Friday, April 22, 2011

The Cowboy Code of Ethics

The American cowboy’s code of ethics was pretty straightforward—but each “rule” was backed up by plain ol’ common sense.  Here are some "laws of the plains” that the cowboy strictly adhered to.

v It is bad manners to ask a man his name.  He may have a reason why he can’t afford to share his name or bring attention to himself.

v Stealing a man’s horse is a crime punishable by death.  To leave a man stranded on the plains, miles from food, water or shelter is as good as killing him.

v Cheating at cards is an unpardonable offense.  The victim or one of his friends is entitled to retaliate with a six-shooter.

v Drawing on an unarmed man is strictly prohibited.  Offenders may be gunned down on the spot by the victim, if he’s able, or his kin or friends.

v Encountering a stranger on the trail, a man must approach him and speak a few words before moving off in another direction.  Greeting him establishes good intentions.

v hen two men meet, speak, and pass on, neither must look back over his shoulder.  To do so is an indication of distrust, implying that the man looking behind him expects a shot in the back.

v When a stranger dismounts to cool his horse it is not polite to remain in the saddle while carrying on a conversation with him.  The proper thing to do is dismount and speak to him face to face, so he can see what you’re up to.

v  To ride another man’s horse without asking permission is a grave insult.  A horse is private property and borrowing one without permission is equivalent to a slap in the face.

v Only in a dire emergency is it permissible to borrow a horse.  Every man has his own style of riding and a horse can easily be spoiled by the wrong rider.

v A smart rider always puts his horse’s comfort before his own.  If the horse becomes lame or disabled, the rider may find himself stranded in the middle of the desert. 

Courtesy of Cowboys Then & Now museum, Portland, OR.


  1. Hi Nicole!
    What a great set of rules. Very interesting. Horses were extremely important and it seems like they just didn't get the "due" they deserved. I read a very interesting post just a few days ago by Kathy Otten about horses called something like "unsung Heroes of the Battlefield" or something like that, and it sure made me think. There was a very touching segment in her post about Robert E. Lee's horse, Traveler.

    Your post today is a reminder of the rules that once were--odd to think that we don't have to be concerned with so many of the proper things that were just taken for granted "back in the day."

  2. Nicole, What are you doin' poaching from my museum?? LOL

    I love the cowboy rules. All of them from stage coach etiquette to these are plain common sense and courtesy.

  3. Hi Nicole:

    Very interesting! There was the Code of the West and a Cowboy Code of Ethics.

    I would add to your fine examples these:

    When approaching a cabin or camp, the cowboy should always call out, “Hello the camp” or “Hello the cabin”. This should be shouted while outside of rifle range.

    A cowboy should always ‘ride for the brand’. He should be loyal to the owner and defend the owner’s interests.

    A drifting cowboy should always be welcome to a meal. This was called ‘riding the grub line’. This would be done when I cowboy was looking for work.


  4. Yes, I can see where these are common sense and good manners. I've always heard they shoot horse thieves. These were interesting to read, Nicole. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Nic, these are interesting and show that even the "wild" West had rules. Thanks for sharing.


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