Etiquette – 1. conventional requirements as to proper social
behavior. 2. a prescribed or accepted code of usage in matters of
ceremony. 3. the code of ethical behavior among the members of a
The modern revolution in natural horsemanship has produced a slew
of clinics and clinicians, and undoubtedly has made for better
horses and horseman, but it might be questionable that it has
produced better cowboys.
"One thing they don’t teach in these clinics is cowboy manners,"
an older rancher whispered to me at a branding last year. He was
watching a young cowboy drag a calf to the fire caught high above
one hock and at the end of 40-feet of rope. "They teach ‘em that
everything is about the horse and doin’ right by the horse," he
added. "They don’t teach them how to work with a crew."
The manners he was referring to could be called "Cowboy
Etiquette" or proper range conduct when working livestock with an
emphasis on respect and safety.
"I’d teach a clinic on etiquette," my friend said, moving toward
the branding irons. "Only my wife would show up and protest that I
don’t know the subject."
His comments did get me to thinking. During the morning gather I
noticed two riders were never near cattle. They were always a
half-mile behind the herd schooling their colts.
With the ranching population aging and the rural young moving to
cities, many ranchers must find help from horse enthusiasts who were
not raised under a strict code of cowboy conduct.
Some habits and standards can be relaxed, but others are written
in stone. Here are the ones I’d suggest as being carved in granite.
+Never tell the cattle owner how to work cattle. He has the right
to work his cows the way he wants. He knows the cattle and the
facilities. If his attitude or methods are intolerable you don’t
have to return.
- Don’t give orders to the crew. Again, this is the boss’s
- Never assume a position. The "cowboy way" is to say: "I’ll
do any job that needs doing." Be willing to do the job that
needs to be done but don’t take on a task you’re not qualified
for. When moving cattle ride drag. Don’t promote yourself to
wing or lead.
- Leave your dog at home. If you have a well-trained dog the
boss will hear about it and might ask you to bring it but never
assume the branding or roundup is the place to train your new
- If you’re riding a colt and can’t do a regular hand’s work
let the boss know beforehand. This is truer today than 30 years
ago. In the past you "made yourself a hand" no matter what you
rode. With today’s slower, gentler methods colts are seldom
asked to do more than what they’re ready for.
- Don’t ride ahead of the boss. Don’t cut him off. Don’t get
between the boss and the cattle. Basically, let the boss take
the lead in all things. When I was young the code was stricter.
You didn’t mount until the boss was mounted. You didn’t dismount
until the boss dismounted. And, if using the same tack room, you
never led your horse in first. You let the boss unsaddle first.
These rules might sound authoritarian but were based on respect.
- When cattle are being sorted outside hold herd. Don’t start
sorting without being asked.
- Don’t criticize a man’s horses, cattle, or dog.
- Don’t invite friends without permission. If you bring others
be responsible for their conduct. Ranchers appreciate help but
they need to know how many people are coming and their wives
often need to plan meals.
- Handle cattle slowly and quietly when possible.
- Don’t insist on handling cattle too slowly. That
mossy-horned, high-headed dry cow in the lead never went to a
Livestock Handling Clinic. Let the boss choose the pace.
- Arrive a little early and never late. When the boss says "be
here at seven" he imagines the crew saddled, mounted and
lined-out at that time, not a host of folk still brushing and
saddling their mounts or waiting idly for the last of the crew.
Ropers have special rules.
There are many methods and styles used in the branding pen --
heading-and-heeling, heading only, heeled and dragged to a stake,
and heeled and dragged to wrestlers. We use the latter and because
experienced wrestlers are had to find we stress safety. These rules
for ropers aren’t written in stone, but they make for good
Cooperate with the other ropers, Don’t compete.
Keep the herd quiet. Don’t get stubborn about getting a
particular calf. Rope the one that’s handy.
Use a long rope if you want, but take up your slack before
dragging the calf to the crew.
If your horse is seriously not behaving borrow another horse
or get out of the herd.
Be patient for the shot that gives you both hind feet. You
won’t always get it, but that should be your goal. Calves roped
by both feet are easier for the ground crew to handle.
All ropers can go through dry spells, but if you are simply
not getting calves you need to let someone else rope. And always
control your temper. Too often ropers who are not roping well
get frustrated and blame their horses,
Don’t rush the ground crew. Bringing in too many calves too
quickly might look impressive but it wears out the ground crew
and doesn’t allow the irons to stay hot. A good roper keeps one
eye on the ground crew. If you rope a calf but there are no
wrestlers free to handle it, don’t drag it in.
After you’ve dragged a calf in and someone has released your
rope, move quietly back to the herd coiling your rope as you go.
Don’t sit on your horse in the middle of the ground crew coiling
Cooperate with the ground crew. Getting the calf to them is
not the end of the job. If problems arise, the mounted roper
still has the most control.
When it’s possible and can be done safely, drag the calf
close to the fire. The people running the irons will appreciate
Don’t tie "hard and fast." There may be exceptions to this
but they’d be rare. Also, take time to keep your cinches snug
and don’t overwork your horse. Horses that become overtired or
sore can be unsafe. Remember, the emphasis is on safety.
And last but not least: Enjoy yourself. This rule is for
everyone including the boss. Working outdoors with good people,
good horses and good cattle is a blessing.