chinks, and guides his horse with rawhide romal reins connected to an ornate silver spade bit. Meanwhile, the Texas cowpuncher works in a swell-fork saddle, dons full-length chaps, and directs his horse with split leather reins connected to a simple curb bit.
These characters are merely examples of two distinct American cowboy cultures: the cowpunchers of the Southwest and the buckaroos of the Great Basin and West Coast. It is highly stereotypical to classify all cowboys in Nevada, California or Oregon as buckaroos, and the same goes for calling every hand in Texas, New Mexico or Arizona a cowpuncher. You can find a true buckaroo in Colorado or Nebraska, and you may stumble across a hard-core cowpuncher in Montana or Wyoming. And then there are plenty of cowboys in any state who don’t give a dang what you call them—they are more concerned with having the right kind of horse and gear needed for their method of working cattle.
Nevertheless, the cultures of buckaroos and cowpunchers and their gear have been compared for decades. Some of the differences stem from regional traditions, but most cowboy equipment is designed to fit the landscape and unique methods of working cattle, whether that be branding calves, doctoring yearlings, gathering cow-calf pairs or sorting cattle in pens. Just as thick, thorny brush compels a cowpuncher to tie his rope on hard-and-fast, heading and heeling in the branding pen causes a buckaroo to step into a slick-fork saddle with a large horn.
Here, buckaroos and cowpunchers explain how their gear suits the countryside and cattle work in their respective regions. Of course, a cowboy’s trappings are also subject to individual preferences, so personal taste and sense of style certainly help determine what hangs on the tack room wall.
At a branding or while doctoring yearlings, Ty Van Norman prefers to use his Wade saddle, with no swells on the fork and a wide-diameter horn. The low-profile horn gives the horse good leverage when holding or dragging calves.
“I ride a Wade saddle to do my ranch work,” says Van Norman, who operates Van Norman Quarter Horses, a multi-generational cattle and horse operation near Tuscarora, Nevada. “[Wade saddles] are more comfortable for me. And I just think they fit horses better. They sit a little closer to my horse than my team roping saddle. When you have a swell fork saddle, it winds up pushing the horn a little higher and then you’ve got leverage issues. When I’m roping big yearlings, I definitely like using my Wade saddle.”
At brandings in the Great Basin and on the West Coast, it’s common for cowboys to head and heel their calves, bring them to the fire and then hold them there while a ground crew vaccinates, castrates the bull calves, and applies the branding iron. A saddle horn with a 3- or 4-inch diameter creates more surface area, making dallying easier. Plus, many horns are wrapped in mulehide—not rubber—which allows buckaroos to let the rope run and give the calf a little slack if necessary.
“We’re dally guys,” says California horseman Bruce Sandifer, who has cowboyed throughout the West. “We like our saddle horns a little bit bigger around. That’s for friction. You can take a turn or a half-turn and hold the animal, but still you have the ability to run your rope.”
Sandifer explains that traditional vaquero and buckaroo gear stems from the horsemanship practices of the Spaniards who settled California centuries ago. “They spent a lot of time designing gear to protect the horse,” Sandifer says. “So I think the California system is the easiest on horses and the easiest on a cow.
“Many of us ride with a closed romal rein, and then we also have a get-down rope. So we’re not pulling on the horse’s mouth [with the reins] when we lead him [with the get-down rope].”
The get-down rope, often made of horsehair, is tied around the horse’s neck or connects to a bosalita on the horse’s head, under the bridle. The other end is tucked under the rider’s belt or attached to the saddle.
Many buckaroos follow the vaquero tradition of starting a horse in a hackamore, then progressing to a two-rein rig before going straight-up in the bridle. The process aims to slowly develop a well-trained bridle horse that responds to subtle cues and works cattle with finesse and eye appeal. Romal reins have more weight and feel to them than split reins, and that increases the signals the rider sends when neck-reining or making contact with the shanks of the bit.
“The weight of the reins gives you a lot of precision,” Sandifer adds.
That precision comes in handy when positioning the horse before throwing a heel shot or sorting cows from calves during weaning.
Dustin Kaiser, a buckaroo who has worked in Idaho, Montana, Nevada and British Columbia, and currently lives in California, adds that spurs with large rowels are also considerate of the horse.
“A lot of people think a big spur is severe,” Kaiser says. “I wouldn’t recommend using that style of spur on a colt, but the bigger the rowel and the more the points, the less abrasive that spur is. There is more surface area.
“Instead of using spurs to poke, we roll our spurs up. That’s another reason to have that long shank and big rowel—so we can get under the horse’s belly and lift.”
Kaiser also rides in traditional buckaroo tapaderos made of leather that extends well below the stirrup. Although not as widely used as Wade saddles or get-down ropes, “taps” have been part of Kaiser’s gear since he was 17.
“They help keep the weather off your feet,” Kaiser says. “Even riding through the sagebrush, they keep the dew off your boots. And keeping that sagebrush from getting into your stirrups is a big thing.
“Also, when working in the sorting pen, you can use the shanks kind of like a flag. You pop them at a calf or a cow to get them to move. And they look good.”
Bell stirrups are popular among buckaroos. With a common tread width of 4 to 6 inches, they offer riders plenty of surface area for their feet. “It’s like standing on the floor,” Sandifer says. “They give you a lot of stability.”
Chinks and armitas are also commonly used. Reaching just below the knees, chinks are primarily made of leather and protect jeans from brush or a taut rope when dragging calves to the fire. Armitas are like chinks, but instead of a thin leather strap that runs below the belt buckle, they have a thick fringed strap.
“I like armitas more than chinks, just the way they look,” Kaiser says. “Mine are a bit longer than what you normally see. I ride through some pretty thick brush, and these have a little bit more protection.
Trappings of a Cowpuncher
Tom Moorhouse has logged many miles crashing through brush, into ravines and up canyon walls in pursuit of cows. He appreciates a swell-fork saddle to help him keep his seat.
“I ride a saddle with swells,” says Moorhouse, who runs his family’s ranch near Benjamin, Texas, and has worked cattle from West Texas to Montana. “Also, if the horse blows up, you’ve got something to get your thighs under so you can ride him.”
Thick brush is an important consideration for Moorhouse and many other cowpunchers. Dean Cameron, who runs cattle near Wikieup, Arizona, says romal reins or mecate reins can get hung up in his part of the world.
“Most of the guys out here use split reins,” he says. “When you’re opening a gate or working on the ground, you can get down with one rein in your hand. And if you’re riding in the brush country, sometimes you get a rein stripped out of your hand. You can pick it back up again.
“We also use taps, the kind that don’t have a long ‘shank’ to them—the smaller the better. You’re not trying to turn a lot of brush, you’re just trying to get through it. It’s nothing for show, it’s just functional. Where we are now, there isn’t a lot of brush, so I’m actually not using any taps now. But I put them on in the wintertime. They break the wind.”
Moorhouse prefers square-bottom stirrups with a tread width of about 2 inches.
“It’s just a matter of holding them better,” he says. “Some guys around here have started riding the big 4-inch-wide flat stirrups. But the more narrow the stirrup, the better you can hold it. Of course the oxbows are the best in the world for holding onto, especially if a horse is bucking.”
Full-length chaps, whether batwing or shotgun, offer the most protection in the brush. Shotguns typically close down the length of the leg with a zipper, while batwings secure at the top of the leg with buckles and leather straps, and can flap open at the bottom for better air circulation.
“Most of the guys in the desert country wear batwings,” Cameron says. “Most of my work is up north now, around the Grand Canyon, so I wear shotgun chaps so the wind isn’t blowing in there. They’re warmer.”
Both Cameron and Moorhouse prefer to rope tied hard-and-fast. During branding, most cowpunchers simply heel and drag calves to the fire, some dallying and others leaving their rope tied to the saddle horn. When roping outside, Cameron and Moorhouse believe in being tied-on. They don’t want to take the chance of losing their dallies and letting the cow disappear into the brush.
“If you rope a yearling outside in a clearing, he might get back in the brush before you have time to get him stopped,” Moorhouse says. “And if you’re dallied, you can’t use both of your arms to fend through the brush. It would be harder to hit that brush going top speed if you had one hand on the dallies.
“Also, if you’re riding a colt and dragging calves to the fire, you might need both hands to keep the colt going straight. You can’t dally and use two hands.”
Cameron adds that most cowpunchers he knows use 35- or 40-foot ropes.
“I don’t know anybody in this country that uses one of those long lines like they use up north,” Cameron says. “It’s pretty the way some of those guys swing big loops, but it’s not real practical here. If you get too far from your work and you’re tied on, especially in the brush, it’s just not comfortable.”
This artilce was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Western Horseman.
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