Linda Broday Looks at Cowboy Life on the Frontier


Although we’ve read about and seen movies of the Old West, many of us are unsure what the cowboy’s job entailed on an early day ranch other than the obvious of working the cattle. Maybe you’ll learn something new. I did. 


The cowboy’s job began just as the first rays of dawn were breaking and he didn’t crawl back out of saddle until after dark. The days were long and the work was hard. But the cowboy loved his life. It was in his blood. He didn’t “work” for the ranch; he “rode for the brand” and he was very attuned to the animals entrusted in his care and had deep loyalty to the rancher who employed him.


But let’s get back to daily life.


cowboy-n-horsesUpon “rolling out” of the sack, a few of the men would saddle their mounts and round up the scattered band of ponies that had wandered near and far, grazing during the night and herd them into the corral while the cook set about making breakfast. The outfit would fill their bellies then carry their saddles and bridles to the corral and mount up. (On cold days the compassionate cowboy would warm the bit for a second before putting it in the horse’s mouth. I’m sure it was appreciated.) Once mounted, the wrangler would get to the business of checking the herds and looking for signs of trouble. The cattle required constant care and vigilance.


Daily chores in addition to riding herd on the cattle:

  • Keeping horses shod and in good physical shape
  • Gentling horses
  • Branding Cattle
  • Repairing saddles and wagons
  • Mending ropes and harnesses
  • Cleaning their guns
  • Skinning carcasses of any cattle that died and drying hides
  • Riding fence and repairing any downed ones

In general, doing whatever the foreman asked, be it painting and fixing up or putting out bait to catch or kill any predators that threatened the stock.


Simply put, when he was on the time clock, the cowboy was at the beck and call of his employer.



Life was much easier in warm weather. Spring and fall saw roundups and trail drives. Once the cattle drives were a thing of the past sometime in the 1880’s, the cowboys drove cows to the nearest railroad shipping point. A note of interest: The biggest year for Texas cattle drives was 1871 when more than 700,000 cattle were driven up the trails from Texas.


In the mountainous areas, the saddle wranglers would herd the cattle twice a year to summer or winter ranges for better grazing. They used the high country in summer because it was normally a little cooler. The low country was preferred in winter as it wasn’t usually as cold. Of course, on the plains things were a little different but they still rotated the cattle to different pastures year round to keep them well fed and watered.


Part of the cowboys’ duties was to inspect the herds to see what shape they were in. They also directed the cattle away from any patches of known loco weed. This was called “outriding.” In addition, the outriders “rode sign” to determine if any cattle had strayed too far from the herd and if so to turn them back. They looked for bogged down steers or horses, laid traps for coyotes and wolves, and kept their eyes open for signs of rustling. And the outriders “blabbed young calves that were too old to be nursing their mothers. This involved clipping a board onto the calf’s nose. It allowed the animal to graze but not to nurse. Usually, this was only done in the case of a lusty calf with an emaciated mother. It allowed the mother to gain weight.



Outriders also kept on the lookout for diseased or injured animals. When they found any, the cowboy either inspected and treated the animal or destroyed it.


Mother Nature brought her own set of problems. Lightning and prairie fires were the most feared. But there were also gullywashers that could trap scores of cattle in flash floods; tornadoes and cyclones; and drought and freezing temperatures that could devastate entire herds. The bottom line was protecting and saving the cattle. They were money on the hoof.


Winter brought some of the cowboys’ hardest work. They lived in “line camps” which were outpost cabins situated on the far reaches of the ranch. And the punchers who wintered there were called line riders. The difference in line riders and outriders was the fact that line riders had a specific area to patrol whereas outriders roamed everywhere. The line rider’s main job was looking after their herd. They made sure the cattle had food and water and protected them from hungry coyotes and wolves. Whatever it took to get the herd through the freezing winter months that’s what they did. It was lonely boring work for the line rider and they were always grateful for springtime when they could rejoin their fellow cow punchers.



To sum it up, the cowboys’ job consisted of doing whatever they could to make the ranch run smoothly and turn a profit.


According to the book “The Cowboy” by Philip Ashton Rollins, in the late 1800’s top hands earned $40.00 a month. Lesser hands were paid $25.00 and upward. Foremen earned $10 to $40 over and above what the top hands drew. And they were all given free room and board. That wasn’t much money for what was expected of them.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at the American Cowboy. I’m curious about why we think the cowboys’ life was and is still so romantic and glamorous. Or is it simply that it’s hard dangerous work so the men have to be tough as nails to survive on the unforgiving land? I’d like to hear your thoughts about that or the weather. What’s it like where you are? I feel like a yo-yo where I live.

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

32 thoughts on “Linda Broday Looks at Cowboy Life on the Frontier”

  1. Oh, yeah I feel like a yo-yo too. No jackets one day, snow the next.

    I think I’m so fascinated with the cowboy life because my Granddaddy is a cowboy. He and my uncle run over 600 acres in OK. I started reading Louis L’Amour as a child. I love historical Christian fiction set in the Old West. I’d like to write one someday…but that’s someday. I guess it’s like you said, they work so hard and have to be tough. But sometimes all that toughness hides a tender heart. It just takes the right woman to find it. That’s my thoughts about it.

  2. The weather has definitely come in like a lion. I just hope it goes out like a lamb. I want to get outside so bad. I just can’t deal with the cold anymore.

    Cowboys are the most hard working men out there. They have to be strong, tough and stubborn in order to deal with the decisions they have to make each day. Watching westerns and reading about cowboys you can’t help but fall in love with them. They are the best thing since sliced bread. I know what a cliche, but they are.

    Have a great day. Thanks for all the wonderful info. I’m going to buy ‘The Cowboy’ for me and my hubby.

  3. I love this, Linda. I’m going to use some of this in my next book.
    Blabbed calves? I’ve never heard of that before.
    And the day to day stuff of a cowboy, well, it’s not quite such a mystery to me because we have cattle so I see the time it takes every day just checking them, doctoring them, feeding them (even when they’re on stalk fields or pastures there’s always SOMETHING). And we’re calving right now so that is an enormous amount of work.

    Yesterday my husband had to haul a cow to our vet to have a caesarian section. I wish I’d been there to take pictures. Yeah, I know, ick. Still, it’s pretty cool. My husband has done C-Sections himself before on a cow that was dying, trying to get the calf out of her. I think it’s worked a very few times. But we’ve never done one with a vet and hoped to save both cow and calf. I wonder what that cost!!!???

  4. We have cattle and my husband would have made a cowboy in the 1800’s. He can tell you which cow is which from a distance even when they are all solid black! It slays me every time. I have to see the eartag number to know which cow it is.

    I agree the cowboy’s life wasn’t glamorous, yet when you think of all the things he had to know and do to not only do his job but survive- I find that truly heroic and I think that is why he is so romanticized. Along with his gentlemanly manners when he finally had a chance to be around women! LOL

    Mary, I hear you about the vet bills! My dh does everything medical to the cows because the vet bills are killers. And luckily we have a vet tech for a daughter so her knowledge is always valuable.

  5. Good Morning Jen T,

    Thanks so much for stopping by. Louis L’Amour’s work has always been a measuring stick for my writing. And I always come up short. Darn it! He’s an amazing author who can draw you into a story like no other. But he never really was satisfied with his books. Even after he’d published his 100th novel he remarked that he’d only just begun to learn the writing craft.

    Yes, this weather has me shaking my head and trying to keep from getting sick. One day it’s in the 80’s and next it’s freezing. Don’t know what to wear or anything. I’m so confused.

    Have a great day! 🙂

  6. Hi Roberta H,

    Isn’t this the craziest weather? Just when you think it’s going to warm up, a norther hits and drops the mercury back down. Just crazy. I hope you can hold on just a bit more for Spring. It’s definitely something to dream about as you try to stay warm.

    I’m glad you’re going to buy “The Cowboy” for you and your hubby. You can’t go wrong. Anyone who’s curious about the real life of the West will find it interesting. Glad I could point you to the book.

    Hey, there’s nothing wrong with falling in love with cowboys. They’re pretty unique. I love their wisdom that comes from riding the range and working with cows and horses. Plus, those jeans sure fit their form nicely!! LOL

  7. Morning Mary!

    Oh my gosh! I do hope you’re able to save that mama cow and her calf. But, get your pocketbook ready. Those vet bills aren’t cheap from what I hear. I shudder to think what a C-section costs.

    Living on a ranch like you do, I imagine you have tons of stories to tell. No wonder your stories spring to life in amazing ways! A writer can spend days and months researching but they never know the little details that can add so much to a story. You, my Filly sister, weave those details into a tightly written true-to-life tale.

    Good luck with saving the mama cow and baby!

  8. Hi Paty!

    Great for you to stop by. I’m sure my glimpse of the life of the cowboy is nothing new to you. I envy people who live on farms and ranches. I’m sure the work is tiresome and unending but there’s something about raising animals that really speaks to me. Your husband must be so attuned to the cattle in order to tell them apart. It’s kinda like they’re his kids. Mamas always know their babies. It’s just a sense they have. And he’s like that. I’m sure you get pretty attached to those cows.

    Paty, I think you hit the nail on the head about why we romanticize the cowboy. For the most part, he was not very well educated yet he possessed such wisdom that came from connecting with the earth and its creatures. They are awesome. 🙂

  9. Hi Linda,
    Oh, this was so interesting! What a great blog and I learned a lot!! I often think we’re so lucky to live in present times. I can’t imagine how hard life was for those cowboys… riding in bad weather, rain or heat didn’t stop them.

    BTW- I’m enjoying TEXAS TEMPEST! I’m reading the anthology out of order, so I could read yours first! You are such a talented writer with a great western voice. I’m chuckling through some of the images!! And McKenna is such a hottie!

    Great info and pictures on the blog today!

    It’s raining today, but the sun’s trying to come thru. The Gov says we’re in a drought, so we welcome the rain, but yesterday it was near 80 degrees. So yes, we’re yo-yoing too!

  10. I think I love cowboys because they were tough as nails. I have always enjoyed reading about their lifes and I don’t think they make men quite like this today. Interesting blog today!

    Our weather for the past week has been very cold and snowy, but today are tempts are going to hit the 50’s and then in the 60’s the rest of the week but rain is coming in. I am just so happy to get some warmer tempts, and we have sunshine today.

  11. Cowboys are tough, gentle, industrious, and carefree
    survivalists. Take your choice! They will always be
    heroes to us all!

    As to weather, Houston has gone from a hurricane with major power problems and heat to snowfall within one year’s time! Give me a break!!!

    Pat Cochran

  12. Great blog. And about weather? Here in Memphis we had a one-day snow storm Friday with six to eight inches. Unheard of here. We Memphians love it. Only problem is it doesn’t last more than a day or two. It’s sixty today.

  13. Hi Linda, thanks for the overview of a day in the life of a cowboy. There were details I wasn’t aware of. And speaking of cowboys…I just finsihed your novella in Give Me a Cowboy and I absolutely love it! Tempest is such a character, making me laugh right from the start how she hitched her dress into her waistband and started giving McKenna the business! What a pair! And a very original storyline. I bet you had a lot of fun writing it. Thanks for the fabulous entertainment! 🙂

  14. Hi Charlene,

    Glad you enjoyed the blog. And bless you, dear heart, for the kind words about TEXAS TEMPEST. You sure made my day! 🙂 I’m overjoyed that you’re liking the story. Coming from such a talented writer as you, that’s high praise indeed.

    Enjoy your rain. I’m so envious. We’re in a major drought here in North Texas. Good grief! Everything is shriveling up and it’s not even summer yet. I hate to think of what those hot temps, that I know are coming, will do. I just hope and pray that we get rain soon to help avert disaster.

    Yeah, cowboys sure didn’t and still don’t have an easy life. I think they have to really love what they do to keep at it. When I’m driving down the road and see a group of cowboys herding some cattle in the adjacent pasture, I get a lump in my throat. It’s a scene that I never get tired of seeing. Cowboys are such an interesting breed. And I’m so glad it’s still a common sight around here. They’re awe-inspiring.

  15. Hi Quilt Lady,

    Hurrah for the thaw even if it’s brief! I hear you. It’s time for Spring already. I think we’re all antsy for it.

    I’ve always been enthralled by the cowboy. They’re admirable in many different ways, from the angle of their Stetson to the grit in his voice. Cowboys are very special men who have big hearts and kind eyes. I get goosebumps every time one calls me “ma’am.” Oh man! That always gets to me. They’re really mannerly. At least the ones I’ve come in contact with. If you really want to know what life’s about, ask a cowboy!

    Enjoy your sunshine while you can! 🙂

  16. Hi Pat,

    Bless your heart. You’ve really run the weather gamut there in Houston. Talk about tough! But you have nothing left to do but just hang in there and pray for relief.

    I agree with your assessment of the cowboy. They are both tough and yet gentle. They care deeply for their animals and for their families. Loyalty and love go hand in hand.

    Glad you enjoyed my blog! 🙂

  17. Hi Patricia,

    Or should I say snowbunny? I’m sure you enjoyed the snow seeing as how it’s so rare in Memphis. Some people love snow and some hate it with a passion. Just depends how much you get and how frequently I guess.

    Try to enjoy whatever Mother Nature sends your way.

  18. Hi Kate,

    You’re so sweet! Thank you for the huge compliment on my TEXAS TEMPEST. I’m really glad Tempest and McKenna wound their way into your heart. They were very special characters. Tempest just exploded onto the page. I’ve never written a character quite like her before. And her boldness is so unlike me. I’m very shy so I didn’t know if I portrayed her character accurately. Ha, maybe she’s my alter ego!! LOL

    Have a great day up there in Canada! 🙂

  19. Cowboys are what legends are made of. Cowboys of the westerns we grew up with were more gunfighters than ranchers. They always rode into town, saved the ranchers or townspeople and rode off into the sunset singing “Happy Trails to You.”

    Yo yo doen’t even begin to cover the weather in Nebraska. A week ago it was warm enough to golf if you didn’t have to work. By Friday the sun wash shining in the morning, by noon it was snowing. On Saturday we were clearing 6″ of snow off the driveway and sidewalks, Sunday it was -3 when I went to church. Monday started a warming trend in the 20’s, Tuesday 30’s today at noon close to 50. Tomorrow forcast to be close to 60. Friday maybe more snow. Can’t complain about the weather, we have had it all.

  20. Hi Sue,

    Thanks for stopping by to check things out at the Junction.

    My gosh, girl! I thought I had it rough with just the erratic temperatures. You’ve had everything you can imagine and in such a short time span. Doesn’t pay to put up the snow shovels yet or pack up your winter gear.

    I agree about the western movies and TV shows making the cowboy a legend. As a kid I used to be glued to the TV everytime a western came on. And I still am to this day. I never get tired of watching those tough, gritty cowboys administer their brand of law and order. Does my heart good to see them do away with the bad guys.

    Hang in there with the crazy weather!

  21. The weather in my little piece of Oregon is like a yo yo, too. One minute the sun is shining and the next it is raining.

  22. Hi Abi,

    I agree that Gil Favor and Clint Eastwood made an unbeatable combination. Those were two tough cowboys. Bonanza and The Virginian were other westerns I loved too. And I think Lonesome Dove and Open Range were top-notch movies that depicted trail drive life.

    Thanks for dropping by. I appreciate it.

  23. Hi Estella,

    Well, it seems like no matter what part of country we’re in, the weather has been full of surprises lately. I for one am ready for Spring and more stable weather patterns.

    Glad you could stop by for a minute. Thanks.

  24. hello Linda..Im late chiming in here—–still dealing with these blasted Girl Scout cookies and all the money that goes with them!

    OK-onto the subject at hand….COWBOYS!

    I think that the appeal (for me) is how hard they worked! They were tough as nails for sure and didnt turn their backs on hard work! This is a very attractive attribute in a man! I would say that cowboys worked hard, played hard, lived hard and loved hard!

    Now-onto the weather..something very interesting happened here a few days ago-we got 5 inches of SNOW!!!!!!!!!!! This happened on Sunday and our power went out that very night—we all piled up in our king bed and kept warm through the night-but our poor lizard, Rex-nearly lost his life..he got too cold! We left early the next morning and went to a friend’s house to stay warm…our power was back on by 5pm the following day! We got to play in the snow and have lots of fun…and we have some snow on the ground still today-however, I think it will be in the 70’s by this weekend! LOL ..that’s the south for ya huh?

  25. *big sigh* Love delving into the tough and dusty life of cowboys 🙂 Like Melissa, a big draw for me is the rugged work ethic, endurance and loyalty 😀

    Thanks for a fun post, Linda!!

  26. My grandfather was a true cattle rancher. He was one of those who had to herd the cows for miles on horseback … until trucks became more efficient. He had a huge ranch in northeastern Washington state and I can remember going to visit when I was a little girl. That was when they still had the huge log house like something you would see in a movie. Grandma had indoor plumbing, except in the kitchen sink, which had a pump. When they finally built the new house, it didn’t have the same charm.

  27. Thanks for tonight’s history lesson. The cowboy way of life has always held a romantic place in the American heart. A hard way of life, and most people don’t realize how hard – for both the hands and the ranch families. Here in Northeast Tennessee it has been really cold and last weekend we had the most snow of the winter. It is warming up tomorrow – probably in the 40s and 50s. It could be in the high 60s to 70 by the weekend. It has been a cold winter. Everyone’s electricity bills have almost doubled. Look forward to spring, but not summer. I’d rather have the cold than the hot humid summers.

  28. Hi Melissa,

    I’m glad you took a minute from your Girl Scout Cookies to drop by. It’s always great to see you.

    Wow, the weather has really dealt you quite a hand! Glad you enjoyed the snow but be grateful it was short-lived. And I’m glad your power wasn’t off for all that long. Didn’t it remind you of the early days before electricity? Ha!

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