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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

In the 1800s, cowboys of the wild west rode horses all day every day, day and night, rain and shine. Much of their time was spent herding cattle back in the days when everything west of the Mississippi was open range where the deer and the antelope play and discouraging words were seldom heard. Cowboys were nomads, driving herds of cattle to railheads where they’d be shipped north to Chicago stockyards to be slaughtered and sold as beef. The most famous of the routes they followed was the Chisolm Trail. It started in Texas and went across 500 miles of hostile Indian territory to Abilene, Kansas, and the rail yards there. Long before the invention of the American cowboy, it was the Mexican vaqueros who drove cattle north. Cowboys unable to pronounce vaquero turned it into buckaroo as surely as they turned juzgado into hoosegow.

Vaqueros were descendants of the horse-mounted livestock herders of Spain and Portugal

They perfected their riding and roping skills with horses and cattle brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadors. As the Mexicans drove cattle north into the United States to sell to the gringos, Texans and Californians hired on, admired the vaqueros’ horse-and-cattle skills, adopted them and became America’s first cowboys.

The Marlboro Man

In 1924, Philip Morris introduced the Marlboro brand as a woman’s cigarette. Filter tips on cigarettes were considered feminine and men in focus groups said they wouldn’t want to be known as the kind of man who smoked a lady’s cigarette. Leo Burnett used the image of a cowboy and all the rugged manliness that represented to market to “post-adolescent kids who are just beginning to smoke as a way of declaring their independence from their parents,” according to internal company documents.

Skinny cows sell for less

Owners who hurried their herds to market found they were costing themselves money. Over time, the smart ones figured about 15 miles a day was the best pace at which to proceed and one where the animals would put on weight grazing along the way, not lose it. With herds starting in Texas and headed for the railheads in Kansas, trips could be 1,000 miles long. That’s two months with no days off, eating, sleeping and working outdoors. 

Cowboy clothing was practical

Levi Strauss saw a market for heavy-duty work pants among the 300,000 hopefuls who came to California to get rich after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill and the Great Gold Rush was on. Strauss’ pants were made of sturdy, thick, heavy denim that was harder to rip and tear than the fabrics used in most work pants. Cowboys would wear the same clothes until they wore out, so they were quick to adopt these tougher blue jeans that lasted longer. Some cowboys wore thick chaps made of leather or fleece over their denim pants for even more protection and warmth. Cowboy hats had wide brims for protection against the sun and rain, of course. 

Boots were made for working on horseback

Descendants of the military boots from Europe, cowboy boots were made of thick, tough leather and had no laces to break or snag. Their high sides protected their legs from scrapes while keeping the water out when crossing creeks and rivers. Their toes were pointed to slip easily into the saddle’s stirrups and the heels were tall so they’d stay there.

Cowboys competed with each other

When large-scale ranching replaced cattle drives, crews of working cowboys lived in bunkhouses. These barracks had one large open sleeping room with rows of narrow bunks and no privacy.

At roundup time, vaqueros Mexicanos would compete to see who was the best roper and who could ride the meanest animals. As early as 1820, ranch-versus-ranch contests to see who were the roughest, toughest and best at riding, roping, and rassling were common events.

Over time, these events became full-scale rodeos

Cheyenne Frontier Days and the Calgary Stampede should not be confused with the Wild West shows of legends like Buffalo Bill Cody, who featured a cowgirl named Phoebe Ann Moses Butler, known then as “Little Sure Shot” and now as Annie Oakley. Wild West shows were performances, displays of riding and roping skills, and staged Indian attacks with the cavalry coming to the rescue. Rodeos are contests featuring cows and horses.


In Spain around about the year 1000, it became quite the thing to kill bulls from horseback with pointed spears. Bloody bull-slaughtering tournaments became festive events for the aristocrats and nobility. In bull-lancing, the stars of the show rode the horses and the supporting cast was on foot, serving the rider.

Role reversal

Six hundred years later, bullfighters got off their horses, put down their lances and began to fight bulls with swords after waving at them with their capes. In bullfighting, the stars are on foot and the supporting cast rides on horseback.

The Portuguese invented another fun thing to do with bulls

Forcados (bull-grabbers) took turns leaping on charging bulls and wrestling them to the ground. 

In rodeo days, Portuguese bull-grabbing morphed into American bulldogging

In bulldogging contests, riders jump off horses running at top speed, grab the horns of a steer and try to wrestle it to the ground in the quickest time possible. Today we use the term taking the bull by the horns to mean tackling a difficult situation head on and confronting a problem with clear, confident action.

Bull riding

During the 16th century in Mexico, bull riding was a sport where young men climbed on a bull’s back and stayed there until it dropped dead. In its second version, bull riding evolved into a contest where the riders attempted to stay on the bulls until the animals stopped bucking, shortening the event considerably. In today’s version, professional bull riders have only to stay on the bucking bull’s back for eight seconds while holding onto a rope with only one hand. It is the top event at all professional rodeos and these days is dominated by Brazilian vaqueiros.

Most male steers are castrated while young

Once their testicles have been removed, steers are easier to manage because they’re not trying to breed with every heifer they meet and aren’t always fighting with the other males to get first pick. I’ll spare you the oft-told joke about why the old bull walks down the hill while the young one runs.

Artificial insemination changed the whole deal

Now mating could be quicker, surer, and with only the best bulls having the most characteristics preferred by the breeders. The quality of the hired stud is said to determine the quality of the meat harvested from beef cattle and the volume of milk produced by dairy cows. An elite bull is one that produces over one million doses of semen a year and the really big boys produce twice that.


The word bulldozer comes from how bigger, stronger bulls push their smaller, weaker rivals backward in shoving contests to establish dominance. To bulldoze people means to bully them to the point where you get them to do whatever you want. Did you know that the word bully first meant sweethearts, then fine fellow, then blusterer before finally becoming harasser of the weak? By the late 1800s, bulldozing came to mean using brute force to push over and through all obstacles in your path. 

The first bulldozer was a flat metal blade pulled by horses

Twenty years later, a bulldozer came to mean a piece of heavy diesel-powered equipment on tank tracks with a flat blade in front.


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