I was six or seven years old. I was bucked off my first horse. I hit the ground with a thud, my hat knocked off and the wind taken out of me.
Minor wreck all told by comparison of others to come. My dad walked over, pulled my tiny body off the ground. Dusted me off, let me get my bearings and said “ Well Jerod son, that's the first of many times that is gonna happen. Cowboys can be hurt, but they always get back in the saddle.”
I grew up on a ranch in western Nebraska. My father is Nebraskan, and mom is Kansan. My familial ancestry is steeped in people of the land, agriculture and livestock. My father’s dream from a young age was to run livestock, carry horses, sustain a family ranch and all its trappings. He was a full time medical doctor, my mother a full time occupational therapist, but gad bless it they had a dream, and it is a reality to this day because of their hard work, sweat, and dedication over the years.
I grew up with immediate exposure to bovine and equine stimuli. Running a ranch demands a high work ethic, dedication to your animals that depend on you for their very livelihood. I was introduced to our remuda of horses as a baby, held onto the back of one of our ponies, taking rides in our corrals.
As I grew I was tasked to take care of the chorin; feed-water, clean stalls, help with health and the general care for our animals. I was trained by my father to curry=brush our horses, pick=clean hooves, saddle-bridle your pony and mount up from a young age. I was riding singular by 6, taking part in family or neighborhood cattle drives by 7, fully participating in 4-H horse competitions by 8. We completed; brandings, round ups, preg-checks (look that one up city folk), fence building and repair, back pours, bull moves, late night calving duties, cow care in all forms.
I was taught how to be a cowboy, and expected to carry the name with honor.
To be a cowboy is to hold to a certain code of honor. A cowboy is a person that treats his pony as an extension of themselves, they are up before the sun, they are working long after it goes down. We as Americans may not have created the term cowboy, but there is a mythos in the great plains of the USA when it comes to the job duties and the ideology of how one conducts themselves as a horse riding individual. They are to be integritous. As a cowboy(or girl-equal opportunity dang it) ,you stay tough, you don't gripe, you work hard, you get the job done no matter the conditions. A cowboy does not act for themselves but for those animals and other riders they serve. You maintain your gear at a high standard, because your life may depend on it. They maintain a sense of decorum or chivalry, for example; you stand up and take off your hat when a lady enters the room. You say yes mam and no sir. You make a mistake, you own up to it with bearing, and do better the next time around. If you are gonna cuss and spit your tobacco wad, you best do it outside. My dad would say one of the most important rules of cowboying is “Don’t squat with your spurs on!” I’ll let you ruminate on that one.
I may be relating to portions of western Americana lore in my previous paragraph, but many of the attributes, lessons, and mindsets of what I stated is how I was raised.
I was taught in the ways of the west and with a cowboy approach. I loved this mentality, I loved the animals and the time I spent with my family in those corrals and in those pastures. We maintain an effort to support our ranching to this very day. I am proud of my Midwest heritage and what it helped me to be. Let it be known, it wasn’t all romanticism, those are tough conditions, long days, hard work, and some hairy situations abound.
I remember as a small boy, struggling to get the tack(saddle gear) put on right. I just wasn’t tall enough dammit. A well placed stool or 5 gallon bucket helped with that. The bridle was still a challenge for a rascally quarter horse or big eared mule. I was scared of what we would encounter that day, weather, wild horse, fiery cow/bull, lost calf, snake in the grass, grouse exploding under my horse with me on it. I was terrified about getting bucked off, getting hurt. I was worried about not controlling my horse, about not holding up my standard as a cowboy from those before me.
When you are 90 pounds soaking wet with rocks in your pockets and a 1200 pound animal with a mind of its own starts to get frisky, it is a rapidly fear inducing situation. I was bucked off, kicked, stomped on, run over, bit, bumped around and nickered at in an aggressive manner over the years. I ended up on the corral floor, prairie grass, snow banks, a couple cacti patches…or was that sagebrush. Hell, I think it was both.
I learned quickly that cowboys, good ones at least, earned their honor the hard way. My father taught me, Mom was quick to second that motion, that I can talk the talk if I wanted, but if you don’t saddle back up after a dust up with a horse, a elongated slithering reptile, and a fresh cow pie; you best not run your mouth too long down at the pool hall.
All vernacular aside, my family taught me there is more about cowboying than talking. It came down to being tough. My dad would say intermittently, when I needed to hear it, “Jerod son, you need to Cowboy Up.”
I had to learn how to get back up on the proverbial and literal horse. I had to steel myself to my fear, adjust to my mind and body as it was telling me to not saddle ole Vegas another time. I fought with my fear, I saddled ole Vegas many times over the years, and I became a better person for it.
Our job as parents is to guide our children in all ways. We are in an age where the farm and ranch way of life is lessening and fewer than ever before. Some kids do not spend as much time around livestock. Statistically in a national demographic of population they spend less time outside, less time in manual labor that a ranch or farm requires, or manual labor of any type potentially. They don’t handle a shovel for 2 hours straight. They don’t drive a tractor or truck for 8 hours handling hay or corn. They don’t have to hike or ride long miles in mountains, plains, or fields combatting the elements. Many do not know what it feels like to go a long day without food or water.
Many don’t deal with situations I just described in repetition. When you do not handle stress in our human existence, and it is then given in a rapid dynamic manner, it is harder to handle in the short term, and to cope with in the long term.
The proverbial thought is that millennials, Gen Z, Gen Alpha are less tough than the previous generations due to the increase in technology, more attendance to phones and video games, more people living in urban environments, less positive stressors that are brought to bear in their progression as children. They have higher chances of obesity, anxiety, social disorders, eating disorders, increased depression, less social acclimation, more impassable obstacles advancing through the early stages of life.
Where will our society go if our progressive generations don’t receive these constructive hardships and the altered handling of their current challenges with less productive output?
Do not take my statements out of context and or state that I am coming down on anyone that struggles with mental health or variations of hardships. I am not speaking of those who live in poverty, who struggle with viable living due to housing conditions or homelessness. Who lack decent nutrition on account of financial deficits. I am not so small minded to state if you have a mental issue you are not tough, very far from it. Those that battle neurological imbalance are tough people by any definition. Having mental health challenges is a real health issue no different than in the physical bone or tissue realm. It needs multi faceted attention and support. I feel deeply for any parent or child dealing with mental health challenges.
These individuals are not the demographic I am discussing.
I am talking about millions of kids in a normative status that do not receive the right dose of stimuli to challenge their being. They are not assisted through times of proper age appropriate stress. They do not gain the right maturity in these important development stages. They are not prepared for life on their own when it is demanded of them by our world. They, in simple form, lack toughness.
You do not need to be a cowboy-or girl to be tough. I use it as a real life example of my upbringing to lead to the meat of this encouragement.
You don't have to grow up on a ranch or farm to gain the maturation and constructive stress handling I spoke of. Life across our nation is different, people and their living situations are different. America’s strength can be built around its diversity.
Growing up in the Bronx is tough, battling the cold in the upper peninsula of Michigan is tough, dealing with the heat of Texas plains is tough, weathering a hurricane on a coast is tough, wrangling the chaos of LA is tough. Forgive me if I missed a few…thousand more examples.
I am saying as fathers we must instill toughness in our children within your construct. If your child gets hurt, they should cry! Smacking your face off the ground when riding your bike hurts, but then it is the ability to fight with your pain that is induced. Help them calm their panic and fear, guide them to return to their proverbial and literal bike. Try again because it is the right thing to do to be prepared for this world. When the world pushes us, when it pushes our kids, we have to be ready to push back in a constructive sustainable form. I think of it as forming toughness with honor.
We must all find ways in our daily lives as fathers to challenge our children with positive, constructive efforts to be tougher in their lives. Do not sit inside all day because it's hot outside. Do not ask to be carried because your legs are tired. Do not let that test bring you down, you will have another opportunity to learn and do better on the next go. Do not give up on that sport because you lost or you have to ride the bench for a week. Do not quit a job because you do not like the boss. Giving up on something that is hard, turning away from challenges in any form is a failed act that will only lead to more failure and poor satisfaction in our short time on this earth.
The list can go on and on, I encourage you to fill in your own list, for your own self and your kids.
The world can be mean gents, we do not have to teach our children to be mean. Tough and mean is one form of tough, but that combination usually does not lead to something good. That combination will not help them, that will not help our world. There is a time to fight, but even that should be done in defense and with honor. Harming those around you due to your own sadness, hate, and anger is not toughness.
Teach them to be tough with honor, teach them to take stress, and respond with positive output. Any cowboy or cowgirl I know will approve of the effort.