Hard Work & Horse Power

How America Was Built on the Back of a Horse

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The story of America is the tale of a people always on the move.  It is also the story of the continual search to find new and better ways to transport people and goods as dependably and as fast as possible. The story of America begins with the horse. 

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angle-left The Cowboy's Horse

The Cowboy's Horse

Information on the cowboy's horse in the Hard Work & Horse Power exhibit.

Between 1866 and 1886, some 40,000 cowboys drove more than 9 million cattle from Texas to railroad centers 500 miles north in Kansas.  During that period, the beef industry grew so large that 44% of all the land in the United States was devoted to raising cattle. The first cowboys were Mexicans, called “vaqueros,”  from the Spanish word cow “vaca.” Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the vaqueros tended these ranches, creating and perfecting the aspects of cattle raising that would come to mark the American cowboy’s way of life.

Large-scale ranching began in the United States immediately after the end of the Civil War in 1865.  Many of the American cowboys were veterans of that conflict.  The clothes they wore, the equipment they used, the techniques they employed, and many of the terms they used were all taken from the vaqueros. Most of the cowboys’ horses were descendants of the animals that the Spanish had brought to the New World.  Cattle raising required a large string of horses. In the late spring, cowboys would capture local wild horses to take back to the

ranch, where skilled horsemen trained them for use on the ranch. 

The roundup was one of the highlights of the cowboy’s year.  Each spring, cowhands from various neighboring ranches spread out across the range, located the cattle that belonged to their ranch and branded them with the special mark of their ranch. The cowhands rode hundreds of miles locating the cattle and gathering the herds together.  To do this, they needed three or four fresh mounts each day.  The cowboys relied on specially trained horses to perform the demanding tasks of separating the calves, roping them and bringing them to the branding area. During the roundup, these horses were kept in a large roped-off corral called a “remuda,” the Spanish word for “replacement.” One of the ranch’s cowhands, called a wrangler, tended to the horses. The wrangler had to keep the horses fit and ready for the special task of working cattle.

All the work of the roundup was a prelude to the long trail drive, on which some 3,000 head of cattle would be driven hundreds of miles northward over one of several trails that led to the railroad yards. Each cattle drive was a highly organized undertaking.  To keep the cattle moving at a steady pace, each cowboy rode in a designated place.  At the front of the herd, the cook drove his chuck wagon, from which he prepared meals and fed the cowboys their breakfast, lunch and dinner.  

A trail drive could take as long as three months to complete.  Once it was over and the cattle were herded onto waiting railroad cars, the cowboys were free to “relax.”  Many of the cowhands returned to the cattle country, where the yearly cycle of range tending, roundup and trail drive was repeated.