History of the California Vaquero

painting of old time california vaquero

To trace Vaquero horsemanship as we know it today, we have to return all the way back to medieval Europe.

The war horses of medieval and renaissance Europe required many of the same skills found in the reined working cow horses of today, and those cow horses all owe there existence to the bridle horses of the old time Vaqueros.

In studying the history of the knight and war horse of Europe you will find references to what today we would call a turn on the forehand, spin (turn on the hind quarter done at speed), slide stop and roll back.

These maneuvers and others have evolved in two distinct directions: what we know as dressage, and the reined working cow horse.

When the Spanish began to colonize the Americas they brought with them the horsemanship skills they learned on the battle fields in Europe .

A quick side note: the practice of branding cattle and horses comes directly from the knights of Spain. The traditional family coat of arms was adapted and used to permanently mark livestock for identification. Those who find the practice cruel and archaic should note that in many states it is the law. California, the birth place of the Vaquero, is one of those states that requires cattle be branded for identification

As the California missions began to spread from San Diego to Sonoma, so did the Spanish style of handling horses. As time passed, the California Vaquero began to refine their methods of training horses and working cattle.

California was unique in both climate and culture during the birth and growth of the Vaquero tradition. The mild climate meant that the Vaquero could spend more days in the saddle than the cowboys of other regions. The culture allowed the Vaquero the freedom of taking their time making a horse. California was the land of “many mananas” or many tomorrows. For the Vaquero it took as long as it took to get the job done. If that meant that the job didn't get done until manana, that was no problem. The Vaquero was free to take all the time needed to make the best horse possible. As a result the California bridle horse evolved to the point that a top hand could ride his horse with just a light string attaching his rein chains to the bit.

While firmly established in California, the influence of the Vaquero also spread up through Texas and evolved into what we think of today as the classic American Cowboy. This cowboy had, and still has, his own style of training horses and working cattle that differed in many ways from that of the California Vaquero.

The Texas style prefers to tie on “hard and fast”, meaning they tie their rope directly to the saddle horn by a loop on the tail end. The Vaquero has always preferred to dally, meaning that he wraps his rope around the saddle horn and is therefore able to let slack slide out if needed. The term dally comes from the Spanish “dar la vuelta” -  meaning to make the turn.

Many of the Texas style cowboys where not prone to doing a lot of ground work with their horses, preferring instead to get on and do their training from the horse's back. The mark of a good cowboy was one who could stay in the saddle no matter how hard a young horse bucked and tried to throw him. On the other hand, the Vaquero spent a lot of time working his young horses from the ground. The mark of a good Vaquero or Californio was and still is, one who could make a horse from start to a finished bridle horse without ever having him buck.

In all fairness to the Texas cowboy, he was not afforded the luxury of time that the Vaquero had. The Texas and Midwestern ranches usually had the cowboys riding more horses than the California ranches. A Texas cowboy might have twice as many horses in his string to work and as a result was not able to devote as much time to each horse as was the California Vaquero.

While the Texas cowboy uses his horse to work cattle, the Vaquero uses cattle to work his horses. Even this has evolved over time and what we have now are two very different forms of competition that have grown out of each style. The cutting horse has grown out of the Texas style that prefers the use of a horse that is bred to work a cow on its own once that horse has been sufficiently trained. On the other hand you have the reined working cow horse that comes from the Vaquero tradition of having a horse that is also bred to work a cow but works entirely from the commands of the rider.

It is interesting that even the gear differs in many ways. The Vaquero prefers the silver spade bit with silver conchos adorning his bridle and a fancy set of elaborately braided rawhide romal reins. Texas style is more apt to use a grazer bit and much simpler but just as functional bridle with a simple set of leather split reins.


For the Vaquero, it has never been just about getting the job done; doing it with style has always been just as important. The Vaqueros have always prided themselves on being able to work their cattle and horses with the greatest finesse, and fortunately that tradition is still alive and well today.