Cowboys in the 1800s selected their personal items for their practical use. Every item that the cowboy wore or carried with him was essential to his lifestyle and most of it was often used until it was completely worn out. With the prices of items ranging anywhere from $2 to well over a normal month’s wages ($40), cowboys could not afford to constantly replace their essential items, so they looked for equipment that was sturdy and would last as long as possible. Today's working cowboys still use similar gear.
Despite the vision of tall, 10-gallon hats used in the movies, cowboy hats were originally not about style, but rather about practical needs. Depending on where the cowboy hailed from, his hat was used to shield his eyes from the sun, protect his head from storms and, if needed, cover his ears from the cold. In the southern United States cowboys wore wide-brimmed hats because of the blazing heat and humidity in the summer. However, in the North cowboy hats were constructed of heavy material to protect the cowboy from the harsh winters. The pre-shaped cowboy hats of today attempt to cater to the needs of cowboys from all regions, with the wide brim and the turned-up sides designed to protect the wear from the elements.
Riding the range, the cowboy came into contact with all types of brush - much of it bearing thorns. Flesh injuries, therefore, were common and led to the creation of chaps. Chaps were made from calf or goat skin. In the South, many cowboys left the hair from goats on the skin to act as an additional barrier of protection against the elements. Regardless of the material, however, chaps were belted at the waist and covered only the thighs and legs. This allowed for freedom of movement and maintained thigh and leg protection as the cowboy rode in the saddle. Even today chaps are an important part of the cowboy’s equipment that allow him to be less susceptible to injury as he performs his work.
An important part of the cowboy’s gear is the rope. Also known as the reata or lariat, the cowboy’s rope is approximately 30 feet long and a ¾-inch thick. Crafted from rawhide, the cowboy’s rope allows him to quickly catch stray cattle or horses and maintain control of a herd or catch an animal to tame it or brand it. Because the rope is often used at a moment’s notice, cowboys keep their rope secured on the saddle horn in front of them when they ride.
Cowboys need to carry guns as a means of protecting themselves and their livestock. The most common gun in the 1800s was the .45 caliber pistol. The .45 caliber was loaded with gun powder and a metal bullet that was blunt on the end. The barrel of the .45 pistol was eight inches in length, requiring the cowboy to wear his pistol low on the hip so that it would not interfere with movement and yet, be easily accessible at a moment’s notice. Many modern cowboys carry rifles on their saddles to use in guarding livestock from wild animals when needed.
When cowboy boots were first created they had high heels and very thin toe sections. The structure of the boots allowed cowboys to insert their feet into stirrups and hook the heel on the outside of the stirrup so that the foot would remain in place. The boots were also made with flaps at the top sides of the boots so that the cowboy could get a good grip when pulling them on. Styles of cowboy boots have changed significantly throughout the years, however, with the high heel eliminated and more space created in the toe section of the boot.