Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Wit and Wisdom of the American Cowboy

Cowboys branding a calf. (National Park Service)
By Kathleen Rice Adams

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 conversation

Don’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 conflict

Always 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 general

Don’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.


  1. Kathleen, I love these sayings. Aren't they fun to collect? My favorite is, "Don't squat with your spurs on."

  2. Yes, they are fun to collect! So colorful, but there's always a salient point hidden in there. ;-)

    I think my favorites are "When there’s nothin’ left to be said, don’t be sayin’ it," and "When your head’s in the bear’s mouth ain’t the time to be smackin’ him on the nose." I wish I had come up with both of those. :-D

  3. Thanks, Peggy! I'm waiting for you to teach us all some legitimate horse terms. I can't think of anyone better for the job. Please say you'll attack that topic one of these days. :-)

  4. Love these sayings, Tex, and have heard many growing up. I think what I love the most about cowboy sayings is they're filled with common sense...something sorely missing in today's world.

  5. Great post, Kathleen.

    Excuse me while I transfer them into my WIP. :-)

  6. I think "Speak your mind but ride a fast horse" might be the only one I've heard. These were priceless tidbits of human nature, how we think and act in certain circumstances. Just about all could be reapplied to the 21st Century.
    I enjoyed these so much, and learned some new sayings!

  7. Thanks, ladies!

    Rustler (Kirsten), I agree about common sense. For all their colorful language, cowboys imparted LOTS of common sense. What ever became of that trait, I wonder?

    Kristy, I keep looking for places in my WIPs to stick a few of these, but I haven't found any yet. I suppose I need to write more "cowboy stories" with actual cowboys -- as opposed to lawmen and outlaws -- in them. :-D

    Celia I like "Speak your mind but ride a fast horse," too. I probably could benefit from adopting that piece of advice. I tend to hang around and find myself full of buckshot. :-D

  8. Those are great sayings!! I liked
    Never take to sawin’ on the branch that’s supportin’ you, unless you’re bein’ hung from it.

  9. Angel, I find that particularly good advice! :-D

    Thank you for stopping by. It's always so good to see you. :-)

  10. Great post, Kathleen. I like all of them but particularly this one: Keep skunks, lawyers and bankers at a distance. :)

    Never heard any of those as I don't quite live in the right neighborhood for that.


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