kentjoelphoto © Kent Reeves, request permission for any use

by Joel Nelson

“Bronc to Breakfast” calendars hang fading on the walls
There’s a lost and aimless wandering through the corridors and halls
Of slippered feet that shuffle on a waxed and polished floor
And vacant stares of emptiness from the men who ride no more

Men who once rode proudly—men with long straight backs
Men who covered hill and plain with steel shod horses’ tracks
Now pass their idle days in rooms with numbers on the door
With orderlies and nurses for men who ride no more

Time was when spur rowels jingled when boot heels bumped the floor
Dawns with hot black coffee and saddling up at four
With feet in tapaderos and broncs between their knees
And silken neck scarves snapping as they turned into the breeze

From full-blown living legends true to riding for the brand
To the scarcely mediocre who could hardly make a hand
They would gather for the branding or the shipping in the Fall
Now it’s walker, cane, and wheelchair in the antiseptic hall

And they all have their mementos on the table by their side
Like a cracked and fading snapshot of a horse they usta ride
Or standing with the wife beside a thirty-seven Ford
A high-heeled boot hooked nonchalant on a muddy running board

Just instants frozen from the past that somehow give a clue
To who and what they were before their riding days were through
Horseback men with horseback rules from horseback days of yore
Their one and only wish would be to somehow ride once more

To once more rope a soggy calf and drag it to the fire
To long-trot for a half a day and see no post or wire
To ride a morning circle—catch a fresh one out at noon
And trot him in when the day was done to the rising of the moon

To put in one more horseback day and have just one more chance
To ride home to a pretty wife and drive her to the dance
To take her hand and hold her close and waltz across a floor
Before the time to join the ranks of men who ride no more.

© 1997, Joel Nelson, used with permission

Texas rancher Joel Nelson is highly respected as a poet, reciter, and horseman.

This poem appears on Joel Nelson’s CD, The Breaker in the Pen, the only cowboy poetry recording ever nominated for a Grammy Award. Baxter Black has commented that the recording “raised the bar for cowboy poetry for 1000 years.” The poem is also on The BAR-D Roundup: Volume Four.

Joel Nelson was named a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow in 2009.

Read an excellent 2010 profile of Joel Nelson by Ryan T. Bell, “Joel Nelson, The Horses and the Words.”

Find a number of video performances on YouTube, including a video from a 2012 appearance at the Blanton Museum.

Find Joel Nelson at the Texas Hill Country Cowboy Gathering, which was started last year and is already making its mark as a don’t-miss event. The second annual gathering is November 8-9, 2019, in Fredericksburg. The lineup includes Mike Beck, Andy Hedges, Brigid and Johnny Reedy, Joel Nelson, Krystin Harris, Pipp Gilette, Sourdough Slim, Rodney Nelson, Mike Blakely, and Stephanie Davis (just announced, replacing Cowboy Celtic).

He returns to the Western Folklife Center’s 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, January 2-February 1, 2020. Find more about performers, workshops, shows and sessions, and more at

Joel Nelson will give the keynote speech at the new Lone Star Cowboy Gathering in Alpine, Texas, formed by an energetic group of people, including co-chair and poet Kay Nowell, in response to this year’s retirement of the venerable Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The event is scheduled for February 21-22, 2020. Find a recent press release here. Visit the Lone Star Cowboy Gathering site for more information and sign up for their news at

Find more about Joel Nelson, including this poem and others, at

This c. 1993 photograph of Joel Nelson is by Kent Reeves, Cowboy Conservationist, from the landmark book Between Earth and Sky: Poets of the Cowboy West, by Anne Heath Widmark, with photographs by Kent Reeves.

Kent Reeves writes in the book’s Acknowledgments, “…I owe my work in this book to all the poets who allowed me to interrupt their lives and who took me in for a few days. I do not feel that I ‘took’ these photographs; I believe that each poet gave them to me.” In addition to Joel Nelson, the book includes chapters with Buck Ramsey, Wallace McRae, Rod McQueary, Linda Hussa, John Dofflemyer, Shadd Piehl, Paul Zarzyski, Sue Wallis, Vess Quinlan, Henry Real Bird, and Drummond Hadley.

See a gallery of photos from the book on Facebook.

Find more about Kent Reeves at and at

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photo with this post, but please seek permission for any other uses.)

LANGUAGE OF THE LAND, by Tom Swearingen


by Tom Swearingen

There’s not a lot that’s spoken
As we sit upon our mounts.
The cow boss checking tallies,
Adding up the remnant counts.

He’s mighty long on wisdom,
But he’s pretty short on words
When lining out the circles
When we’re gathr’n up the herds.

“They’re out there boys, go get ’em.
Now you know just what to do.”
‘Course he’s right, and he should know,
‘Cause he handpicked all the crew.

He knows there’ll be no slacking,
That we’ll more than earn our pay.
Since that’s ‘bout all that matters
He’s not got much more to say.

With just some simple pointing
And some nods amongst the boys,
We head in all directions
Taking in the morning noise.

You’d think without us talking
There’d be nothin’ much to hear.
But fact is, in the silence
There’s a lot to hit your ear.

Like birds awake and singing.
Or cicadas flicking wings.
There’re Aspen trees a quaking,
And the sound of bubblin’ springs.

Muffled hooves on dewdrop grass.
And the crack of sun-parched brush.
Thermals blowing up steep slopes.
Bobwhite’s whistle ‘fore they flush.

And then the sound we’ve come for.
Distant, faint, from down below,
The bawling calves and mommas
Tell us just where we should go.

The silence gives direction
Sometimes better than what’s planned.
And so we leave the talking
To the language of the land.

© 2016, Tom Swearingen
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

Oregon horseman Tom Swearingen says one of his greatest pleasures when horseback is being silent and just listening. “It’s amazing what one can hear if we just stay quiet. Of course horses’ ears are keen and they can pick up sounds far earlier than we can. But every once in a while I get the satisfaction (likely kidding myself) that I’ve tuned into a distant sound before my mount’s ears react.”

Tom says that Gary Morton’s 2016 Cowboy Poetry Week Art Spur painting “A Life Less Ordinary” reminded him of early mornings, miles to cover, and the challenge of relying more on senses than planning to be successful at the task at hand and that “Language of the Land” was inspired by that painting and the memories it recalled.


“Language of the Land” is included on Tom’s new CD of the same name. The album has been leading the charts for Western Music radio play, according to the International Western Music Association’s Western Way magazine.

Tom is headed to the 31st annual Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering, October 3rd – 7th, 2019. Evening performers include Trinity Seeley, Margaret Wilhelm, Brooke Turner, Bill Lowman, Greg Hager, Ross Knox, and Mary Kaye. Daytime performers are Colt Blankman, Thatch Elmer, Almeda Bradshaw, Ol’ Jim Cathey, Rick Buoy, Two Bit Pete, Chris Isaacs, Tim Krebs, Emelia Knaphus, Nolan King, Jarle Kvale, Paul Larson, Allora Leonard, Lynne Belle Lewis, Carol Markstron, Dan McCorison, Slim McWilliams, Kathy Moss, Sam Noble, Dave Munsick, Jonathan Odermann, Abby Payne, Lindy Simmons, Don Schauda, Kacey and Jenna Thunborg, and Tom Swearingen.

Tom will be making his first invited appearance at the Western Folklife Center’s 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. He joins other poets and storytellers Doris Daley, John Dofflemyer, Carolyn Dufurrena, Maria Lisa Eastman, Patricia Frolander, DW Groethe, Andy Hedges, Carol Heuchan, Chris Isaacs, Randi Johnson, Jarle Kvale, Annie Mackenzie, Waddie Mitchell, Joel Nelson, Rodney Nelson, Jonathan Odermann, Vess Quinlan, Henry Real Bird, Brigid Reedy, Randy Rieman, Jake Riley, R.P. Smith, Jay Snider, Gail Steiger, Michael Stevens, Forrest VanTuyl, and Paul Zarzyski. Musicians & singer-songwriters include An American Forrest, Mike Beck, Cat Clifford, Dylan Clough, Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie, Dom Flemons, Pipp Gillette & Lloyd Wright, DW Groethe, R.W. Hampton, Andy Hedges, Hot Club of Cowtown, Ned LeDoux, Corb Lund & the Hurtin’ Albertans, Miko Marks, Marinna Mori, Tracy Morrison, The Munsick Boys, Brigid Reedy, Randy Rieman, Trinity Seely, Dave Stamey, Gail Steiger, Michael Stevens, Jessie Veeder, and Wylie and The Wild West. They also promise “special guests.” Visit for much more, including descriptions of workshops, films, and other events at the gathering.

After Elko, find Tom at the Cochise Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering, February 7-8, 2020, in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Stay tuned to for more gathering announcements and information.

Tom has many more events on his calendar, which you can find along with other information at

This image by Carol M. Highsmith is described, “Ranch manager Mark Dunning oversees a roundup at the Big Creek cattle ranch near the Colorado border in Carbon County, Wyoming.” The original image is from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, from The Library of Congress collection. This image was digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Find this image at M Highsmith.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem with this post, but for other uses, request permission. The photo is in the public domain.)

We’ll be on a break from September 6-20,
but there will be regularly scheduled posts.

THE TWISTER, by Jay Snider

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by Jay Snider

If he bucks me off, he’ll have to shed his skin
Was the claim the twister made
He said, “There ain’t a bronc that’s drawed a breath
Can shake me loose from this Wade”

Strong words like those need provin’, son
Are you sure you’re up to the test
He said “Let’s catch one up, ya’ll stand aside
Watch this bronc rider do the rest”

Well, we were impressed by the twister’s sand
Thought, heck, this might even be fun
So we bunched ‘em up and circled ‘em round
And cut out the little red dun

He’s a spindly, sorta wild eyed colt
Long necked and a little light boned
But every puncher that had tried him before
In one jump, had been dethroned

“He’s bad as they come in these parts,” I said
The twister just shot me a grin
Said “Bad broncs are my business, if he bucks me off
He’ll have to jump right out of his skin”

So Charlie Bob roped him and snubbed him up close
Ole’ Slim got a mouthful of ear
It took Rusty and Bub and ole’ Jake to hold him
While the twister stacked on his gear

Then the twister stepped on, took a mighty deep seat
Charlie Bob pitched him his head
The colt went from round pen floor to tree top high
Then his north end went south instead

I’ve seen cowboys throwed higher and harder
But I can’t remember just when
And I reckon, Ole’ Snake, be a fittin’ name
Cause this colt just shed his skin

The twister, you see, learned his lesson well
‘Cause he now sings a different song
“It takes a plenty bad hombre to throw me off
But it sure don’t take him long”

© Jay Snider
This poem should not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

This photo of popular Oklahoma rancher, poet, and reciter Jay Snider is from Lawton, Oklahoma, 1979. He told us that the bull “belonged to F&F Rodeo Company and was simply called #33.”

“Twister” is on Volume Nine of The BAR-D Roundup” from

Jay is returning to the Western Folklife Center’s 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 27-February 1, 2020, in Elko, Nevada.

He joins other poets and storytellers Doris Daley, John Dofflemyer, Carolyn Dufurrena, Maria Lisa Eastman, Patricia Frolander, DW Groethe, Andy Hedges, Carol Heuchan, Chris Isaacs, Randi Johnson, Jarle Kvale, Annie Mackenzie, Waddie Mitchell, Joel Nelson, Rodney Nelson, Jonathan Odermann, Vess Quinlan, Henry Real Bird, Brigid Reedy, Randy Rieman, Jake Riley, R.p. Smith, Gail Steiger, Michael Stevens, Tom Swearingen, Forrest VanTuyl, and Paul Zarzyski.

Musicians and singer-songwriters include An American Forrest, Mike Beck, Cat Clifford, Dylan Clough, Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie, Dom Flemons, Pipp Gillette & Lloyd Wright, DW Groethe, R.W. Hampton, Andy Hedges, Hot Club of Cowtown, Ned LeDoux, Corb Lund & the Hurtin’ Albertans, Miko Marks, Marinna Mori, Tracy Morrison, The Munsick Boys, Brigid Reedy, Randy Rieman, Trinity Seely, Dave Stamey, Gail Steiger, Michael Stevens, Jessie Veeder, and Wylie and The Wild West.

“Special guests” are also promised.

Visit for much more, including descriptions of workshops, films, and other events at the gathering.

Jay Snider has a recent CD, Classic Cowboy Poetry: The Old Tried and True, which showcases his fine reciting. He delivers poems by Bruce Kiskaddon, Henry Herbert Knibbs, Will Ogilvie, Sunny Hancock, and others, to carry listeners back to time when, to quote Kiskaddon, “cattle were plenty and people were few.”

For a great look at how Jay Snider handles the classics, see a video of him reciting Sunny Hancock’s “The Bear Tale” at the 2010 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering:

Find more about Jay Snider at, and at his web site,

This more recent photo of Jay is by Dee Dobson of Buckles & Bling Photography.


(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photo with this post, but for other uses, request permission.)

A COWBOY’S PRAYER, Charles Badger Clark, Jr.


Charles Badger Clark, Jr. (1883-1957)

Oh Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow.
I love creation better as it stood
That day You finished it so long ago
And looked upon Your work and called it good.
I know that others find You in the light
That’s sifted down through tinted window panes,
And yet I seem to feel You near tonight
In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.

I thank You, Lord, that I am placed so well,
That You have made my freedom so complete;
That I’m no slave of whistle, clock or bell,
Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street.
Just let me live my life as I’ve begun
And give me work that’s open to the sky;
Make me a pardner of the wind and sun,
And I won’t ask a life that’s soft or high.

Let me be easy on the man that’s down;
Let me be square and generous with all.
I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town,
But never let ’em say I’m mean or small!
Make me as big and open as the plains,
As honest as the hawse between my knees,
Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!

Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget.
You know about the reasons that are hid.
You understand the things that gall and fret;
You know me better than my mother did.
Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said
And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside,
And guide me on the long, dim, trail ahead
That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.

…by Charles Badger Clark Jr., 1906
Badger Clark wrote his best known poem while living on a ranch near Tombstone, Arizona. Katie Lee has written, “Of the hundreds of poems written about cowboys praying to the stars, this is probably the best…The language is true to his free-roving spirit and gives insight to the code he lived by—the things he expected of himself.”

In the late Katie Lee’s classic book, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story, and Verse, she writes about “A Cowboy’s Prayer”: “Of the hundreds of poems written about cowboys praying to the stars, this is probably the best. I’ve heard any number of cowboys recite it, but have never heard one sing it. The language is true to his free-roving spirit and gives insight to the code he lived by—the things he expected of himself.” According to Austin and Alta Fife, Clark wrote it while living on a ranch near Tombstone, Arizona, and it was first published in “The Pacific Monthly,” in December, 1906.

Badger Clark’s collection of poems, Sun and Saddle Leather, was first published in 1915 and is still in print today.

Hal Cannon, founding Director of the Western Folklife Center includes verses from “A Cowboy’s Prayer” in his generous, inspiring keynote address from this year’s 35th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The recitation was by Owen Johnson, the opening prayer of the first gathering. There is much to absorb in this address, and don’t miss the word picture of “ten years out” by Baxter Black near the end.

Find much more poetry and more about Badger Clark, who became South Dakota’s Poet Laureate, in features at

The South Dakota Historical Society Foundation holds Badger Clark’s papers and offers his books for sale.

This 1906 photo is of Badger Clark at his writing table, used with permission from Cowboy Poetry, Classic Poems & Prose by Badger Clark, by Greg Scott.

(You can share this photo with this post. Please seek permission to use the photo in any other way. This poem is in the public domain.)

ELKO, by Colen Sweeten


by Colen Sweeten (1919-2007)

They came to the mid-winter gath’ring,
Leaving haystacks and dehorning chutes.
Dressed true to old west tradition,
Levis, Stetsons, and high heeled boots.

A few were in casts or on crutches,
Some looked like I’d seen them before.
Each wore the hat no one touches
And had high polished boots on the floor.

The faces were brown as a saddle.
Some mustaches wide as a door.
And they walked with a half-cocked straddle,
Like the part that they sit on was sore.

Their poetry, sprinkled with sagebrush,
Was not meant for the city galoots.
And there each one sat in his ten gallon hat,
And a cow and a half worth of boots.

© 1987, Colen Sweeten, used with permission of the Sweeten family
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

The Western Folklife Center’s 35th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, often referred to simply as “Elko,” is getting underway in Elko, Nevada. We like to share the late Colen Sweeten’s poem every year, when it’s “Elko time.”

During his lifetime, Colen Sweeten was a part of every Elko gathering, except one. He had an enormous repertoire of poems, stories, wisdom, and humor. He always had a kind and cheerful word for all, and as he often said, so many friends that he “wasn’t even using them all.”

Colen Sweeten appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1991, along with the late Rod McQueary. (Unfortunately, the video has become unavailable.)

Find more about Colen Sweeten and more of his poetry at,  where there are also tributes to him.

Find some other poems about Elko in our feature here.

This 2014 photo by Carol M. Highsmith, titled, “Fancy cowboy boots for sale at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in San Antonio, Texas,” is from The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Find the collection here, where it notes that, “Highsmith, a distinguished and richly-published American photographer, has donated her work to the Library of Congress since 1992. Starting in 2002, Highsmith provided scans or photographs she shot digitally with new donations to allow rapid online access throughout the world. Her generosity in dedicating the rights to the American people for copyright free access also makes this Archive a very special visual resource.”

Find more about Carol Highsmith and her work at and on Facebook at Carol M. Highsmith’s America.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem with this post, but please request permission for any other uses. The photo is in the public domain.)

COWBOY BANKER by Pat Richardson (1934-2016)

seenoevil© 2006, Jeri Dobroski, photo of Pat Richardson, Jess Howard, and Stan Howe

by Pat Richardson (1934-2016)

“I wanna be a cowboy,” said the banker Larry Brown,
“an’ work out in the country, ‘steada cooped up here in town.”
When his wife got wind of this she nearly went berserk
he made a hundred grand a year, doin’ banker work.

She said,” You can’t ride a horse, you can barely drive a Jeep
the whole idea’s dumber than a hundred head of sheep.”
“Ben said he’d teach me everything I need to know
an’ how long can that take? There’s just giddyup an’ whoa.”

He went thumbin’ through a catalog of “Western wear an’ feed”
with his calculator hummin’, addin’ up the things he’d need
“A thousand for a saddle? There must be some mistake
a misprint he reckoned, a grand for heaven’s sake?”

A hat an’ vest, boots an’ spurs, an’ naturally a rope
a bridle, reins, an’ silver bit, an’ a bar of saddle soap
a pickup an’ a trailer, an’ assorted odds an’ ends
“It’s pretty dang expensive now, I’ll tell you that my friend

“Saddle blankets, underclothes, an’ oh yes a pair of chinks.”
When he hit the total button, took an hour just to blink.
So he gave up that cowboy scheme an’ sez with some dismay,
“I can’t afford to be a cowboy on a lousy banker’s pay.”

© 2001, Pat Richardson, used with permission

The late California poet, humorist, artist, cowboy, and former Pro Rodeo Sports News cartoonist Pat Richardson was known for his deadpan delivery of his humorous poems. It’s always hard to resist to mention that Baxter Black said of Pat Richardson’s poetry, “If you boiled cowboy poetry down to what’s worth savin’, this is what the stew would smell like.”

At the forthcoming Western Folklife Center’s 35th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 28 – February 2, 2019 in Elko, Nevada, there will be a show remembering Pat Richardson and other favorite cowboy poets who have recently left us: Georgie Sicking (1921-2016), Jess Howard (1936-2016, Pat Richardson’s brother), and Elizabeth Ebert (1925-2018). Performers for the show, all friends of those poets, are Yvonne Hollenbeck, Rodney Nelson, Brenn Hill, Dave Stamey, and DW Groethe. The show will be Saturday afternoon, February 2, at 1:30 pm, at the G Bar Three Theatre at the Western Folklife Center.

There’s more at about each of the poets being remembered: Pat RichardsonGeorgie Sicking, Jess Howard, and Elizabeth Ebert.

The complete National Cowboy Poetry Gathering lineup includes 3hattrio, Amy Hale Auker, Mike Beck, Geno Delafose & French Rockin Boogie, John Dofflemyer, Joshua Dugat, Maria Lisa Eastman, Mary Flitner, Jamie Fox & Alex Kusturok, Ryan & Hoss Fritz, Dick Gibford, DW Groethe, Andy Hedges, Brenn Hill, Tish Hinojosa, Yvonne Hollenbeck, Ross Knox, Ned LeDoux, Daron Little, Corb Lund, Carolyn Martin’s Swing Band, Sid Marty, Deanna Dickinson McCall, Gary McMahan, Waddie Mitchell, Michael Martin Murphey, Joel Nelson, Rodney Nelson, Diane Peavey, Shadd Piehl, Vess Quinlan, Halladay & Rob Quist, Henry Real Bird, Brigid Reedy, Randy Rieman, Jake Riley, Matt Robertson, Olivia Romo, Trinity Seely, Sean Sexton, Sourdough Slim, Dave Stamey, Gail Steiger, Colter Wall, and Paul Zarzyski.

Find more at and check out their YouTube channel for a great archive of cowboy poetry and Western music performances and more.

Jeri Dobrowski took this photo of Pat Richardson, Jess Howard, and Stan Howe at the 2006 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Find her photography at

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photo with this post, but for other uses, request permission.)

A COWBOYIN’ DAY, by Gary McMahan


by Gary McMahan

Morning is just a thin line to the East
As you steps in the corral and captures a beast.
Cold saddle blankets, hey cock-a-doodle-doo—
Don’t buck now, you booger; you’ll break me in two.

Your head starts working on the last pass around;
Saddle horses are wrangled, draft horses cut out.
You shuts the gate and steps to the ground—
It’s hot, black coffee you’re thinking ’bout now.

Then it’s biscuits and gravy and eggs over light,
And the foreman’s wife is a beautiful sight.
Jokes and jabs and the cowboss’s orders,
A chew and a toothpick, and you’re out the door

To saddle the horse you’ll use for the day,
Makin’ sure your riggin’ has no extra play.
You steps aboard light with him all gathered up
’Cause you know first hand this critter can buck.

Ease him out at a walk and head north towards the dump.
You’ll be askin’ a trot when he loses his hump.
You hits a slow lope on the badger highway;
It’s a cool morning, blue-sky cowboyin’ day.

And the brooks are babbling down through the holes,
The meadowlarks sing the song in your soul,
And the wildflowers blaze any color you s’pose
As the smell of sagebrush and pine fill your nose.

Now the horse that you’re on is big, and he’s lean—
Quick, tough, smart, and a little bit mean.
His saddle’s no place for the meek or the green;
He’s a sho-nuff rip-snortin’ cowboyin’ machine.

And the place that you’re headed is pretty intense;
Continental Divide is the back fence.
There’s ten thousand acres of mountain and rock there
And twelve hundred head to check and to doctor.

And to make matters worse (or better, you think),
They’re all yearling heifers—unpredictable dinks.
They’ll run and they’ll hide ’til hell freezes twice
Then kick up their heels as you skate on the ice.

But this ain’t no colt, and you ain’t no kid,
So you whips out your rope and pulls down your lid,
And you climbs and cruises the sagebrush and aspen
’Til you finds you a cow brute what’s droopy and raspin’.

And maybe you’ll tag ’er ’fore she gits to the brush
And trip ’er and tie ’er in a big rush
And pack her with sulfa and penicillin.
She’ll turn for the better, good Lord a willin’.

Lots of footrot and pinkeye today,
But that don’t mean the boogers can’t play.
They’ve ducked and they’ve dodged ’til who laid a chunk,
But you managed to capture a pretty good hunk.

A line-backed old heifer with a sly side dart
Almost upset the whole apple cart,
And a bald-faced old bag sure slammed on her brakes
When we dived off a ledge and got in her way.

It’s the heat of the day now—sun’s straight overhead—
And you and your horse are packing some lead.
You hanker for rest and a biscuit or two,
And you figures you got that much coming to you.

Now your horse likes the grass that grows ’neath the aspen,
And the shade there is welcome as peace everlastin’.
So you finds such a place with a creek close by
To soothe the bruises of a hard ride.

You hobbles, unbridles him, loosens his girth
Then sets yourself down in the cool, green earth,
Surrounds your grub and drinks your fill
And takes a siesta way back in the hills.

Well, a catnap is all you require;
Still, you lay there and ponder your thoughts . . .
The world sure has its briars.
Take, for instance, this good old cow-hoss—

He was a wild-eyed, ring-tailed dandy.
Heck, they give up on him ’fore they give him to me,
But it’s the same for horses as it is for men—
He just needed a job and a kick in the shin.

Well the afternoon’s spent with the usual flair:
A close call here, a catastrophe there.
But still we saved more than a couple of hides;
That’s why we get paid for making these rides.

A storm blew through for about thirty minutes,
And you’d swear that Satan hisself was in it.
You’re sure glad your pony is seasoned plumb through—
Close lightning’s unloaded a few buckaroos.

You’re wet as a fish, but you ain’t gonna melt,
And the sun feels the best it ever has felt.
You’re all steamed up like an overdue freight,
But you’re dry as a duck time you get to the gate.

Now, there are those who thinks a cowboy’s a crude, ignorant cuss.
Truth is, we no-savvy them; they no-savvy us.
But there’s one thing that sticks in my mind
When a cowboy’s job cuts into sublime.

It’s when you and your horse form a leathery feather
And drift two, three yearlings out of a gather
And trail ’em up someplace they don’t want to go
When they’re needing a vet or what ever, y’know.

You set ’em just so when you go through a gate,
And don’t rile ’em up, for heaven’s sake.
Folks that have tried it say it’s kind of an art
To pen ’em in the home corral before dark.

And we’re trailin’ two of em home this night.
We’ll prolly ship the one; the other’ll be all right.
But one wrong move now the air’s turning cool,
And these two yearling heifers’ll make you look like a fool.

Punch ’em into the catch with a “whoop” and a smile.
You been walkin’ on eggs for the last two miles,
And if one woulda broke, the fur woulda flew—
No tellin’ when you’da got another crack at them two.

Your horse rolls in the dirt while you put up your tack,
Then savors his grain while you scratch his back.
It’s an evenin’ ritual you both enjoy;
You don’t covet nothin’ when you ride this ol’ boy.

An he heads for the timothy down by the lake
Whilst you saunters to the house for soup and steak
To mix it up with compadres and finish your pie
Like folks do when they’re satisfied.

When supper’s done, there’s little time for play—
You sleep hard all night if you work hard all day—
But ’fore you fall off your log to float in the air,
You may have time for a little prayer:

“Lord, I thank you for this cowboyin’ day.
I sure had me some fun a-earnin’ my pay,
And I like to think I put meat on the table
For a country that needs to stay fit an’ able.

“But a cow with no horse is boring as hell,
And a horse with no cows don’t ring my bell.
It’s a good life you gave me, these horses and cattle,
And I wanted to say thanks Lord for my day in the saddle.”

© 1986, Gary McMahan, used with permission
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission.

Cowboy, poet, songwriter, and yodeler Gary McMahan’s vivid “A Cowboyin’ Day” is a contemporary cowboy poetry standout.

In his book, Gary McMahan in Poetry and Song, he writes about it, “One of my favorite things is working cattle on a good horse in the high country. I used to do a considerable amount of it, and even though this poem doesn’t have a ‘Hollywood plot,’ a lot of ranch folk have told me how much they like it, especially those who’ve ever run a bunch of yearlin’s.”

At Gary McMahan’s, you can listen to “A Cowboyin’ Day” and the full-length tracks of all his albums of his music and poetry.

Gary is headed to the 30th annual Colorado Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Golden, January 17-20, 2019. The lineup includes Jerry Brooks, Jon Chandler, Connie Dover, Mark Gardner & Rex Rideout, Kristyn Harris, Carol Huechan, Yvonne Hollenbeck, Chuck Larsen, Gary McMahan, John Nelson, New West, Jean Prescott, Dave Stamey, Pop Wagner, Barry Ward, and Dick Warwick.

Gary told us, “Vess Quinlan and I started the Colorado Cowboy Gathering 30 years ago! I can’t believe it’s been 30 years. We wanted to have a gathering to go along with the National Western Stock Show here in Denver. We figured it would just dovetail right in with it. So we went to the state folklorist Bea Roeder and she really did the hard work of putting it together. Turns out, it was sparsely attended by the NWSS folks and loved by the people in and around Denver and Colorado. We have much to celebrate. Some great cowboy poets came outta Colorado, Bruce Kiskaddon, to give you one example.”

(Look for Gary’s recitation of two Kiskaddon poems on our forthcoming MASTERS: VOLUME THREE CD.)

Gary is also featured at the Western Folklife Center’s 35th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, January 28-February 2, 2019.

Find more about Gary at and at his site,

This photo is by Bill Patterson, top gathering photographer, who has captured great views of so many of today’s performers and the essence of so many events. See some of his photos on Facebook.  The above photo is used with a different look in a recent article in about the Colorado gathering from 5280 magazine.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this photo and poem with this post, but any other uses require permission.)