Vaquero / Cowboy

To better understand the tradition of the Vaquero and the differences between the Vaquero and “Texas Cowboy”, one has to look at the culture and history.

When the Conquistadores came to what is now Mexico, they were well prepared. They brought their horses, their cattle and a long experience and tradition of raising cattle on arid lands. And they had more going for them. The “Hazienda System” which is based on total self-sufficiency and a long tradition of “Caballeros” (horsemen) and Vaqueros.

With the early Spanish missions in mainly California came the cattle and horses, while the Vaqueros were mainly local Indians who were taught to speak Spanish and how to train and ride horses and work cattle.

The biggest expansion came during the late 1700s and early 1800s when Spain and later Mexico gave huge land grants in California and Texas. They all were worked as haziendas and most of the time the Vaqueros stayed with the same outfit all their life and raised their families there.

This made it possible that the very high skills of training horses and crafting the gear (mainly made from readily available horse hair and rawhide) was passed on from generation to generation. And the isolation of especially California kept other influences out.

The split came after the Civil War and the independence of Texas. Settlers poured into Texas and many soldiers of the war drifted west in search of work – and thus bringing the Northern European influence of horse work. It is noteworthy that the Spanish language has the term “Caballero” or horseman, while both the English and German language do not have this term. They use “Hunt Master” or “Rittmeister” meaning “Ride Master” which represents a different philosophy.

With the sudden expansion of ranching East of the Rockies and shortly later the cattle drives large numbers of cowboys and even larger numbers of horses were needed. Pretty much any horse one could stay on was considered ridable and anybody who could stay on a horse and point cows a given direction was a hand. There was no room or time to spend five years to train a “bridle horse”.

In addition most of the jobs were seasonal – especially the drives. And since the work was hard and the pay lousy, many did not return the next year – and the little experience they had gained, was lost.

In California the old ranchos blossomed and literally exploded with the market created by the gold rush and then the settlers. And the old system still worked well and could handle the growth – no cattle drives needed.

The Vaquero was socially not very high ranked – but he was well respected and given a lot of freedom in his work with cattle and horses. It sure helped, that the art of training and riding a bridle horse was highly respected in itself. And the – in the meantime – mostly Anglo settlers and owners were not only smart enough to stay in the tradition, many of them embraced it and families like the Hills blended it with top of the line Morgan stock horses.

The fast paced “Texas Tradition” has had great influence on todays Western horses – horses are started very early in their lives and often “retired” at the age of ten. Many of the horses are extremely specialized for certain arena events and often would be worthless for real work.

But there is good reason for hope, that the Vaquero style will not only survive – but thrive again. A tradition, better art, that is hundreds of years old, will hopefully not just disappear.

For some very good articles about the Vaquero tradition click here.


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