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Out On The Range

From the plains of western Canada to the pampas of Argentina, skilled ranch hands once traveled hundreds of miles across the open range to round up cattle and bring them to market. These men led grueling lives. They toiled in the sun, slept in the dust and spent most of their days on the back of a horse.

On the long, hard cattle drives of the 1800s, a cowhand's horse was his closest ally, trained to sprint, stop and turn on command and to trek across any terrain. The cowboys of North America favored the American quarter horse, bred to run short-distance races. South American ranch hands known as gauchos rode a tough breed descended from Spanish stock called the criollo.

Rough Riders

In the 1800s, ranch hands known as gauchos, huasos or llaneros drove cattle from the open plains of South America to ranches and markets. Famed for their grit and love of freedom, these roving horsemen had tough jobs. As few as five cowhands might handle a thousand head of cattle at a time. Horses and riders faced the same dangers as they weathered storms, crossed violent rivers and skirted stampedes.

On The Job

To help with the cattle drive, a cowhand's horse developed specialized skills. Argentine gauchos taught their horses to run shoulder to shoulder with massive steers and to use their strength to pull lassoed cattle for branding. Today, many riders still practice these moves at Argentine rodeos, or domas.

Did You Know?

Between 1865 and 1890, U.S. cowboys drove more than 6 million head of longhorn cattle from the Texas range to ranches and railroad stations hundreds of miles to the north. This 1888 engraving by Frederic Remington captures life on the trail.

Denis Finnin/AMNH

Stirrups, whip, spurs and bolas on display.

Stirrups and Whip

Because a gaucho moved from place to place, he traditionally kept few possessions. He might carry what wealth he had in the form of horse gear trimmed with silver, like the stirrups and riding whip shown here.

Bolas

To stop cattle in their tracks, Argentine gauchos carried bolas, hunting weapons used by the native people of the South American plains. Three lengths of rope were bound together, with balls attached to the ends. Holding onto one ball, a gaucho whirled the others around his head and then flung the bolas. The ropes whipped around an animal's legs so it fell to the ground.

Cowpuncher

During spring roundups on North America's Western Plains, cowboys brought cattle in from the open range so that ranchers could survey their stock and calves could be sorted and branded. Horses had to respond at the blink of an eye to help riders rope in strays.

The Great Cattle Trails

In 1860, more than six times as many cattle as people lived in the U.S. state of Texas. The cowboy's job was to move this livestock to towns and cities where beef was in demand. When the first railroads stretched westward in the mid-1860s, new markets opened up, and the era of the great cattle drives began.

For about 30 years, cowboys on horseback drove millions of cattle from the Texas range to stockyards and railheads in Missouri, Kansas and Colorado, or even farther to fresh rangelands that opened up in the north. A map in the exhibition shows the legendary trails they traveled, until changing markets, modern transport and barbed wire fences drew the age of the cowboy to a close.

American Museum of Natural History

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