A few weeks back I spent some time at a rodeo. And, while being a spectator and fan of rodeo is nothing new to me and many of my friends, this particular rodeo was a bit different. While there were a few professional cowboys competing that sunny, warm day, there were many more lawyers, doctors, salesmen, construction professionals and small business owners in the arena. It was fun to watch. Several events are easily recognizable to those who follow traditional rodeos and the events that borrow from work done on the cattle ranch. Other events, though, were a bit more, umm, creative. As my eyes were glued to the men and their horses on the arena dirt in front of me, I noticed that sometimes, despite the competitor’s best efforts, the run was less than successful. Running out of time, not catching the livestock, or running afoul of the rules, there were more than a few frustrated looks on the faces of these amateur cowboys competing that day. But, they kept going. They kept competing. They never gave up.

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Photo courtesy of and copyright by David Stocklein.

Many people ask me what makes one a cowboy? Is it their occupation, their clothing, or their attitude? Is one born as a cowboy or does one become a cowboy by signing some piece of parchment in an old, leather bound “cowboy ledger?” Online sources describe a cowboy as one who “is an animal herder who tends to cattle on ranches in North America, traditionally horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks.” The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century arose from the vaquero traditions of northern Mexico and early California, and became a figure of special significance and legend. In addition to ranch work, modern cowboys work for or participate in rodeos, sing western music, or otherwise immerse themselves in a western way of life. The cowboy has deep historic roots tracing back to Spain and the earliest European settlers of the Americas. Over the centuries, differences in topography, climate and the influence of cattle-handling traditions from multiple cultures created several distinct styles of equipment and tools, clothing and horsemanship. As the everyday cowboy adapted to an increasingly modern world, the cowboy’s equipment and techniques likewise adapted, although many classic traditions are proudly and doggedly preserved to this day. We are fortunate to experience these traditions when we see a cowboy, replete with his hat, high-heeled western boots and faded denim jeans throw his well-worn saddle over a horse’s back. Cowboys are unique to North America and are as treasured an icon as I can find. Most little kids I know love to meet a real cowboy, and history has shown equal amounts of respect and admiration for the cowboy. But, still, what makes a cowboy?

While there are many different people who may claim to be a cowboy, I believe what truly makes a cowboy, a cowboy is his refusal to give up. No matter the obstacles, no matter the circumstances, or weather, or lack of experience, or hard luck, or fear, all cowboys possess one unique quality, commonly called “try.” The dictionary describes the word “try” as a verb: “To make an effort to do or accomplish (something); an attempt.” For those of the working ranch, try when used as a noun is expanded to mean an attitude of constant effort. Spend even a little bit of time around a working ranch and you’ll hear “There’s a lot of try in that hand” or “He’s got guts and he’s got try.” For the rest of us, try is well-described as the blend of grit, guts and heart we need to succeed in progressively tough, competitive times. It’s a willingness to keep going when facing insurmountable obstacles. It’s an attitude of never giving up even after experiencing failure upon failure. It’s ultimately, part of our human instinct of survival – the fight part of fight or flight – passed to all of us from a time when large animals roamed the planet and we were their prey.

Strength doesn’t come from physical capacity, but from indominable will.”

In a society where sometimes we tend to give up too easily and choose our flight instinct, I think trying harder has lost some of its appeal. Now there are those who face incredible odds and eventually persevere, but at the same time, too many of us give up when faced with huge challenges, be it in our relationships, in our work, or in the daily act of living life. I’m not blaming anyone, mind you, and I’m certainly not being critical of the decisions made by another. I guess I’m just saddened when I see someone give up a bit too early before they’ve tasted the hard-earned accomplishments bestowed on those who keep at it. I wish for them, and for myself at certain times, that they would keep going just a bit longer so that they may accomplish remarkable things, and through that process, find the inspiration to achieve their dreams, conquer a daunting challenge, or find their inner purpose. I wish they had a little more try in them.

So, for me, the next time I see a cowboy (or cowgirl) I’ll take a moment to marvel at their indominable try. And if you see someone, even without boots, jeans or a western hat, who exhibits a won’t-quit-never-give-up-even-if-I-die-trying attitude, you might just pay them the compliment of referring to them in that moment as a “cowboy.” Until next time, happy trails!

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