American cowboy circa 1887
A cowhand is a herder, usually hired by a rancher to tend livestock, especially cattle. A cowhand is responsible for feeding the livestock, branding cattle and marking other livestock, and tending to their injuries or other needs. Cowhands also repair fences and maintain other equipment. Cowhands are inextricably linked to horses, their constant companions and transportation. Working in the wild, cowhands utilize many skills. Danger and excitement are a part of a cowhand's daily life. The shift of transportation by inanimate machine has caused horse-back riding to become a novelty rather than a norm, ultimately resulting in the expansion of the definition of cowhand to include any rider or trainer of horses.
Male cowhands are more common than females, and are usually referred to as cowboys. In spite of the term, cowboy usually refers to an adult. Female cowhands are called cowgirls. In Australia, which also has a large ranch (station) culture, cowhands are known as jackaroo s (male) and jillaroo s (female). The Spanish term for cowboy is gaucho.
The Spanish were adept at herding livestock. During the 15th century, they brought the tradition with them to the New World. American ranchers absorbed Mexican vaquero culture after the Mexican-American War in the 1850s, borrowing vocabulary and attire from their southern counterparts. In particular, the vaquero lifestyle appealed to freed African-American slaves.
Over time, the cowhands of the American West developed a culture of their own, a blend of frontier and Victorian values. Such hazardous work in isolated conditions bred a tradition of loneliness and misery, which is exemplified in their songs and poetry . Poor weather and management in the 1880s lessened the need in America for ranching cowhands, so the profession of rodeo cowboy was invented to keep their traditions alive. In the 1930s and 1940s, Western movies popularized the cowboy lifestyle but also formed persistent stereotypes. In pop culture, the cowboy and the gunslinger are often associated with one another.
- Cowboys: A Vanishing World, Photographs by Jon Nicholson, Macmillan, 2001, hardcover, ISBN 0-333-90208-4