Tools of the Trade

Since the beginning of the cattle trade in North America, the cowboy and the horse have been inseparable. Over the years, the men who worked with cattle on the vast grasslands of the west, developed equipment that allowed them to work cattle from horseback.

The early Mexican vaqueros adapted the Spanish war saddle, which had a high back (cantle) and front (fork) so that it could serve them better. They lightened the saddle by using a rawhide covered “tree” (wooden form) over which the leather seat could be placed. The most useful innovation, however, was the development of a saddle “horn” that extended upward at the front of the saddle. This allowed the rider to wrap his rope around the horn when roping cattle. There were many different variations and details, but the stock saddle has remained the same to the present day.

The rope is the most indispensable tool to the cowboy. With it he can control a 1500-kilogram bull or gently drag a calf to the branding fire. The vaquero of Mexico made his rope out of braided rawhide and called it la reata (from which we get “lariat”). The earliest buckaroos of British Columbia used the same braided rawhide ropes as their Spanish-speaking cousins in the Southwest. The Mexican vaqueros and packers also brought a lighter rope to British Columbia, made out of fibres braided from the maquey plant (a Mexican cactus). But, since this fibre was not readily available, BC cowboys often used ropes made out of braided Manila hemp. Since this type of rope was cheaper and easier to obtain, braided rawhide reatas soon became less common. Modern day ropes are made from polypropylene.

The early drovers in Great Britain did their herding on foot and used long whips called “bullwhips” to control the cattle. The cattle were not beaten by the whips but were controlled by the sound of the whip cracking beside their heads. It was said that a good bullwhip-wielding man could control a hundred head of cattle. The other type of whip used by the British Columbia cowboys was the quirt, a short flexible woven-leather whip. It had a handle about a foot long with two to four heavy loose lashes hanging from one end, and on the other end was a loop to hang around the cowboy’s wrist or saddle horn.

Early Stock Saddle (1870s)

The early saddles used by the drovers in British Columbia were “Spanish” saddles adapted for handling stock. They had a saddle horn for roping and a high back (cantle) for comfort. The seat only extended part way forward so that the stirrup leathers could be easily reached for repair or replacement.

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