Cowboys tend cattle on the wide grazing lands of North America. Today they are more often called cowhands. The United States has about 114 million beef and dairy cattle, and much of the beef cattle is raised on ranches (large farms) in the western states. There are cowhands in South America too, where they are called gauchos.

The work of cowhands
Today there are about 20,000 cowhands in North America. Some of them still ride the range (grazing-land) on horseback, like the cowboys of Western films. Most use pick-up trucks, aeroplanes and helicopters, which are linked with one another and the ranch house by two-way radios.

Even with all this modern technology ranchers still depend on mounted cowhands for much of the work, riding over difficult country. A typical cow-handling crew consists of half a dozen men in the cold winter months, and double that number in the busy, dusty summer season. Because cattle graze in open country, the cowhands have to brand (burn a mark onto) the young calves to show which ranch they belong to. From time to time they round up the cattle to count them or sell them.

The cowboy in history
Cattle-raising for beef became big business in about 1870. Then the range was open to all, and cattle from many ranches grazed together. During the next 20 years there were about 40,000 cowboys riding the range, tending the cattle, and driving them for weeks over long trails to rail depots for shipment to the east.

As well as the hard work, riding in all weathers and looking after the cattle, cowboys in those days faced danger from rival ranches, and from rustlers (cattle thieves). The West was a rough, tough place, where some Native Americans were still trying to defend their lands, and cowboys carried guns.
Then as now the cowboy's chief tool was the lasso (rope), which he used to catch cattle and horses. Above all he had to be a superb horseman. Each cowboy had a string of half a dozen horses, never riding the same one two days running. Out on the range he often had to sleep rough in a makeshift camp.

A living legend
Books and films have turned cowboys into a legend. They were not as glamorous as they are in films, and the great days of the cowboy were over by the end of the 19th century. But their way of singing lingers on in ‘Western music’, and their skills are displayed in rodeos (displays of cowboy skills) and ‘Wild West’ shows.

(taken from "Oxford Children`s Encyclopedia", OUP 96)


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