A cowpoke is a hired ranch hand who is responsible for managing cattle. Cowpokes may also be referred to as cowboys, paniolos, or vaqueros, depending on the region of the world under discussion. Although the days of huge ranching spreads in the Americas are over, cowpokes are still an important part of many ranching communities, and this occupation is still alive and well, although it is much smaller than it used to be.
The occupation of the cowpoke arose when early settlers in the Americas started to acquire large numbers of cattle. These cattle could not be managed by a family alone, and they required hired staff who could move them around, handle them, and prepare them for slaughter. Many of these settlers were Spanish, and the vaquero was the predecessor to the cowpoke. The sheer size of these ranch spreads required cowboys to work from horseback, leading to a lifelong association between cowpokes and their horses.
A cowpoke must be talented in a number of fields. He or she is a skilled rider, able to handle a horse and work with the animal to accomplish common goals. Cowpokes must also be comfortable with cattle, sometimes in large amounts, and they often perform basic medical care for horses and cows alike. On very large spreads, a cowpoke may spend a fair amount of time away from the ranch, camping in the field with other cowpokes, who take turns preparing food.
A number of pieces of equipment are taken into the field by a cowpoke. Horses wear an assortment of tack suited to long days in the saddle and hard work, and the horses also carry saddlebags and packs with supplies including medical tools, rope for catching cattle, rifles and ammunition, and food. A cowpoke may also use dogs to assist with cattle herding. Cowpokes also have practical garments, which have become iconic, including chaps to protect their legs and large floppy hats to protect their eyes from the sun.
The spread of railroads across the West slowly carved formerly huge ranches apart. Although this changed the role of the cowpoke in the Americas, it didn't stamp out the tradition altogether. Many ranches keep a staff of hired hands available to assist with cattle handling, and many of these hands are steeped in a tradition of individualism, honor, and surprising gentleness with animals. People who want to work on ranches in this capacity typically start young; many cowpokes are the children of ranch families and cowpokes who pass their skills on.