Five Interesting Cowboy Terms You Need to Know

Have you ever heard a particular cowboy term and wondered what it meant or where it came from?  Well, if so, you’re in luck. Cowboys have their own language that can often confuse and confound those who aren’t members of the cowboy class. And, the ease with which two cowboys will speak this mystical language–dropping in exotic words with common ones–is part of what keeps the iconic image of the cowboy perched high atop the list of those we admire.

I’ve been asked to select from my on-line cowboy glossary the five most interesting terms used by the cowboy class. And, since so much of the cowboy’s lifestyle and equipment comes from the Mexican Vaqueros and old Spanish traditions, where applicable, the Spanish language name from which each term derives in in italics. So, let’s get to it!


A finished bridle horse. Photo:

An Alamar knot is a decorative knot used to tie a mecate around a horse’s neck. In traditional Old California horse training, when a horse had graduated to become a finished bridle horse, the Alamar knot was tied from two coils of a mane hair mecate rope draped over the horse’s neck and the knot worn on the horse’s chest to denote him as a true bridle horse. 

As one of the most interesting knots to become synonymous with the California vaquero and the bridle horse culture, it’s evolved into a symbol of a horse being “in the bridle,” meaning the horse had reached a level of training where he was comfortably working in the spade bit.

And this achievement between vaquero and horse can take up to 10 years of patient work—progressing through numerous training steps that do not rush the horse. The Alamar knot represents the legacy of “taking the time it takes.” The “slow means fast” approach continues to be practiced today by many bridle horse aficionados.

A “carrick bend” knot.

Much discussion has revolved around the origin of the knot, but a logical one places many of its first sightings on freight arriving in California aboard ships that came to trade for cattle hides and tallow—items that were in high demand and plentiful in the early 1800s along the West coast. Many boxes or barrels that arrived were tied with set lengths of rope.

Smaller packages were tied with a variety of decorative knots so as to maintain the standard line lengths so the ropes could have multiple uses. The Alamar’s origin as a nautical knot makes even more sense when considering that it is similar to a “carrick bend” or a “Japanese parcel” knot.

As freight moved around the region, these knots would be seen and copied, mostly for practical purposes. During that era, vaqueros often tied the Alamar knot at the end of an existing mecate when riding in special events in which exhibiting extra flash or decoration was in order. 

And while it is a purely decorative knot, with no real utilitarian purpose, an Alamar knot nonetheless is only appropriate for a horse who earns it, for tying one on an unworthy stead would be a very offensive gesture to those of the great tradition of the vaquero and his finished bridle horse!


A boss mare asserting herself. Photo: Maureen Kirk-Detberner

Horses are highly social herd animals that prefer to live in a group. But, the herd dynamics, especially of wild herds, are commonly misunderstood.

Contrary to popular belief, horse herds are run by mares rather than by stallions. While the herd stallion brings up the rear when the herd travels, his job is to fight off predators and other males who try to join the herd. He also nips at stragglers to make sure they keep up with the herd.

But, the real leadership work falls to a mare. Typically but not always, to an older, wiser female horse who has the most common sense such that she assumes the role of lead mare or the “boss mare.” Feared and trusted by the herd to take the lead when they are on the move. She selects the safest route and the best places to graze. In the herd, she enforces her position through intimidation such that she gains a reputation of unquestioned authority. Mares lead the herd because their common sense inspires trust in the other herd-members. She drinks first from watering holes and stakes out the best grazing spots. Essentially, the herd moves when and where the boss mare does. 

Boss mares are to be respected not only in a horse herd, but also when we encounter them in human dynamics!


tapadero (sometimes referred to as a “hooded stirrup” or a “tap”) is a leather cover over the front of a stirrup on a saddle that closes each stirrup from the front. Like much of our horse gear, tapaderos trace back to the Spanish explorers who brought horses to the Americas in the 16th century. A tapadero prevents the rider’s boot from slipping through and also prevents brush encountered while working cattle on the open range from poking through the stirrup, injuring or impeding the horse or rider.

Some designs can also provide protection in cold weather. They are also frequently used with young riders, as many parents and riding instructors feel they are a safety precaution. Most commonly seen today on a western saddle, particularly certain types of children’s saddles and parade horse saddles, the tapadero is not as common in modern times and is not allowed in most show competition other than parade horse competition and children’s leadline, but are quite common with working cowboys.

They come in different styles:

  • Bulldog taps:  Rounded nosed stirrup covers to protect the feet and stirrups.
  • Monkey nose taps:  A slight point to the nose of the stirrup covers used strictly to protect the feet and stirrups.
  • Eagle bill (or eagle beak) taps:  Taps with long pieces of leather hanging below the stirrups.  When moving cattle, a cowboy can slap the pieces of leather together by wiggling their legs and the noise helps push the cattle.


remuda is a herd of saddle horses that ranch hands select their mounts from. The word is of Spanish derivation, for “remount” or a “change of horses” and is commonly used in the American West.

In both historical and modern times, the necessity of rounding up cattle from the open range is a job primarily performed by a cowboy mounted on a horse. Historically, the long-distance cattle drives required cattle to first be gathered, then herded over long distances, often requiring several weeks of travel, covering up to 30 miles in a day to bring herds of cattle several hundred miles to a railhead for sale and shipping. Today, though cattle are usually rounded up and herded only as far as a decent road where they can be loaded onto livestock trailers or semi-trailers, the terrain as well as unpredictable behavior of cattle render motorized vehicles virtually useless for rounding up and herding. Thus, in modern times, the use of horses remains essential.

Riding out a remuda on the RA Brown Ranch. Photo: Kelli Brown

During roundups and for moving cattle, several horses are required for each cowboy. During a roundup in modern times, a cowboy may need to switch horses two or three times each day to rest each horse for use on subsequent days and avoid injury to horse and rider that may result from a fall or misstep by a fatigued animal.

The spare horses must be kept close to the cattle herd and moved along with the cattle so as to be available to riders as needed. The horses graze whenever possible along the way and at night to obtain adequate forage.

In modern times, the remuda may be housed in corrals at the trailhead or gathering site, though historically, and in remote areas in modern times where there are few or no corrals, the herd would be kept loose on the range, under the charge of wranglers, whose exclusive job was to manage the horse herd.

Although many modern horses are now trained to accept being caught and haltered by a rider on foot without attempting to run away, the same was not true of the often partly trained, semi-feral horses used in the Old West, who could only be easily caught with a lasso.

Once gathered, each cowboy would inform the wrangler which horse or horses he wanted for the day. To avoid disruption of the herd by many people with varying degrees of roping ability, the wrangler would, often from the ground, calmly and quietly rope each of the horses one by one for that day’s ride. Because this was a specialized skill, good wranglers were able to rope horses with close to 100 percent success with each throw and from up to 60 feet away!


Pogonip collected on a barb wire fence.

Pronounced as “PAH-guh-nip”, it’s a Paiute word for cloud. And, if you’ve ever been caught in a pogonip, you surely will know it by the bone-chilling sensation. It’s a dense winter fog containing frozen particles, formed in the valleys in the American West.  When humidity is 100% and the temperature falls below freezing, ice crystals will then settle onto surfaces, forming beautiful, but dangerous ice crystal sculptures. 

Not to be confused with “ice fog”, which is a type of fog consisting of fine ice crystals suspended in the air, or from “diamond dust”, a precipitation of sparse ice crystals that fall from a clear sky.

Since the range has been ridden, cowpokes and natives have also referred to pogonips as a white cloud, white death or a death fog. And, according to Indian tradition, breathing a pogonip fog is injurious to the lungs.

If you are interested in learning more about the language of the cowboy, check out this “cowboy glossary.”

Until next time, mis amigos, happy trails! ★


2 thoughts on “Five Interesting Cowboy Terms You Need to Know

  1. Good read, cowboy.

    On Thu, Jul 23, 2020, 6:59 PM The Cowboy Accountant wrote:

    > Chip Schweiger, The Cowboy Accountant posted: ” Have you ever heard a > particular cowboy term and wondered what it meant or where it came from? > Well, if so, you’re in luck. Cowboys have their own language that can often > confuse and confound those who aren’t members of the cowboy class. And, the > ease” >

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.