If we’re to define our terms as ‘the working cowboy’ then more of it has survived than people would expect. There are still lots of people who get on a horse every day and take care of cattle, and some of the big remaining ranches in the West will still take a wagon out for six weeks in the spring and the fall. The cowboys will be camped out, sleeping under the stars. They’ll wake before dawn, rope their horses, saddle up before branding calves, or gathering all day. They’ll then have their meals cooked out of a chuckwagon. It remains a very vibrant and viable profession to be a cowboy.
Meanwhile, in rodeos and horse shows there’s still a lot of cowboy work being preserved. And far as gunslingers and mountain men are concerned, there are re-enactments in Dodge City, Kansas, while mountain men will get together and dress up in traditional garb for long weekends.
“The weather, the markets, the beef prices are challenges modern cattlemen have to overcome.”
What are the risks to modern cowboy? There are physical threats because you’re working with animals with a mind of their own. You can get injured just as easily now as you could then. But probably the biggest risks are financial or social. I don’t how technology could replace a guy who can herd a cow or ride a bronc, but I guess that’s one threat. The weather, the markets, the beef prices are also challenges that cattlemen have to overcome.
Rustling still exists, though it’s always been small scale. In the old days, a cowboy would be a neighbour of a big ranch and he would sneak out and brand a new baby calf with his own brand. Before you knew it, he had a little herd of his own. That still happens, but mainly it’s guys taking advantage of absentee owners. They’ll claim some of the stock as their own and sell it off. Or it’s a guy who finds that a neighbour’s cow has got in with his herd. Rather than returning it, he’ll mix it with his own cattle. The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association has a whole division called the Special Rangers and all they do is track down animal thieves.