Translating Buckaroos To Cowpunchers

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

Buckaroos and cowpunchers both have the same basic job: to take care of cattle. Buckaroos live up north in the Great Basin, and cowpunchers live down south in Texas and the Southwest, and the differences in their lingo are as great as the differences in their gear and methods. My family and I recently moved from the Great Basin to northern Arizona, and here’s a translation guide to some of the most common cowboying phrases that I’ve picked up on from both regions so far.

Buckaroos call a group of saddle horses used for ranch work a “cavvy,” which is derived from the Spanish word “caviata.” Most traditional Great Basin ranches run only geldings in their cavvy. A few outfits will run a mixed cavvy, meaning mares are included, or keep two separate cavvies of each gender to minimize the geldings horsing around over the mares. Down south in cowpuncher territory, this group of horses is called a “remuda.”

Here, the Spanish Ranch cavvy looks over the ropes and wonders what a “remuda” is.

Buckaroos to Cowpunchers

You know that thing a horse drinks water out of? Up north, that’s called a water trough, but cowpunchers refer to it as a “drinker.” The first time I told my husband that I took the kids down to play by the lower drinker, he said “Good job, you’re starting to sound like a local!”

This drinker provides water for all species of ranch animals.

buckaroos to cowpunchers

From time to time, cowpunchers talk about prowling around various pastures. I have been confused about this term for a couple years now, mostly because the verb reminds me of how mountain lions hunt. Do cowpunchers hunker down in the oak brush with the sun shining on their tawny hair and stealthily look around the landscape, prowling for an unsuspecting bovine to jump?

Unfortunately for easily entertained onlookers, that is not what prowling means. When a cowpuncher goes prowling, he’s riding around his country checking on cattle, seeing if everything is healthy and where they are supposed to be. I’m a little bit disappointed, and not just because I wanted to join the fun and do my impression of a mountain lion at some point. Up north, buckaroos call this “checking on cattle,” which is terribly unimaginative and kind of a let-down, really. I blame the cold weather.

Here, Jim sets out to check cattle on a ranch in northern Nevada. He still does this in Arizona, only they call it prowling. We don’t call it prowling yet, because we haven’t been issued our official Cowpunchers Of America cards.

buckaroos to cowpunchers

In the Great Basin, the cowboy who organizes the crew, plans each day’s circle, and makes a nominal amount of money more than the common cowboy is called the cowboss. In the Southwest, this person goes by the title “wagonboss.” The wagonboss is called the wagonboss all year round, not just during the spring and fall wagons. I know, I was confused, too.

When was the last time you were out cowboying and found yourself as part of an inter-species holdup? Even though it sounds like a sci-fi bank robbery, it’s just another day on the desert for the typical cowpuncher. A “holdup” is the cowpuncher’s version of the buckaroo’s “rodear,” which is when cattle are bunched together and held up (hey, that must be how they got the name!) in a fence corner or other location out on the range. In the rodear/holdup scenario, specific cattle, such as pairs, steers, cull cows or the neighbor’s stuff, can be sorted out.

When buckaroos go out to gather cattle, they call it “making a circle.” Often, they will begin the day scattered out and looking for cattle individually, then meet up with their findings at some point. Cowpunchers call this “making a drive.” Different words, same basic principle: Cowboy find cattle. Cowboy move cattle. Cowboy meet up with other cowboys and their cattle. Cowboy ropes. Cowboy laughs. Cowboy have good day’s work.

Here, some buckaroos make a circle/drive to gather cattle. I don’t have any pictures of cowpunchers doing this yet, but springtime is upon us, so look for some in the future!

buckaroos to cowpunchers

When a cowpuncher finds an unbranded animal, he calls it a “maverick,” or stray. This same critter would be labeled an “oreanna,” in the Great Basin. “Maverick” reminds me of Mel Gibson’s western spoof, and “Oreanna” is the name of a former boss’s wife. I’m not sure what that has to do with cowboying, but it makes me think “oreanna” is the prettier word.

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

About Jolyn Young

Jolyn Young lives near Montello, NV with her cowboy husband and 3 small kids. For more, visit

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