Reckling: Strong men, tender hearts
In recent years the world’s gone against the ranching lifestyle, and the cowboy way seems to be fading as quickly as a short winter’s day. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some cowboys and ranchers earlier in my life and have had the good fortune to once again spend time in the company of these hardworking people.
When someone mentions the word “cowboy,” many preconceived notions are instantly conjured. They’re often labeled as “strong and silent” types, impervious to emotion or frivolity. The image of a stoic, weather-beaten man, who stands tall, rarely speaks and spends much of his time alone, furthers the mystique and misconception. And the only reason a cowboy is seen riding off into the sunset is because his work that day is not yet done.
From what I can tell, a cowboy has to be “tough” because he gets kicked, dumped and trampled many times during his life. The physical punishment cowboys endure is underestimated because cowboys don’t complain. Injuries are common, but whining about them, or anything else, is not characteristic of the cowboy.
A cowboy’s toughness has more to do with battling inclement weather, dealing with a difficult horse or getting by on very little sleep during calving season. Cowboys learn to tolerate the numbing north wind, sit in the saddle from sunrise to sunset and getting their teeth kicked loose by a rambunctious colt. The ability to pick himself up and dust himself off is mastered at a young age.
Some may appear to be rugged loners, but they are always part of a bigger network. Working ranches involve teamwork, and there is a silent code of partnership and communal assistance that exists among ranchers and cowboys. The great orchestration of large, biannual roundups, branding, vaccinations and preg-checking cows is something to behold and a true testament to working together.
Word travels through the ranching community in a very calm, logical way, and when someone is in need or asks for a hand, group volunteerism is immediate and selfless. No worry that you can’t repay the favor right then and there. All ranchers know there will come a time when their service, equipment or land will be needed. It all works out.
If someone is having an issue with their livestock, irrigation or machinery, advice from ranchers is quietly reserved. Never are they in–your-face-bossy but offer quiet ideas in the form of, “Well, have you given this a try?” or “This worked for my neighbor.” There exists a steady gentility and thoughtfulness that is rarely found in the big-city, big-business arena. It’s born out of hard work, long days and a harsh brutality that comes with being outdoors, working with your hands and balancing strength with gentleness.
Those hard, calloused hands are not just strong, brutish extremities; they also can provide tender care, nurse an injured animal or soothe and coddle a sick newborn calf through the night. These men can growl and snarl, but their eyes can well with tears more quickly than you’d think. They live with blood on their hands and witness the cycle of life and the finality of death more than most. After all, mortality is a frequent reality on a ranch.
Americans have done a fine job of over-massaging the romantic image of the cowboy but strip away the Hollywood version, and you’ll find very capable gentlemen who possess great knowledge and a multitude of skills. They are simple men with complex responsibilities. Today’s ranchers and cowboys are conservationists, midwives, mechanics, hunters and accountants. Many ranch managers hold degrees from well-respected universities.
When it comes to love, these men are often unable to bring tenderness into the house, or some haven’t the vocabulary to communicate the intricacies of what they feel. You just have to trust them on that. But ladies beware: With the tip of their hat and a brief moment of eye contact, they can lasso your heart for a lifetime.
There’s also more to a cowboy than just his job and the boots he wears. There’s something deeper that shapes his spirit within. A code of honor, respect for women and country, his willingness to help a neighbor out — these are cowboy qualities. His life is basic and humble with a strong connection to the earth and a special appreciation for successes and the hard work it takes to achieve them.
Cowboys often look more at ease in their worn saddles than they do afoot. The creak of their leathers and the music of their spurs are old songs of the West. The things I admire most in cowboys and ranchers is their deep respect for the land, the fullness in which they work a day and the patience with which they tolerate the rest of us.
Margaret Reckling lives in Woody Creek and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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