COWBOYS OF THE LOST
by Eeben Barlow
Africa is a continent that conjures up images of war, famine,
poverty and violence. Indeed, it is probably the most violent, untamed
continent of our modern world, yet it is showing slow signs of change.
At the southern tip of Africa, a small, dedicated group of horseman
still practise the old Moorish, Iberian, South African and so-called
Western traditions of horsemanship.
South Africa once had a great culture and tradition of horsemanship.
This was practised mainly by the “Boers” (predominately Dutch settlers)
and used to great effect in battle against the British in the mid- to
late 1800’s and early 1900’s. As mechanisation came with progress, so
too did the old culture and tradition of horsemanship slowly start dying
Horses started to become the symbols of wealth and with it came the
disciplines of Dressage, Show Jumping, Eventing and Endurance, but sadly
the ability to truly work off horseback was becoming lost.
Cattle ranches became “farms” and ranchers became “farmers”. The horse
was replaced by the quad bike and the LDV or “Bakkie” as it is commonly
called in South Africa. The horse was no longer considered to be a
working partner and was relegated to be a mere grazing ornament in the
pasture. Costs to run and maintain the cattle farms soared as quad bikes
and LDV’s cost more than horses and saddles and required fuel and
In 1999, a unique “Cowboy School” opened its doors and the first
of a “new” South African breed of horseman started to ride the range and
work cattle off horseback. To date, more than 600 riders from all
disciplines have passed through The Cowboy School. American Quarter
Horses and American Paint Horses were imported into South Africa and
these bloodlines were infused into the indigenous horse, the “Boerperd”.
(This tough and hardy horse was initially brought to South Africa in the
late 1600’s from the island of Java by the Dutch East India Company and
was initially known as the Java Horse. Over centuries, the Java horse
was crossed with English Thoroughbreds, Barbs, Arabs, Andalusians, etc.
and today it is a well-known, gentle temperamented, highly intelligent,
very tough and willing horse).
As the training of horsemen and horsewomen progressed, so too did
their skills at riding, roping, cutting, working wild horses and problem
horses – and soon these horsemen were able to do virtually anything off
the back of their horses.
Slowly but surely, cattle farms started becoming cattle “ranches”:
cattle farmers started calling themselves “ranchers” and with it a
unique style of working equitation started taking hold.
By 2000, the first thoughts of establishing a Working Cowboy Association
(WCA) for the South African cowboys were generated. By late 2003, this
association had grown in membership to more than 70 members…a small
start but a steady growth in horsemen and horsewomen who all share a
common love of working horses and cattle.
The WCA holds four annual competitions known as “Roundups” where members
compete in ranch-related tasks such as cutting, roping, alley-cutting
and sorting, team penning, etc. The Roundups also afford members the
opportunity to get together and discuss horses, cattle, the world and
South African cowboys at work (Photo: Christina
Today, the South African cowboy practises a distinct
style of equitation that incorporates elements of horsemanship cultures
and traditions from across the world. With a philosophy of “if it works,
use it”, the South African cowboys use methods that date back to the
Moors, the Portuguese- and Spanish vaquera, the Mexican vaquero, the
American cowboy, and the “Boers”.
A horse in training (Photo: Christina Barlow)
The dress and tack of the South African cowboy is
adapted to the harsh climate of South Africa. Broad-brimmed hats, boots,
spurs, jeans and chinks are common-place. Saddles are specially designed
and locally-made to withstand the rigours of ranching in South Africa.
The starting and working of young horses lays great emphasis on
groundwork and when still young under saddle, the horse is exposed to
his working environment where he is shown what is expected of him.
Horses are lunged and long-reined off horseback to ensure that they are
brought to the required level of fitness and suppleness. Belief in the
saying “It takes as long as it takes” has allowed the South African
cowboys to develop a patience that is at times frowned upon. This
however ensures that a horse is never called upon to do something he has
not been prepared for. This approach also ensures that the rider is
never “over-horsed” and can thus focus on the task at hand.
The working cow horse of the South African cowboy is a small, (usually
between 14, 3and 15, 3 h), tough, athletic, highly-agile, very
aggressive around cattle (yet able to carry a small child with care) and
a true all-round horse. Able to work long hours under saddle in the
scorching heat, bitter cold and torrential rain, these horses will ride
fence, herd, cut and work cattle, rope, pull-tight sagging fences and
still ask for more.
Long reining off horseback (Photo: Christina Barlow)
The training presented at The Cowboy School
covers a diverse field and includes but is not limited to:
• Groundwork (Basic and Advanced)
• Horsemanship (Basic to Advanced)
• Doma Vaquera
• Lunging and Long Reining
• Colt Starting
• Working with troubled horses
• Schooling of Horses (Cutting, Roping and Working Cow Horse)
• Work-in-Hand, etc
The impact of the horsemanship practised by these
cowboys is admired by many and more and more problem -dressage, -show
jumping, -eventing and -endurance horses – along with their riders, both
local and foreign, are finding their way to these horsemen and
horsewomen to help them.
A WCA member competing in the Working Cow Horse event
(Photo: Christina Barlow)
Enduring the harshness of the African climate along with
the constant threat of violence, these cowboys of the lost continent are
driven by a love for their horses and a belief in their beloved Africa.