Cowboy Character: Gratitude
Of the human qualities, gratitude is chief among them. It is the seedbed from which the fruit of happiness and contentment grow—whether you are chewing on Saturday steak or slurping on Sunday soup.
Derrick G. Jeter
An old axiom defines a cowboy as “a man with guts and a hoss”—and that’s about all. “If he didn’t have guts he wouldn’t last long,” cowboy historian Ramon Adams writes. And “if he didn’t have a hoss he couldn’t be a cowboy. When one old cowhand described his breed, he said, ‘Cowboys is noisy fellers with bow legs and brass stomachs that rides hosses and hates any kind of work they can’t do on one.’”
Other cowboy adages add a few more items to the list of “guts and a hoss,” but on the whole come to to the same basic conclusion. One saying goes, “A cowboy needs nothin’ more than a hat, a horse, and a will to ride.” Another one inexplicably drops the horse (though I’m not sure how a cowboy cowboys without one) and says all a cowboy needs are “boots, chaps, and a cowboy hat. Nothin’ else matters.”
Regardless of how pithy your definition, cowboys of old didn’t own or need much. A cowhand might own a horse, but chances were good most couldn’t afford to buy or maintain one. Without a doubt he rode his own saddle and used his own halter and bit. No puncher wore another man’s hat, chaps, boots, or spurs. Those were highly prized items reflecting each cowboy’s personality. Most cowhands owned at least a couple sets of clothes, a coat, slicker, bedroll, and a knife of some kind—and maybe a pistol and/or rifle (or shotgun). A good number of cowboys, either through inheritance or savings, possessed a pocket watch and chain.
Rarely, however, did they possess anything they couldn’t wear upon their person, place in a saddlebag, or tie behind their cantle. Though modern cowboys tote around more stuff than old-timers did, they generally don’t own more than can be hauled in a truck and trailer.
One reason cowboys didn’t (and don’t) own a lot of possessions was (and is) because they didn’t (and don’t) make a lot of money. In the 1880s, just before the open range was fenced off and cattle drives came to an end, the average cowboy made between $25 and $40 a month and found. A ranch foreman might make $50 a month and a trail boss $100 a month. In 2023, modern cowboys earned on average $38,000–$40,000 a year.
The question often arises then, Why would anyone want to cowboy? It certainly isn’t for the money. I think a fictional conversation between an old cowhand and a corporate accountant, whose company recently bought up failed ranches in Wyoming, provides a good answer—a conversation that fits nicely with my article “Cowboy Etiquette: Code of Ethics.” In the 2003 film version of Jack Schaefer’s 1963 novel Monte Walsh, starring Tom Selleck, Cal Brennan, played by William Devane, is speaking with Robert Slochum, portrayed by John Michael Higgins. Brennan says, “See, these boys have no home except for a horse and a cook shack. Got no property but a saddle and a gun. Don’t earn any money. Got no wife, got no kids. Spend their entire life pushing cattle around to where them cattle don’t want to go.”
“Sounds like a terrible job,” Slochum replies.
“Yes, sir, it is a terrible job. But it’s their job. All they got is freedom and pride, keeping their word and looking out for one another. All they got is their rules.”
“And where are these rules written down?”
“They’re not written down, you damn fool. They’re lived.”
“But they work for us.”
“They don’t work for anybody. They work for the life.”
They work for the life. Cowboying isn’t a have to way of life, it’s a get to way of life. And that makes all the difference. Cowboying is an honor and privilege—and carried out with a deep spirit of gratitude.
The seventeenth-century French moralist François Duc de la Rochefoucauld observed, “The gratitude of most men is but a secret desire of receiving greater benefits.” Whether this applies to the majority of mankind I won’t say, but it doesn’t apply to the average cowboy. On the whole, they live their lives according to G. K. Chesterton’s dictum: “The chief idea of my life . . . taking things with gratitude and not taking things for granted.” Put in terms a little more down to earth: cowboys have learned to appreciate “all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, [or] a glass of buttermilk.” They’re grateful for a good horse to ride, a sunset or sunrise to watch, and a job that offers freedom of movement.
A cowboy may only express his gratitude with a short “Much obliged,” but you can be sure it’s expressed with all the sweetness of a honey dipper. It’s unfortunate, even with all our wealth, the sting of ingratitude is a more common attitude these days than the sweetness of gratitude. It’s doubtful an old-timer, or even a modern-day cowboy, could articulate how material wealth can squelch the spirit of being thankful. But it can. Material goods often serve as a barrier to gratefulness. Materialism creates a thirst for more while dehydrating us of the desire to say thank you to God for what He’s provided and to others for the good they’ve done in our lives. If we could only learn to appreciate the little everyday things, as did old-timer punchers who owned little of this world’s goods, choosing to cowboy for the life, we could pull the stinger of ingratitude and find more sweetness in our lives.
How can you become a more grateful person—to give thanks always and in every circumstance, as Paul says in Ephesians 5:20 and 1 Thessalonians 5:18? Here’s a few ideas—a baker’s dozen, in fact—to help you develop a more grateful heart.
Say “Please” when asking for a favor and “Thank you” when someone does you a favor.
Tell your loved ones you love and cherish them—daily.
Slow down, notice, and appreciate the beauty of nature.
Train yourself to develop a yes face by smiling more.
Surround yourself with grateful people.
Do something kind for others. Volunteer your time to help the less fortunate.
Don’t complain in the face of challenges, but see them as opportunities for growth.
Visit your grandparents and/or elderly neighbors, sharing a meal and talking about their lives.
Don’t compare yourself or your circumstances with others.
Don’t belittle or put down others.
Celebrate the victories of others and cry at their defeats. This is what Paul meant when he wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 15:15).
Give thanks to God at meal times.
Create a Thanksgiving Journal and ask family and friends to write down what they’re grateful for when you gather to give thanks.
The second novel in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, The Crossing, focuses on a sixteen-year-old cowboy named Billy Parham and his three journeys into Mexico. At one point, having become ragged and near starvation, Billy is cared for by a couple of Mexican woman and some boys in the town of Bacerac. On the morning Billy leaves the village, McCarthy writes:
He ate alone in the kitchen. There seemed no one about. He finished and rose and went out to see about this horse and then returned to the house to thank the women but he could not find them. He called out but no one answered. . . . He went back to the kitchen and looked for something with which to write. In the end he dusted flour from the bowl on the sideboard over the wooden table and wrote his thanks in that and went out and got his horse and led it afoot down the zaguán and out thought the portal. Behind in the patio the little mule turned the pugmill tirelessly. He mounted up and rode out down the little dusty street nodding to those he passed on his way. Riding like a young squire for all his rags. Carrying in his belly the gift of the meal he’d received which both sustained him and laid claim upon him. For the sharing of bread is not such a simple thing nor is its acknowledgement. Whatever thanks be given, however spoke or written down.
Every act of goodness and kindness shown to us is, as McCarthy wrote, a gift and lays a claim upon us. Even if that goodness and kindness is merely a meal. As McCarthy correctly points out: The sharing of bread is not such a simple thing nor is its acknowledgment. Every cowboy, no matter his age, knows this to be true. That’s why they offer their thanks, whether spoken or written down. And so should we.
Ramon F. Adams, The Old-Time Cowhand (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961), 3.
G. K. Chesterton, The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 325.
François Duc de la Rochefoucauld, Reflections, or Sentence and Moral Maxims, no. 298, trans. J. W. Willis Bund and J. Hain Friswell (New York: Scribner, Welford and Co., 1871), 37.
Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing, in The Border Trilogy (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1999), 161.
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 330.