Cowboy Terms

Talk the talk.

arroyo (n.) An intermittently dry creek bed that only flows with water after sufficient rain. 

Usage: “Make sure to check up the arroyo; the cows sometimes stray there.”


drag rider (n.) A cowboy who rides at the rear of the herd. 

Usage: “Billy spent the entire drive riding drag and choking on dust.” 


dry-gulch, (v.) To ambush or shoot someone in the back—considered the method of a coward. 

Usage: “That yellow-belly dry-gulched the sheriff!”

cavvy (n.)Used primarily in the Northern Plains and Northwest, the term refers to a ranch outfit’s herd of saddle horses. 

Usage: “Roy heard hoofbeats as the night wrangler brought in the cavvy.”


cayuse, (n.) A pony breed developed by the Cayuse Indians. Also slang for a feral horse. 

Usage: “That rangy cayuse might not be a looker, but you can work him all day.”

cinch-binder (n.) A horse that rears up on its hind legs and falls over backward. 

Usage: “Don’t bother riding that horse unless you want to wear a pine overcoat; he’s a cinch-binder.” 


mossy horn (n.) 1. A Longhorn whose horns have wrinkled with age. 2. A veteran cowman. 

Usage: “He’s a cantankerous old mossy horn, but he knows what he’s talking about.” 



pilgrim (n.)
Someone uninitiated to life in the West. Synonyms: dude, greenhorn, gunsel. 

Usage: “I know who you are; you’re the same dumb pilgrim I’ve been hearin’ for twenty days and smellin’ for three!” —Bearclaw, Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

possum belly (n.) Stretched rawhide on the underside of the chuckwagon, for kindling. 

Usage: “The camp had to go without fire—everything was wet and the possum belly was empty.” 



ranahan (n.) A complimentary term for a top hand or experienced cowboy. Sometimes shortened to “ranny.” 

Usage: “Everyone listened to Tom; he was a top ranahan with decades of experience.


stargazer (n.) A term to describe a horse that goes around with its head high in the air. 

Usage: “That horse is such a stargazer that I can barely see over the top of his head!” 

stove-up (adj.) Soreness or stiffness caused by injury, illness, or over-work. 

Usage: “That old rodeo hand is so stove-up it takes him half the morning just to get out of bed.”

suitcase rancher, (n.) An absentee “rancher” who owns a ranch but lives elsewhere; is perceived as being involved in ranching for purely financial reasons. 

Usage: “Gary hasn’t laid eyes on a steer in 16 months, unless he keeps one in his city penthouse. He’s nothing but a suitcase rancher.”


sunfisher (n.) A bucking horse that twists in such a way that his underbelly is exposed to sun. 

Usage: “He was nervous, his stomach felt like a sunfisher coming out of the chute!”

photo credit: Library of Congress Photo Archive