The buckaroo life has undergone many changes since its nineteenth-century beginnings. Yet the object of attention is still the cows. Methods of working cattle and dealing with the land are learned by practice, by watching and listening to older hands, and by imitating and varying accepted models. The rules and standards, once learned, can be varied according to one's personal abilities and intentions. While buckaroos are individualists, they place a high value on the opinions and respect of their peers--and that respect must be earned. The basics of the business can be mastered in fairly short order--riding, using a rope correctly, baling hay during the summer, mending fence--but the many kinds of work range widely in difficulty. With practice, just about anyone can learn how to throw a rope to catch his horse in the morning or how to make a bedroll with some blankets and a big piece of heavy canvas. It takes more time and patience to learn to shoe horses, brand a cow without burning through the hide or making an uneven or upside-down mark, or wallow a truck out of a desert mudhole. Learning how to make reasonably good biscuits from scratch takes years of practice, and so does learning how to make a braided leather riata from a cow's hide. Most buckaroos master horseshoeing and branding; few buckaroos master biscuits or learn riata making.
There are different kinds of chores on a ranch. Dyed-in-the-wool cowboys prefer work on horseback. In the hierarchy of ranch employees there are bosses, buckaroos, ranch hands, and helpers. Below foreman or cow boss come buckaroos, expert horsemen at the center of the work. The special buckaroos who start colts (break horses)--often called "bronc busters" or "bronc peelers"--enjoy great respect if the job is skillfully and humanely done. Third in order are ranch hands and mechanics, who, though they also ride and help with herd work, are better at farming and equipment maintenance. A good mechanic is vital to the successful operation of a modern ranch, and a top one is harder to find than a top rider. Increasingly sophisticated and cranky haying equipment and machines, draped in grapevines of hydraulic lines, demand mechanical ability to keep them working right. Savvy in the shop is as important as savvy in the sagebrush, and the shaky state of the cow business makes the switch into full-time agriculture more socially acceptable for both employers and employees as time goes by. An "irrigator" is a ranch hand charged with properly managing and operating the agricultural watering system on the home ranch. Cooks and wranglers (who care for the horses) fall into this third group of men, too.
The fourth category, called helpers, includes young people who learn how to buckaroo, fix tractors, and run a ranch. It is a curious category, for it includes both green beginners and experienced oldtimers who may now want less strenuous assignments. Variously called helpers, swampers, choreboys, and hands, these workers need no particular special skills to accomplish the odd jobs that keep the ranch running smoothly--from bucking hay bales to swamping out the stables or painting a board fence around the garden. During the spring and fall periods of intense activity (calving, branding, round-up) and during the summer haying season, all employees join the labor of the moment. All the ranch employees can generally be called "ranch hands"--but seasoned buckaroos dislike being called that. A neat division of labor is practiced on the largest family ranches and the big corporation outfits where enough men are at work. On the small family ranch, however, everyone does everything, like it or not. The jobs you learn to do as a boy depend on who you are: if a young, would-be buckaroo with no particular roots or resources, you will likely learn horsemanship or machine-shop skills only, but if a rancher's son, you will likely learn everything possible. To grow into an effective ranch manager--a supervisor of experienced specialists--a young man must know every corner of the trade and the life. But first, he learns to buckaroo.
Carlo Recanzone started riding a horse at twelve and well remembers the oldtime buckaroos who taught him the profession. "They were real good teachers, but they were rough!" Boys of twelve would find it difficult to rise cheerfully before dawn, eat breakfast, go off in the chill mist, work, and return saddle-weary and hungry after dark. Every youngster comes to a moment that vividly marks the plateau when mastery of the skills is within sight. Many stories are told about losing cattle out in some canyon or desert draw; among the countless sins a boy or green hand could commit--from neglecting to keep closed gates closed and open gates open to jamming a hot iron on a cow sideways--the neglect or loss of cattle is very serious. A loss of a single cow can mean the loss of thousands of dollars, as well as wasted effort to locate the beast. A common mistake made by new or careless buckaroos is the needless hurrying along of walking cattle, and many a boy has been reprimanded for "chousing the cows."
Recanzone's son Butch, 30, has two words for how you learn to buckaroo: "Hard way." That is how young men have always gained proficiency in a trade or profession, whether as a cowboy or a stonemason, a sailor or a trial lawyer. As Butch Recanzone said in October 1979:
All it is is just another learnin' process. Trial and error. When you mess up you know about it, and the next time you don't do it. . . . You tried to pattern yourself after what they did.
At a certain point, not at all mysterious, you make the grade. You know you have made it because the old hands stop calling you "boy."
They start telling jokes to you instead of about you. You begin to be trusted to perform jobs on command and to conduct business professionally, and if you fail to get the work done right you soon become known as lazy or foolish. If you are a young man on a family ranch, you get a second chance. If you work for a corporation run by absentee owners, you might be asked to draw your pay, put your gear in your truck, and seek employment elsewhere.
Given an ordinary physique and a willingness to work, the essentials of skillful performance as a buckaroo boil down, as Les Stewart says, to a single ingredient: "judgment." Good judgment leads to the ability to be at "the right place at the right time" when riding and working. Mr. Stewart believes that good judgment, and the "right place at the right time" ability, make the difference between a good cowhand and simply a man mounted on a horse.