Pity the poor cowboy. Once the stuff of childhood legend, many now consider him a land-stealing, gun-totin’, cigarette smokin’ symbol of all that’s politically incorrect. And that really isn’t fair. While Hollywood created the Lone Ranger, real cowboys were as diverse as the rest of the country. Cowboy play is still a great way to introduce kids to history, and have some fun to boot.

Dressing Up: Not Your Mama’s Cowboy

While Hollywood cowboys were lily-white, real cowboys were often Mexican immigrants, freed black slaves, or American Indians. They were young enough to withstand the rigors of the trail and poor enough to work hard for scant wages. And you can forget the perfectly outfitted Marlboro Man; cowboys wore whatever they could get their hands on and adapted their clothes to their environment, from ponchos in Florida to old Army boots on the Plains. Bad news for them is good news for you; you can assemble cowboy wear from your closet. You’ll need:

-    any kind of high boots to protect against snakebite

-    a scarf or bandanna to tie over the mouth during duststorms and wipe sweaty faces

-    a wide-brimmed hat for shade

-    forget the pistol; outside of the movies, they were for rich men and gunslingers.

Why did the Cattle Cross the Plains?

In the Old West, cowboys led “cattle drives” across the Plains because the cows needed more grass than they could find in one place. Want to launch your own? You’ll need a horse and a map.

One ‘50’s toy that hasn’t gone out of style is the hobby horse. You’ll need a clean, dry string mop, some rope, a hammer and nail, and, if you’re ambitious, some felt and glue.

-    The mop is the horse’s mane. Part it and decorate the “face” with felt cut-outs if desired.

-    The rope will be the reins. Tie it in a loop and nail to the horse’s “mouth.”

-    Hold the reins, mount the mop – er, horse – and yee-haw!

Your goal? Get the livestock from ranch to sale point while putting on flesh and fending off rustlers, critters, and drought. Draw in the hazards and necessities of trail life. Remember to sing and recite cowboy poetry along the way: it soothes the cows and prevents stampedes.

Go Dowsing

Gold wasn’t the only treasure in the Wild West. Thirsty livestock needed water, scarce in the arid West. Dowsing is an old, unproven method of finding underground water. You’ll need a “Y” shaped stick, but a bent wire hanger will do in a pinch. Put one hand on each end of the “v” shapes so the leg is extended. Then walk slowly with arms extended, seeing if the stick “jumps” when it detects hidden water. No? Thank goodness for modern plumbing!

The mythic Hollywood cowboy may have gone out of style, but kids who hanker to learn more about our ranching past will find lots to do. There are museums and ranches to visit, traveling rodeos, and books galore – books of cowboy poetry, stories, and lore. So cowboy up. The real thing is a lot more interesting than the movie version.