Ranch Diaries: The peculiar confines of cowboy culture

I see my 19-year-old self in our new intern, as she builds her skills and learns the ropes of ranch etiquette.


Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first two years of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

When I headed west as an 18-year-old, I wasn’t aware of the term “flatlander.” I didn’t know about “cowboy etiquette,” and had never heard anyone use the word “punchy.” I was just eager to combine my life-long interest in horses with my fantasy of the West: mountains, a horizon uncluttered by Minnesota foliage, cowboys.

Transitioning into Western culture was harder than I’d expected. I got a lot of knowing smiles when I said I was from the Midwest. “Flatlander” seemed to imply a peculiar deficit, and immediately identified me as an outsider. Although my local Minnesota community had been tight-knit, I realized there were some deep-rooted opinions about anyone not from the West.

  • Bright, beautiful Indian Paintbrush.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Heels in the dirt, firmly grounded.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The new 12 x 14 wall tent Kiki will call home for 8 weeks.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • We wished Maybell the best of luck returning to the herd and her mother after recovering from near hypothermia.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Working on making a photogravure print from a drawing by artist Mel Preston.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Kiki, our first intern at Triangle P.

    Laura Jean Schneider

I was 19 when I graduated from wrangling for a kid’s camp to a job as the guest wrangler on a working cattle ranch. While the ranch community was welcoming, my entire persona was scrutinized. The oilskin hat I’d just purchased brand-new had wire in its brim. That was a decided no-no, the ranch manager’s ten-year-old daughter pointed out. The boots I’d worn happily for years weren’t good enough either: lace ups, with a walking heel? Not punchy at all, the cowboy term for sharp or stylish. The analyzing went on, conducted by the ranch manager’s three children on a rainy spring afternoon in the guest tack room. As I pulled out item after item of my training tools and equipment, each were met with a degree of criticism. I was clearly unsuited for the cowboy life as it was redefined to me.

Cowboy etiquette was also mysterious. No one bothered to share that I had violated the unspoken code until the act had already been committed, the sullen silence of the party I’d inadvertently wronged was my only clue something was amiss. Without foreknowledge, how would I to know to never ride in front of the person who was in charge of the cattle? Or, to turn my horse around to face the gate after going through, and wait until all riders were mounted before continuing? And, to always hold the position you were told to ride in.  After several offenses, someone finally told me that it wasn’t acceptable to touch anyone’s horse, hat or dog without his or her permission.

Kiki, our first Triangle P intern, arrived yesterday. As we looked for a hat and new boots for her in Ruidoso, I relived my past (alleged) faux pas in this department. I’m a living example that superimposing a particular style on a person or their tack has nothing to do with how effectively one can communicate with a horse or handle trotty cattle. While it’s true there’s a practical reason for most items that comprise the traditional cowboy outfit — like wearing boots with a taller heel to keep a foot from going through a stirrup, or a wide brimmed hat for sun protection — there’s a lot of room for variation within those parameters.

And there should be. While it’s taken me awhile to get comfortable with my own cowboy style after feeling such shame, I’ve decided the right saddle, a specific brand of boots, or following a certain aesthetic doesn’t define my skills. It’s my hope that Sam and I can share our knowledge and culture with Kiki in a nurturing way that allows room for uniqueness. It’s both exciting and intimidating to know our words and actions can have such long-lasting affects. I’ll do everything I can to make sure Kiki gets the experience I wish I’d had. 

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