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Pale Horse Revelations #38 - Tools of the Trade

Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.

Over the last two weeks we've focused on the Old West cowboy. Two weeks ago, we read about how the cowboy tradition developed, who they were, and a what their life was like. Last week, we focused on the unwritten code that they lived by. This week, we'll wrap up our focus on the Old West cowboy with a look at the essential tools and equipment that made their way of life possible.

We'll start with the cowboy's most important and prized possession - his horse. We got a glimpse of just how important a cowboy's horse was last week when we learned that caring for one's horse before himself was a key element of the cowboy code. In addition to being the cowboy's primary mode of transportation horses also served as pack animals carrying supplies the cowboy would need on the trail.

Typically, horses best suited for cowboy work tend to be smaller (relatively speaking), usually under 15 hands tall (62 inches) at the withers and weighing under 1000 pounds. Cowboys typically preferred a horse with a small back, sturdy legs, and strong muscling. Just as important as the horse's physical traits was its personality. Cattle horses had to be intelligent and calm under pressure. Most importantly a horse had to possess what the cowboys called cow sense. This was the ability to anticipate the movement and behavior of cattle.

A great deal of the cowboy's equipment load was needed for riding. Such equipment was referred to as tack. The most important piece was the saddle. The typical saddle had a deep seat with a high pommel and cantle that provided a secure deep seat. The typical saddle was made of wood and covered in rawhide. Using a wide strong saddle reduced the pounds carried per square inch and allowed the horse to be ridden for long periods without harm. This was important while on cattle drives as cattle tended to move slowly and cowboys routinely spent up to twelve hours a day in the saddle.

The saddle blanket was placed beneath the saddle and served to provide comfort and protection for the horse. Leather saddle bags could be attached to the rear of the saddle and were used to carry supplies. The bridle is used to guide and control the horse. It consists of a bit, which goes in the horse's mouth, and long split reins made of leather.

Let's turn our attention next to the cowboy's attire. Cowboys typically wore a bandana around their necks. It could be pulled over the lower half of the face during dust storms. Its most common use was mopping up sweat.

Cowboys typically wore chaps over their pants to provide additional protection for their legs. Their pants were typically made of canvas or denim and were designed to be close fitting. This prevented them from getting snagged on brush, equipment, or other hazards. They typically have a smooth inside seem to prevent blistering the inner thigh or knee while riding.

The two most iconic elements of cowboy attire were his boots and hat. Cowboy boots had a high top to protect the lower leg. The toes were pointed to help guide the foot into the stirrups. They also typically had high heels to prevent the foot from slipping through the stirrup. Hat styles varied greatly but generally featured a high crown and wide brim. These features provided protection from the sun, overhanging brush, and the elements.

Cowboys typically wore gloves made of deer skin or other leather. The gloves had to be soft and flexible while still protecting the cowboy's hands. Many cowboys added spurs to their attire. These metal devices attached to the heel of their boots. They featured a small metal shank with a small, serrated metal wheel attached. They allowed the cowboy to give a stronger, more precise leg cue to his horse.

We'll now turn our attention to some of the cowboy's basic equipment. Cowboys carried a six-gun while on the trail. By 1880 the most common sidearm in use was the Colt Peacemaker. Despite common perception most cowboys during this period did not carry a rifle as they tended to get in the way when working with cattle and added extra weight to their horse.

Most cowboys also carried a pocketknife. The most commonly carried was the folding cattle knife or stock knife. It featured multiple blades and included a leather punch.

Perhaps the most import tool for the cowboy was his rope, alternately referred to as a lariat or lasso. This was a tightly twisted, stiff rope made of rawhide or leather. It had a small loop at one end called a hondo. When the rope was feed through the hondo it created a loop that slid easily and tightened quickly and was used to catch animals.

Well, I'm afraid that brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.

As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found near the bottom of my home page ( and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.

Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.

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