Who is Boots O’Neal, The Boots Made For Cowboying?

I spent this past Sunday in the saddle. Almost the entire day I was horseback. There was an all-breeds horse show at the stables where I keep my horse, Whiskey, and I let a nice young family use my horse’s stall for the day. Whiskey, as a descendent of the great stud Joe Hancock — foundation of one of the top five bloodlines of ranch horses — works six days a week and rests only on Sunday. Hancock-bred horses are recognized for their big, stout conformations, grittiness and cow sense, and Whiskey is a Hancock through-and-through who earns her rest day through her willing attitude. But, since her stall was being used this Sunday, she had two choices: turn out in the adjoining 20-acre pasture or spend the day with me. She chose to spend the day with me (or at least that’s how I see it!).

I had her saddled up by 9:30 in the morning and we spent the next seven or so hours riding around giving directions, chatting with nervous competitors, and generally being good ambassadors for the stables. By 6:00 that evening, I had Whiskey unsaddled, rinsed, smiling from her treat of fresh grass, and enjoying grain as she was reunited with her stall. As I ventured home for supper, I reflected on the day and realized I was flat out exhausted from the 95-degree heat, not to mention mildly dehydrated from the humidity common to the Gulf Coast of Texas. Add in my growing hunger and a very sore, umm, seat and I was just a bit too cranky for my own good.

Photo courtesy of the National Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech University

I’m a member of the Ranching Heritage Association, and when I got home Sunday night I saw an invitation to the 41st Annual National Golden Spur Award to be held on October 13 in Lubbock, Texas, where Red Steagall (whom I’ve written about before) would receive well-deserved honors. Interestingly, at the same event, a legendary cowboy named Boots O’Neal will be honored with the inaugural Ranching Heritage Association Working Cowboy Award.   This award will be given to an outstanding individual who makes his living primarily horseback caring for livestock on a daily basis, and Boots is as deserving an inaugural recipient as I can imagine. A top hand on the Four Sixes Ranch in Guthrie, Texas, and at age 85 — having spent 72 of them riding horses — Boots is doing what he loves.

Photo: David Glynn Smith

“My job is cowboying. Taking care of cattle horseback. That’s what it’s been my entire life. I look forward to what we’re going to do tomorrow nearly all the time. I don’t dread the next day’s work because I enjoy it,” says O’Neal. Born in 1932 in Clarendon, Texas, Boots is the oldest of eight children, all who grew up without electricity and without hot water on the Davis Ranch. He rode his first horse in 1946, and two years later he started breaking horses for the RO Ranch at $20 per head. His first real job made him $200, but more importantly set his life’s passion in motion. Passion that would see him working for some of the most historic ranches in Texas — JA Ranch, Matador Ranch, Waggoner Ranch for 24 years, and the Four Sixes Ranch for nearly the last three decades.

“My job is cowboying. Taking care of cattle horseback. That’s what it’s been my entire life. I look forward to what we’re going to do tomorrow nearly all the time. I don’t dread the next day’s work because I enjoy it.”

– Legendary Four Sixes cowboy Boots O’Neal at 86 years young.

And, while no one would blame him if he retired to live a life of comfort after 28 years on the Sixes alone, Boots rides the range every day, rising before dawn and working until the sun sets. Never complaining, always carrying an upbeat attitude, and conducting himself with humility and respect for all people. As I reflected on my day from the comfort of my couch, I realized that the single day that kicked my butt was just a normal “short” day for Boots. My exhaustion and hunger were a small price to pay for the opportunity to spend a Sunday living, in part, the life of one of my heroes. If Boots were sitting next to me in my living room as I complained about my sore seat, I’d be embarrassed for him to hear me. Not that he would have said anything, mind you. Boots O’Neal is too much of a gentleman.

Boots is known as a man who has lived a fascinating cowboy life, shunning higher-paying jobs to stay in the saddle for over 70 years. If Boots did this every day and always looked forward to the next day, who was I to complain about having the opportunity to put in one day’s work horseback? Boots O’Neal, and the working cowboys like him, would rather die than be caught complaining about a sore back or a growling stomach. Looking back, Boots says he’s had a good life and never thought about his hardships, “You have to make the best of the way it’s been dealt to you.” I, too, realized in that moment how incredibly fortunate I was. Fortunate for my health and a great horse.  Fortunate to spend Sunday having fun.  And fortunate that we have men like Boots O’Neal.  Suddenly, my hunger subsided, I felt a little pep in my step and I sat comfortably recalling the satisfying security of my leather saddle.

Those who know Boots speak of a man who has a poem at the ready for just about every instance. One of his favorites, penned by western artist Charles Russell, tells me all I need to know about this venerable cowhand: “Here’s hoping the worst of my trail is behind me, sickness and sorrow don’t find me and the Good Lord is good to me from here to the end.” As Boots says when he quotes those words, “there’s a whole lot in that sentence.” Indeed, sir. Indeed.

Until next time, happy trails! ★