By Kent Hanawalt

One often sees folks dressed in what is called “Western” garb, but by the Wikipedia definition, damn few of them are cowboys.

Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger wore Western hats and boots, but certainly didn’t tend cattle. Johnny Cash, Glenn Campbell, Garth Brooks, and Alan Jackson are all seen wearing the style of hats and boots associated with “cowboys” and neither do they fit this definition.

The Spanish language has several words to better describe that for which Americans have only the one word:

Charros are those who compete in Mexican Charreadas. This class of riders most closely resembles the rodeo cowboys of North America

Caballeros are horsemen, literally “they of the horse.” This is a more apt description of the many hundreds of thousands of people involved in showing horses in such events as cutting, reining, and Western pleasure.

Vaqueros—“they of the cows”—are the few who actually herd cattle ahorseback.

Rancheros are, of course, the ranchers.

If one looks closely, he can learn something about a person who is dressed “Western” by looking at the subtle differences in his attire and in his horse-gear: the crown and brim of his hat, the sole and the height of his boots, and the style of his saddle and rigging.

A bronc rider—like a ranch cowboy—wears high-topped boots with leather soles and pegged steel shanks to fit his oxbow stirrups. But a bronc rider’s saddle is made with no horn, while the ranch cowboy wraps his saddle horn with rubber to better hold a dallied rope.

Both a team roper and ranch cowboy ride saddles equipped with a breast collar and a rear cinch, wrap their horns with rubber, and carry a 35-foot lariat. A team-roping saddle has a “full double” cinch rigging and a “high dally” horn. Boot style is optional.

One who competes in “ranch roping” events wears the same style of boots as a bronc rider or ranch cowboy, but rides a more Mexican-style saddle
with a big dinner-plate horn and no rubber wrapping. He wears a low flat-brim, round-crown hat, and carries a 65-foot lariat.

A cutting or reining horse rider likely wears low-topped, soft-soled boots. His saddle needs only one cinch, and has a horn only to grab when he gets off balance.

The “Ostensible Cowboy” is another bird altogether. As the name implies, he only appears to be a cowboy. Urban Dictionary defines him as “all hat, no cattle,” originally used in reference to people imitating the fashion or style of cowboys. These people wore the hats, but had no experience on the ranch; thus, all hat, no cattle, similar to talking the talk without walking the walk (which was originally used in reference to wannabe gunslingers).

As the country/Western singer Conway Twitty sang in 1985:

Don’t call him a cowboy
Until you’ve seen him ride
‘Cause a Stetson hat
and them fancy boots
Don’t tell you what’s inside,

For more stories from Kent Hanawalt, check out his book, Ain’t This Romantic!?!: Adventures of a Twentieth Century Cowboy, available on

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