Here are some tips to identifying real cowboys, along with a four-point (super important!) guide to hat etiquette.

The American cowboy has been around since the mid-1800s. Or three centuries before that, depending on your definition of a cowboy. Do you include the Spanish conquistadors, as they were widely credited with planting the seeds of modern cowboy traditions? Also, do you call them buckaroos or cowpunchers? Is a flat hat or a taco-shaped one better? Here, I’ll settle a few of the more widely disputed aspects of the modern-day cowboy. 

Definition of a real cowboy:

The simplest way to define a cowboy is “a man (or woman) who takes care of cows.” A true cowboy rides a horse, swings a rope and values a handmade saddle more than a running pickup. 

Cowboy tending cattle
What do you call a cowboy? I call mine “Honey.” Photo by Jolyn Young

A quick Google search also turns up a definition that includes “someone who does things that others consider foolish and dangerous.” And here I thought the Internet was full of nothing but outright lies, half-truths and libelous gossip. Finally, a solid nugget of truth from the World Wide Web! You can call a cowboy a lot of things, but a coward generally isn’t one of them.

In the 1860s, cowboys were usually young men who needed cash. Their skills included sitting on a horse for 18 consecutive hours and the ability to go 14-plus days between baths. One hundred sixty years later, not much has changed except that hot water has become more readily available. Also, many young cowboys prefer regular access to 5G cell service. Sad but true. 

So, what do you call a cowboy?

I call mine “Honey,” but he also answers to “Dad,” “hey you,” and “you blankety-blankin’ blank!” You can basically call a cowboy anything you’re tough enough to back up. Insults are endured up to a point, but be prepared for a fist fight if you start throwing around the F-word, especially if women and small children are present. No self-respecting cowboy tolerates being called a farmer.

What can you never take from a cowboy? Cash money, because he doesn’t have any.

Here’s a four-point guide to cowboy hat etiquette, regardless of its shape:

  1. Don’t touch a cowboy’s hat. 
  2. Leave his hat alone.
  3. Seriously, keep your filthy mitts off his lid. 
  4. Do I really need to add a fourth point on this one? I didn’t think so. 

What is the Code of the West?

There’s much ado about riding for the brand, living with integrity, and the general importance of honor and valor. But the real Code of the West is much simpler: Don’t anger the cook. It’s all fun and games when you’re roping calves all day and eating hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but the teepee lifestyle gets a whole lot less fun when the cook gets mad and takes off halfway through the spring wagon. The West wasn’t won on salad, but neither was it won on a plate of sadness and a growling belly.  

Primary takeaway:The main thing to remember about cowboys is that they take care of cows. What they prefer to be called, how they shape their hat, and whether their saddle has a slick or swell fork are largely beside the point. Oh, and don’t touch his hat. That one’s actually kind of a biggie. 

Author

Jolyn Young lives with her cowboy husband, Jim, and their three kids near Fallon, Nevada. She chooses to focus on the comical side of life, because her family is going to laugh at her anyway.

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