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Folklife & Folk Art Education Resource Guide

Teaching Children About Cowboy Poetry

Verbal Folklore Activity Roping and Poetry Background Information

Roping livestock is an important chore for a rancher. A cowboy/cowgirl ropes to catch his/her horse, throw livestock (for branding, rodeoing, doctoring), or pulling cattle and sheep from "bog holes," (to name a few uses). With all this activity, it is easy to see why roping is an important skill for a cowboy/cowgirl to possess. Cowboys and cowgirls don't go to school to learn this skill, they learn it from being around other ropers: on-the-job-training! This training not only teaches the cowboy/cowgirl to rope, but also introduces him or her into the customs of ranch life. This is probably why many ranch children, both boys and girls, begin young (at five or six) to ride and rope. Today's rodeo is an athletic event which honors the skills, such as roping, developed by ranchers.

Because every cowboy and cowgirl learns ranching skills in a specific folk group there is some variation of methodology in ranch culture. For instance, calf ropers and buckaroos from the southwest use what is called the "hard and fast" style of roping. With this style the handler ties the rope onto his saddle horn, thereby representing the adage, "if it's worth roping it's worth keeping," because once the animal is caught and "tied on" it can not be easily released. Steer and team ropers, as well as most Utah cowboys and cowgirls, "dally rope" or half-hitch their ropes to their saddle horn so they can loosen or let slip the rope in case of an emergency. Although both groups are performing the same task: roping a cow, their means are different. Roping, therefore, is sometimes a source of contention between ranchers, because each believes his/her way is better!

The transmission of roping skills, as with all ranch skills, is done primarily through word and example. This is how most folklore--the expression of a group of people--is transmitted. Therefore, an important component of all folk groups is the specialized language that they share. The terminology folk groups use to communicate with one another is laden with clues which "insiders" are privy to but "outsiders" are bewildered by.

In teaching and sustaining cowboy culture, ranchers utilize specialized language. Not only in the form--the words--but also in the format--the presentation. One excellent example of this is cowboy poetry.

Poetry entered ranch culture in the early 19th century when verse found its way into popular magazines, newspapers and "dime novels." Poetry, long a format for the transmission of group mores is now intricately incorporated into ranch culture. Although perhaps seemingly out of place, poetry is used as a tool to teach, sustain, and perpetuate ranch life. From the terminology for gear and work activities to the expression of fear and joy, cowboy poetry is replete with specific language that speaks to those in the folk group called "cowboy." Cowboy poetry, like the rodeo, is an activity where cowboys and cowgirls use their specific ranch knowledge as entertainment and competition and to demonstrate their ability to articulate important shared values. In the West today, there are many festivals or "gatherings" for cowboy poets.

Teaching Children About Cowboy Poetry

Children, like cowboys/girls, have group-specific language that sets them apart from others: parents, educators, teenagers. Educating children to the specialized language which folk groups utilize, including those they belong to, can be very rewarding. Read the Bruce Kiskaddon poem "An Experiment," to your class. (For an added touch of ranch flavor, have a cowboy or cowgirl poet read the poem--on tape or in person.) Have your students follow along with the text provided. Afterwards, lead a class discussion on the poem's meaning. The class will probably be confused by the unfamiliar terminology.

Next give your students the "An Experiment' Roping Terminology" sheet. After the children have an opportunity to study and discuss the cowboy/girl words, read the poem again, noting if your class has a different interpretation. It will be fun for the children to go from outsider to insider.

Questions you might discuss with your class are

1) What type of roper is the narrator?
2) Why does the narrator prefer this type of roping?
3) What happened to the cowboy when he tried roping a different way?