A cowboy is an animal herder who tends cattle on ranches in North America, traditionally on horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks. The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century arose from the vaquero traditions of northern Mexico and became a figure of special significance and legend. A subtype, called a wrangler, specifically tends the horses used to work cattle. In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work for or participate in rodeos. Cowgirls, first defined as such in the late 19th century, had a less-well documented historical role, but in the modern world have established the ability to work at virtually identical tasks and obtained considerable respect for their achievements. There are also cattle handlers in many other parts of the world, particularly South America and Australia, who perform work similar to the cowboy in their respective nations.
The cowboy has deep historic roots tracing back to Spain and the earliest European settlers of the Americas. Over the centuries, differences in terrain, climate and the influence of cattle-handling traditions from multiple cultures created several distinct styles of equipment, clothing and animal handling. As the ever-practical cowboy adapted to the modern world, the cowboy's equipment and techniques also adapted to some degree, though many classic traditions are still preserved today.
The English word cowboy has an origin from several earlier terms that referred to both age and to cattle or cattle-tending work.
The word "cowboy" appeared in the English language by 1725. It appears to be a direct English translation of vaquero, a Spanish word for an individual who managed cattle while mounted on horseback. It was derived from vaca, meaning "cow," which came from the Latin word vacca. Another English word for a cowboy, buckaroo, is an Anglicization of vaquero. At least one linguist has speculated that the word "buckaroo" derives from the Arabic word bakara or bakhara, also meaning "heifer" or "young cow", and may have entered Spanish during the centuries of Islamic rule.
Originally, the term may have been intended literally—"a boy who tends cows." By 1849 it had developed its modern sense as an adult cattle handler of the American West. Variations on the word "cowboy" appeared later. "Cowhand" appeared in 1852, and "cowpoke" in 1881, originally restricted to the individuals who prodded cattle with long poles to load them onto railroad cars for shipping. Names for a cowboy in American English include buckaroo, cowpoke, cowhand, and cowpuncher. "Cowboy" is a term common throughout the west and particularly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, "Buckaroo" is used primarily in the Great Basin and California, and "cowpuncher" mostly in Texas and surrounding states.
The word cowboy also had English language roots beyond simply being a translation from Spanish. Originally, the English word "cowherd" was used to describe a cattle herder, (similar to "shepherd," a sheep herder) and often referred to a preadolescent or early adolescent boy, who usually worked on foot. (Equestrianism required skills and an investment in horses and equipment rarely available to or entrusted to a child, though in some cultures boys rode a donkey while going to and from pasture) This word is very old in the English language, originating prior to the year 1000. In antiquity, herding of sheep, cattle and goats was often the job of minors, and still is a task for young people in various third world cultures.
Because of the time and physical ability needed to develop necessary skills, the cowboy often did began his career as an adolescent, earning wages as soon as he had enough skill to be hired, (often as young as 12 or 13) and who, if not crippled by injury, might handle cattle or horses for the rest of his working life. In the United States, a few women also took on the tasks of ranching and learned the necessary skills, though the "cowgirl" (discussed below) did not become widely recognized or acknowledged until the close of the 19th century. On western ranches today, the working cowboy is usually an adult. Responsibility for herding cattle or other livestock is no longer considered a job suitable for children or early adolescents. However, both boys and girls growing up in a ranch environment often learn to ride horses and perform basic ranch skills as soon as they are physically able, usually under adult supervision. Such youths, by their late teens, are often given responsibilities for "cowboy" work on the ranch, and ably perform work that requires a level of maturity and levelheadedness that is not generally expected of their urban peers.