Livestock herders in the Americas arose from a tradition based in Spain and Portugal, who brought their riding and herding skills with them when Mexico and California were colonized in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, many of the skills of the western ‘cowboy’ can be attributed to these early vaqueros and their mastery of working herds from horseback.
Vaquero was the name for these early horse whisperers, but the name goes deeper and is actually a nod at the style of horsemanship and herding that began to gain popularity in medieval Spain.
Because of the environment the cattle herds were being bred in, mostly dry and arid with sparse vegetation, cattle needed vast amounts of land to graze upon. These distances were far too great for man to cover on foot, and the use of horses became necessary to keep the large herds safe and fed well.
This technique of raising cattle was so popular that it spread throughout the Iberian peninsula and the cowboys of the Americas can be traced back to those first vaqueros who came to the North American continent so long ago; even the equipment used for controlling the horses has come from there.
After arriving in America, the vaquero tradition evolved and spread north and south, all the way from Argentina to Canada. Around the 18th century, while much of what is now the western US was being colonized, that English settlers began to have interactions with vaqueros and the two cultures began to mix, bringing about the traditions of the modern day cowboy.
Herding cattle was not the only work that vaqueros did though, and training unbroken horses made up quite a bit of their skill set. Today some people refer to their way of breaking horses as horse whispering. The gentle, natural way of ‘speaking’ with horses and getting to know them on a personal level has gained more popularity in the last 50 years and is now seen as the epitome of horsemanship training.
Many vaqueros stayed in California once they settled there, and they were known for being highly skilled workers who rarely moved from the ranch they were born on, working with the same ranch family throughout their lifetime. Vaqueros also had a bit of a romantic streak and usually ended up marrying and starting families of their own to keep the family traditions alive.
Today there are two distinct traditions that can trace their origins back to the vaquero lifestyle – the California and Texas traditions. Both heavily employ vaquero knowledge and skills though they differ somewhat in approaches to cattle herding. California does not offer the wide open spaces of Texas and there was thus a need to keep cattle in closer confines in that area.
The spread and influence of the traditional vaqueros from early Spain spawned so many other cultural traditions along its path. Today’s equine culture owes many thanks to those first vaqueros who brought with them a natural understanding of the land and animals they worked so diligently.