|Photo: Patrice Halley
The lone horseman
A look at the iconic symbol of a man and his horse
Story by Jan Dutkiewicz
A lone rider astride his faithful steed rides off into the sunset. A grizzled horseman trots
into a frontier town, squinting at passersby from under the brim of his worn hat, a pistol
in a holster on his belt.
The ubiquitous image of the cowboy is etched forever in the annals of North American culture.
But how did the cowboy become a cultural icon and what is it about him that captivates us?
Tamara Seiler, an associate professor of communication and culture at the University of Calgary
and author of numerous articles about cowboys and cowboy culture, offers a number of explanations.
Historically, the cowboy as we know him is a myth. The real cowboy lived a life that was
far from glamorous; he was often poor and wandered from ranch to ranch looking for low-wage
work. He was proud of his work, however, and relatively free, unfettered by established city
life. With the emergence of industrial society and the end of the open range, he became a
symbol of a lost age.
"At the time, there was nostalgia for the lost frontier, and the historical cowboy
lived a life that led to its being romanticized in a certain way," Seiler explains.
Popular culture embraced the ideal of the tough, self-sufficient, free-spirited rider.
From Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show through dime novels, rodeos and western movies, the cowboy
became an icon. This modern myth combined elements of history with medieval notions of chivalry
and gallantry and American ideals of liberty and non-conformity.
"Like Huck Finn and other characters, the cowboy was a traveller who could escape
the confines of domesticity and law. He was an empowering image who offered a more satisfying
vision of life to post-industrial people," Seiler says.
The horse is an integral part of this persona, inextricably linked to its rider. The cowboy's
noble mount is a symbol of power, energy, freedom, and of wilderness and natural beauty.
It is the source of the rider’s independence and is essential to his mystique.