The cowboys on the western ranch and those who participated on the historic round ups and cattle drives had their own set of unique equipment and clothing. Their vocation and to a great extent much of their equipment and wear was derived from the Spaniards and the Mexicans who ranched the southwest long before the American cowboy. This of course is a story in itself.
While many will describe cowboy wear as being picturesque, the purpose was anything but that. What the cowboy wore was what was best suited for his work. While today we might consider cowboy outfits as being fashionable in their own right, each piece of clothing worn had it's own specific purpose and was designed with that in mind. Because of the utility of cowboy ranch wear the clothing is used today just as it was one hundred and fifty and more years ago. It is probably the only vocational clothing that will never go out of style and remain quite popular.
When you explore some of the museums and venues we will list near the end of this article, you'll also come to see a regional difference in cowboy attire and equipment. Main regional differences will be seen when you compare the ranch cowboy of Texas to those of the southwest and the northwest. Ranching and cattle drives were big in all these areas yet there was a distinction that each brought to the vocation of cowboy. These might include how a hat is shaped, how a lariat is used and how a saddle is cinched.
|Fancy western chaps designs|
One of the more conspicuous piece of clothing worn by the cowboy were his "chaps". The term "chaps" is taken from the Spanish word "chaparejos". These were overalls however in piecemeal fashion that covered the cowboy's trousers. Not really difficult to make, they look like the product of taking a pair of pants, cutting out the seat plus cutting the seam between the legs.
The earliest examples of chaps were actually called "armas" which means shield and covered the front portion of the horse. The armas was made of cowhide and covered both the horse's chest and the riders legs. Chaps worn by the western cowboy on the ranch and on cattle drives were essentially smaller less cumbersome versions of the armas and solely covered the cowboy's legs.
Offering much utility, the cowboy's chaps were used to protect a riding cowboy from his mount rubbing past a fence, cactus, rock or other horse. They came quite handy when riding a horse through any brushy terrain. If the cowboy happened to be thrown from the horse the chaps would offer a level of protection. Cowboys have also utilized chaps to offer some comfort in cold and windy weather.
Chaps were made of cowhide, some with long hair or wool added which the old west cowboy felt would add even greater protection. .
Interestingly enough, it was said that the old west cowboy might even wear his chaps to social events since they were so distinctive and in some cases as shown in the photos above could be quite fancy. Not that they weren't bulky and perhaps heavy but at a social gathering they might make the cowboy stand out in a fashionable way and maybe catch the attention of females.
|Cowboy reata or lariat|
Here again we go back to the Spaniards for what we might call the cowboy's rope. Reate in Spanish means rope. The word "lariat" is a contraction of the Spanish term "la reata"
When the cowboys reata was not in use it would normally be coiled in a loop about a foot and a half in diameter and hang below the base of the saddle horn.
During the earliest days, the cowboy's rope was typically made of buffalo hide and later with rawhide and even hemp. The hide ropes were generally about half an inch in diameter and the hemp varieties three quarters of an inch. The length of the rope might be fifty or sixty feet. There were differences in rope length based on which region the cattle round ups and drives occurred. The Texas cowboys were known to have the longest lariats however only about half the length was used.
|Cow Saddle or Western Saddle|
The western American cowboy for the most part used a "cow saddle" while riding the range. This can also be referred to as a working saddle or western saddle. The design of these saddles go all the way back to the Spanish vaqueros of the southwest. Horns and seats could be of different sizes and cinches holding the saddle on the horse could vary. There are several variations of this western saddle but all of them have a similarity to the first saddles the Moors brought over to Spain from Africa over three thousand years ago.
Spurs were another part of cowboy equipment that originated with the Spaniards and Mexicans and were adapted to the American west cowboy. The word spur has it's roots in the Anglo-Saxon word spora or spura and means to stimulate or urge.
|Spanish western spurs|
The western cowboy spur was typically a round metal toothed wheel. The wheel was about the diameter of a quarter coin. The western spur was an essential piece of cowboy gear in as much as it was used to direct a horse to move forward or laterally. Cowboys would learn to use their spurs very effectively. Directing one's horse correctly was important to any cowboy being involved in round ups or cattle drives. The spurs and the reins are like today's gas pedals and steering wheels on motorized vehicles.
The links below are to additional Western Trips photo articles you may also enjoy...
The Old West Cattle Trails
History of Cowboys
Cattle Drives and the Fort Worth Stockyards
Some Great Venues to Explore American West Cowboy Gear
The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is northeast of downtown Oklahoma City in an area known as Persimmon Hill. As a side note, the Persimmon Hill Garden Club has the distinction of being the oldest neighborhood garden club in the state. The street address of the museum is 1700 N.E. 63rd Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Museum hours are 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Daily. The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's.
|National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum|
Fort Sumner Museum in Fort Sumner New Mexico.This is the museum located at the site of the old Ft. Sumner Military outpost and at Billy the Kid's grave site. You can appreciate the barrel length of the Long Rifles looking from top to bottom. The top rifle is has a 40 plus inch barrel and the one under it just about three inches shorter.
(Article and photos copyright 2013 Western Trips)