|Cowboys branding a calf. (National Park Service)|
It’s been said that when a cowboy is too old to set a bad example, he hands out advice. According to the National Park Service, which lists several historic ranches among its properties, old cowboys weren’t all that common, at least during the days when cattle roamed the open range.
Crusty old cowboys were mainly an invention of movies. Most cowboys were young, some only eleven or twelve. By the time they were in their mid-20s, most had taken up ranching on their own or found a less strenuous way of life. It was a young man's trade, for the hardships of six-month trail drives and the injuries sustained in working with livestock took a physical toll. Some cowboys eventually became cattlemen, while others stayed on the ranches as cooks and handymen.
—Brochure for the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, Montana
Nevertheless, cowboys have a reputation for passing along hard-earned wisdom in some downright colorful ways. Even today, folks who work ranches—and country people in general—speak a language all their own.
Here are some choice tidbits one might hear from a cowboy.
|"The Cow Boy," J.C.H. Grabill, photographer|
Sturgis, Dakota Territory, c. 1888 (Library of Congress)
About conversationDon’t expect mules and cooks to share your sense of humor.
Don’t make a long story short just so you can tell another one.
Don’t worry about bitin’ off more’n you can chew. Your mouth is probably a whole lot bigger’n you think.
If you have the opportunity to keep from makin’ a fool of yourself, take it.
Never trust a man who agrees with you. He’s probably wrong.
Speak your mind, but ride a fast horse.
When there’s nothin’ left to be said, don’t be sayin’ it.
|"Branding Calves on Roundup," J.C.H. Grabill, photographer|
South Dakota Territory, 1888 (Library of Congress)
About conflictAlways drink your whiskey with your gun hand, to show your friendly intentions.
Don’t bother arguin’ with a rabid coyote.
Don’t corner somethin’ meaner than you.
Don’t wake a sleepin’ rattler.
If you climb into the saddle, be ready for the ride.
Never drop your gun to hug a grizzly.
When your head’s in the bear’s mouth ain’t the time to be smackin’ him on the nose.
|Frederic Remington drawing|
(Harper's New Monthly magazine v.91, issue 543, August 1895)
About life in generalDon’t get callouses from pattin’ your own back.
Don’t use your spurs if you don’t know where you’re goin’.
If it don’t seem like it’s worth the effort, it probably ain’t.
Keep skunks, lawyers, and bankers at a distance.
Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.
Never follow good whiskey with water, unless you’re out of whiskey.
Never take to sawin’ on the branch that’s supportin’ you, unless you’re bein’ hung from it.