An Honest-to-God Cowboy’s Survival Kit
The Western way of life doesn’t just belong on the big screen or in memories of a bygone era. The lifestyle is all about respecting your brother, honoring the value of hard work, and keeping traditions alive. In other words, it’s something any man—even one living in a city in 2021, can adopt.
Just ask rodeo legend Rod Lyman. The champion rider from Great Falls, Montana has enjoyed a professional steer wrestling career spanning 20 years and 16 showings at the National Finals Rodeo. Though now retired from bulldogging, he still embodies the spirit of the old-school cowboy pretty much full-time. “It’s a lifestyle you lead—a legacy,” he says. “The true code of the West comes down to honesty, grace, and helping your neighbor when they need it. Because at some point you’re going to need it too.” That might be what a cowboy’s core is made of, but what about the rest of him? “Growing up, you wanted the older guys you admired to someday call you a cowboy,” says Lyman. From the trusted gear and the loyal steed to the Pendleton Whisky sipped at the end of a long day out on the ranch, here’s what it takes to earn that elusive badge of honor.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re branding, holding a hot iron, or trying to bulldog a steer and getting your fingers smashed in the chute,” says Lyman. “Your hands definitely take a beating.” But cowboys wear their scars and bruises with pride, he explains—as a symbol of their commitment to hard, honest work. “Our hands wouldn’t look like that if we were working in an office,” he says. A typical day involves 12 to 16 hours of labor. “The work ethic is super high, but I don’t think ranchers look at it as work. It’s what we love to do—it’s our passion.”
A dog might be a man’s best friend, but a horse is a cowboy’s other half. “The connection between a cowboy and a horse is almost magical,” says Lyman. When he was four years old, he remembers his father capturing a wild horse they named Speed. They raised him on milk and sugar and fed him from a dustpan. Lyman’s earliest memory is of riding Speed, bareback. The experience sparked a lifelong connection to the animal, one that grounds his bond with nature today. Rodeoing, he explains, involves at least 200 days a year spent riding your horse—and a full 365 days when you factor in the care involved. “You see all of their different reactions,” he says. “But you have to spend a lot of time in the saddle with them. Until you’ve ridden a lot and started to slow your own mind down, listen to the horse and understand its thought processes, I don’t think you get that real deep connection.”
There’s no garment more emblematic of the Old West than a cowboy hat. Put it on, and you can practically see the hay bales, smell the backcountry air, and taste the barrel-aged whisky. “The cowboy’s relationship with his hat is mythical,” says Lyman. “That’s your signature.” But a true cowboy hat isn’t something you can just pick up in a Western store and perch on your head—it takes lots of time and a bit of grit to make it your own, says Lyman. “The shape of the hat goes with the personality of whoever is wearing it,” he says. “So until you wear it a while and get it broken in, it’s really not your hat.”
When the branding, the roping, the wrangling, and all the other backbreaking work of a cowboy’s day is done, it’s customary to celebrate with a glass of good whisky. But not just any bottle will do—Lyman’s drink of choice comes from a distiller that cherishes the traditions of the Old West as much as he does. “Cowboys and Pendleton Whisky go together,” says Lyman. The Oregon-based brand is deeply tied to Western staples: It’s named after Pendleton Roundup (one of the most prestigious rodeos in the U.S.), it’s the official spirit of the ProRodeo Cowboy Association, and it maintains its flavor and quality with a process involving American oak barrels and glacier-fed water sourced from Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest. “For me, Pendleton stands for integrity,” says Lyman. “It’s a great product, but it’s more than that—there are a lot of great products out there. Pendleton hasn’t varied. They do what they say they’re going to do.”
Most central to a cowboy’s ethos is a connectedness to the land they live on. “To be able to be on your horse, riding through sagebrush, then stop and look at a snow-capped mountain that’s got blue sky behind it…if that don’t tug at your heartstrings, nothing will,” says Lyman. His appreciation has only deepened as the lifestyle so intertwined with the land has become endangered. “So much of the West has been bought up, and a lot of ranches have been taken out of production,” he explains. “How do you make sure that we embrace this heritage and it keeps going?” One approach is looking toward the future. “The media thinks we’re stuck in the past,” he says. “People think we’re still going to get attacked by outlaws out here. But ranching has gotten so progressive. It’s an exciting time.” One thing always welcomed in the West, according to Lyman: an open mind. “If you come to the ranch and you’re gracious and open and want to ask questions, in a couple of days, you’re going to be considered Western.”
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