Cowboy Etiquette: Code of Ethics
A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by, no matter his job.
Two qualities distinguish genuine cowboys from urban or I-wish-I-were cowboys—and neither can be faked. The first are the skills necessary to perform the job. Everything a cowboy does is on public display, from putting spurs on his boots, putting chaps on his legs, or putting a saddle on a horse. To say nothing of actually riding a horse, throwing a rope, penning cattle, or the other myriad tasks working cowboys complete day in and day out.
The other aspect of authentic cowboyhood is the creed by which he lives and works. Though no one would mistake British-born rocker Graham Nash of the supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash of being a cowboy, he nevertheless captured the cowboy essence when he penned these lyrics:
You, who are on the road,
Must have a code that you can live by.
For the longest time the cowboy’s credo consisted of an unwritten but nonetheless exacting code of conduct, as cowboy historian Ramon F. Adams notes,
Back in the days when the cowman with his herds made a new frontier, there was no law on the range. Lack of written law made it necessary for him to frame some of his own, thus developing a rule of behavior which became known as the “Code of the West.” These homespun laws, being merely a gentleman’s agreement to certain rules of conduct for survival, were never written into the statutes, but were respected everywhere on the range. . . .
Though the cowman might break every law of the territory, state and Federal government, he took pride in upholding his own unwritten code. His failure to abide by it did not bring formal punishment, but the man who broke it became, more or less, a social outcast. His friends “hazed him into the cutbacks” and he was subject to the punishment of the very code he had broken.
According to one cowboy writer, “No ‘written’ code is known to have actually existed” prior to Zane Grey’s 1934 novel The Code of the West. This isn’t entirely accurate. Individual ranches sometimes committed codes of conduct to paper. The XIT in 1885 published a list of twenty-two rules governing the cowboys who rode for that outfit. These ranches represented a “corporate” approach to cowmanship, and saw to it that every hand had a copy of the employee handbook (if you will) and that the rules were publicly posted at ranch headquarters.
Beyond these individual ranch rules, however, universal rules dictating a cowboy’s conduct were typically handed down from one cowhand to another—or else learned the hard way by suffering the consequences of violating them. The following code of conduct isn’t exhaustive, but it does provide a wide ranging view of the ethical standards those who ranged widely in the American West were expected to live by.
Never rope your own horse before the day’s work. Only the buckaroo boss, cow boss, or jigger boss (the ramrod) are allowed to rope horses from the cavy (remuda).
You’re obliged to ride whatever string of five or eight horses the boss cuts out for you. If you’re a young cowboy you’ll probably get a string of green mounts. It then becomes your responsibility to break them and ensure they’re workable cowponies. Older cowboys generally get tame ones.
Your string is your string during your employ. Another cowboy’s string is his string. Never saddle a horse in another man’s string, and never throw a leg over it. Slapping a man in the face or spitting on a man’s boots is less of an insult than riding another man’s horse.
If the boss ropes a horse in your string and gives it to another cowboy that’s a sign you need to collect your pay—after the day’s work—and move on to another outfit. Being “set down” in the presence of other punchers is a bitter pill to swallow, but one that must be choked down.
Never complain, argue with, or otherwise show disrespect to the boss if you’ve been “set down.” It’s an unpardonable sin and will bar you from working with that outfit ever again. Word will also reach other ranches in the territory that you’re a complainer and you’ll find it near impossible to secure another job.
Always saddle and unsaddle your own horse. Never offer to saddle another man’s horse, it’s unwelcome.
Never be the last man in the saddle. Always be ready to ride and perform whatever task is assigned to you.
Never ride in front of the boss. Never load your mount on the trailer without asking the boss when you should do so.
Never miss a cow in the gather, regardless of the roughness of the country. If one slips by, it’s your responsibility to round it up.
Maintain your place in the roundup. One cowboy out of place can cause the herd to scatter.
Never ride between a cowboy and the herd. To do so is an insult and you’re apt to get a beating. If you have to leave your position, always ride behind other cowboys with a polite “Excuse me.”
A cowboy’s personal traps (gear) is sacrosanct. Never touch another man’s gear and always ask if you can borrow it. Cowboys are expected to be friendly and share when another man has a need. To ask another cowboy to handle a piece of his gear in admiration is a high compliment.
Keep a war bag of extra gear you don’t use to trade with other cowboys. Swapping is considered a sacred cow camp pastime and frowned upon if you have nothing to offer.
If riding a borrowed saddle don’t adjust the stirrup length without the owner’s consent. Stiff leather takes time to take proper shape and most cowboys are cranks about their stirrup leathers.
Never handle or feed another cowboy’s dog without first asking permission.
When approaching a horseman from behind call out a friendly “Hello” or “Howdy” before getting into gun range. The same goes when approaching a stranger’s camp at night.
When approaching another cowboy on horseback come within speaking distance and offer a word of greeting. Never change course without speaking, except for good cause—it’s interpreted as a sign of guilt or an intentional insult.
If meeting a cowboy on a trail and he dismounts to “cool his saddle” and loosens his cinch to let his horse breath easier the polite thing to do is dismount yourself, especially if you intend to carry on a conversation with him. Never give the impression that you’re looking down on another man.
Never pass another horseman without acknowledging him with a “Howdy,” a tip of the hat, or a nod of the head. After you pass, don’t look back. It implies distrust—as if you’re afraid he might shoot you in the back.
Never wave at a mounted man when you approach him. A wave of the hand might spook the other man’s horse.
Always tend to the needs of your horse before tending to your own. If riding in mountainous country, take the easiest trails. If riding on hard surfaces, find the softest ground. Feed, water, and currycomb your mount before eating your own dinner and turning in for the night.
Never strike your horse in anger. You can’t control an animal if you can’t control yourself.
Abide by the rule: “No whisky with the wagon.” Nothing will get you fired quicker than drinking while working cattle.
Always awaken a man by speaking to him, or if the cow camp cook banging a pot. Never touching a sleeping man.
Never inquire too eagerly into another man’s background. Too much curiosity is considered impolite and liable to end in a quarrel. As the saying goes, “Mindin’ one’s own business is the best life insurance.”
Quarrels are private affairs and outsiders have no right “hornin’ in.” Cowboys ought to be know as “feedin’ off their own range.”
Curse around men, horses, and cattle, but never in the presence of women.
Don’t ask a cowman or rancher how many head of cattle he owns. It’s akin to asking how much money someone makes.
Tell the truth at all times, unless you’re swapping stories around the campfire.
Integrity is absolute. Your word is your bond and your handshake is more binding than a written contract.
Take pride in your work and always finish whatever task set before you.
Strangers are always welcome at the chuckwagon and eat first.
These are just a few of the ethical codes all who fork a horse and work cattle are expected to fulfill, whether they were cowboys of old or are of the modern-day variety. “He had a code of his own of great beauty,” Adams wrote, “and one to which he strictly adhered.” And he allowed others the liberty to live by their own code.
Rude and unlettered though he might be, and treating his companions with a rough and ready familiarity, the cowboy yet accorded his neighbor the right to live the life and go the gait which seemed most pleasing to himself. One did not intrude upon the rights of others in the cattle country, and he looked to it very promptly that no one should intrude upon his.
John Wayne was more succinct in The Shootist: “You set a code of laws to live by. . . . I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”
Adams, Ramon F. The Cowman & His Code of Ethics (Austin: The Encino Press, 1969).
Adams, Ramon F. Western Words: A Dictionary of the Old West (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1998).
Haley, J. Evetts. The XIT Ranch of Texas and the Early Day of the Llano Estacado (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977).
Langmore, John. Open Range: America’s Big-Outfit Cowboy (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2022).
Wayne, Pilar. John Wayne: My Life with the Duke (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987).