Great Basin Ranching Terms

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Out here in the Great Basin, aka “The Basin of Greatness,” we have a few region-specific terms and phrases that aren’t commonly used in other parts of American cow country. With the buckaroo culture’s rising popularity reaching other regions in recent years via national magazines and horsemanship clinics, most folks know what a rodear and a reata are. Here are a few words we use everyday, but usually get a “Huh?” look when we mention them to outsiders in casual conversation.

Allotment: This is a specific section of Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land. 87% of Nevada is owned and managed by the federal government, so  ranches out here operate by leasing public land. We don’t say “pasture” or “field” for the fenced areas where the cattle live; we say “allotment.” According to the individual schedules set by the BLM or Forest Service and the ranchers, cattle must be moved to different allotments by specific dates each year. Since this is a sparsely vegetated desert climate, one allotment is typically several thousand acres.

Here, the Holland Ranch crew north of Elko is changing allotments with about 1,500 yearlings.

Nevada cattle

Rawzin jaw: Nobody I’ve talked to knows the origin of this word, but it means “farmer” or “member of the farm crew on a ranch.” The cowboy and rawzin jaw crews are still very much segregated. They eat at different ends of the table in the cookhouse and sleep in different ends of the bunkhouse. Certain ranch houses are designated for rawzin jaws, and certain ones for cowboys. Guys on each crew might be friendly toward each other, but a cowboy will cuss and complain when he has to step off his horse and do rawzin jaw work such as cleaning out a loading chute, building a gate, or basically anything that doesn’t involve a horse, a cow, and a rope.

Forelock (on a person): The buckaroo haircut is short all over, like maybe a #1 or #1 blade guard, with a longer section of hair deliberately left longer somewhere in the front. Some guys leave a longer section all across the front, and some grow their forelock on either the left or the right side. This unusual, region-specific hairstyle is also called a “government handle,” as rumor has it that the workers on the area’s Indian reservations way back when used to cut the boys’ hair like this and use the forelock as a handle for discipline purposes. Who knows if that theory holds any water, but regardless of its origin, today’s government handle is both an Indian thing and a white guy cowboy thing. It means “I’m from the Great Basin. What about it?”

It’s also a great conversation piece for when you bring your new husband to California to meet your extended family.

“What’s that thing on his head?”

Um….his hat?

“Did you do that on purpose?”

Yes. I know how to get out of DIY barber duties.

You can see the end of Jim’s right-side forelock underneath his hat here. Photo by Mary Williams Hyde.

Cowboy and wife

Here’s Jim across-the-front forelock he sported for a while. Nowadays, he has a left-side forelock. Gotta change it up, I suppose.

Daddy and daughter

Airing out your horse: A horse’s back gets REALLY hot when he’s gathering cows on the desert or branding lots of calves. A conscientious buckaroo dismounts, loosens his cinches, and tips the back of his saddle up periodically to cool off his hot horse. He’ll move his horse so the wind blows straight under his saddle for maximum cooling capabilities. The sensation is akin to lifting your felt hat when the breeze kicks up and letting that cool air refresh your sweaty head.

If a horse is really hot and winded and opportunity presents itself, such as when a bunch of cattle have just been put through a gate, the cowboy might yank his whole saddle off and lay it on the ground for several minutes. If you don’t air out your horse’s back, they can get heat blisters and nasty saddle sores.

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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