Over the centuries, differences in terrain, climate and the influence of cattle-handling traditions from multiple cultures created several distinct styles of equipment, clothing and animal handling. The cowboy adapted much of his gear to the colder conditions, and westward movement of the industry also led to intermingling of regional traditions from California to Texas, often with the cowboy taking the most useful elements of each. However, horses quickly multiplied in America and became crucial to the success of the Spanish and later settlers from other nations. Thus many ranchers expanded into the northwest, where there were still large tracts of unsettled grassland. The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century arose from the vaquero traditions of northern Mexico and became a figure of special significance and legend.
During the 16th century, the Conquistadors and other Spanish settlers brought their cattle-raising traditions as well as both horses and domesticated cattle to the Americas, starting with their arrival in what today is Mexico and Florida. Both regions possessed a dry climate with sparse grass, and thus large herds of cattle required vast amounts of land in order to obtain sufficient forage. As English-speaking merchants and settlers expanded westward, English and Spanish traditions, language and culture merged to some degree. However, in slightly different ways, both areas contributed to the evolution of the iconic American cowboy. The arrival of English-speaking settlers in Texas began in 1821, while California did not see a large influx of settlers from the United States until after the Mexican-American War. The traditions of Spain were transformed by the geographic, environmental and cultural circumstances of New Spain, which later became Mexico and the Southwestern United States.
The Mustang and other colonial horse breeds are now called wild, but in reality are feral horses—descendants of domesticated animals. Particularly with the arrival of railroads, and an increased demand for beef in the wake of the American Civil War, older traditions combined with the need to drive cattle from the ranches where they were raised to the nearest rail heads, often hundreds of miles away. The earliest horses were originally of Andalusian, Barb and Arabian ancestry, but a number of uniquely American horse breeds developed in North and South America through selective breeding and by natural selection of animals that escaped to the wild. The arrival of horses was particularly significant, as equines had been extinct in the Americas since the end of the prehistoric ice age. As the ever-practical cowboy adapted to the modern world, the cowboys equipment and techniques also adapted to some degree, though many classic traditions are still preserved today. American traders along what later became known as the Santa Fe Trail had similar contacts with vaquero life.
The cowboy has deep historic roots tracing back to Spain and the earliest European settlers of the American continent. This style of cattle ranching spread throughout much of the Iberian peninsula and later, was imported to the Americas. Various aspects of the Spanish horsemanship tradition can be traced back to Arabic rule in Spain, including Moorish elements such as the use of Oriental-type horses, the la jineta riding style characterized by a shorter stirrup, solid-treed saddle and use of spurs, the heavy noseband or hackamore, (Arabic šakima, Spanish jaquima) and other horse-related equipment and techniques. Before the Mexican-American War in 1848, New England merchants who traveled by ship to California encountered both hacendados and vaqueros, trading manufactured goods for the hides and tallow produced from vast cattle ranches. By the 1880s, the expansion of the cattle industry resulted in a need for additional open range. Texas cattle were herded north, into the Rocky Mountain west and the Dakotas.
Starting with these preliminaryencounters, the lifestyle and language of the vaquero began a transformation which merged with English cultural traditions and produced what became known in American culture as the cowboy. In turn, the land and people of the Americas also saw dramatic changes due to Spanish influence. A cowboy is an animal herder who tends cattle on ranches in North America, traditionally on horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks. The need to cover distances greater than a person on foot could manage gave rise to the development of the horseback-mounted vaquero. Certain aspects of the Arabic tradition, such as the hackamore, can in turn be traced to roots in ancient Persia. The origins of the cowboy tradition come from Spain, beginning with the hacienda system of medieval Spain.