Code of the West

"The Cow Boy"

"The Cow Boy" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though the Code of the West was always unwritten, here is a “loose” list of some of the guidelines:

• Don’t inquire into a person’s past. Take the measure of a man for what he is today.

• Never steal another man’s horse. A horse thief pays with his life.

• Defend yourself whenever necessary.

• Look out for your own.

• Remove your guns before sitting at the dining table.

• Never order anything weaker than whiskey.

• Don’t make a threat without expecting dire consequences.

• Never pass anyone on the trail without saying “Howdy”.

• When approaching someone from behind, give a loud greeting before you get within shooting range.

• Don’t wave at a man on a horse, as it might spook the horse. A nod is the proper greeting.

• After you pass someone on the trail, don’t look back at him.  It implies you don’t trust him.

• Riding another man’s horse without his permission is nearly as bad as making love to his wife.  Never even bother another man’s horse.

• Always fill your whiskey glass to the brim.

• A cowboy doesn’t talk much; he saves his breath for breathing.

• No matter how weary and hungry you are after a long day in the saddle, always tend to your horse’s needs before your own, and get your horse some feed before you eat.

• Cuss all you want, but only around men, horses and cows.

• Complain about the cooking and you become the cook.

• Always drink your whiskey with your gun hand, to show your friendly intentions.

• Do not practice ingratitude.

• A cowboy is pleasant even when out of sorts. Complaining is what quitters do, andcowboys hate quitters.

• Always be courageous. Cowards aren’t tolerated in any outfit worth its salt.

• A cowboy always helps someone in need, even a stranger or an enemy.

• Never try on another man’s hat.

• Be hospitable to strangers. Anyone who wanders in, including an enemy, is welcome at the dinner table. The same was true for riders who joined cowboys on the range.

• Give your enemy a fighting chance.

• Never wake another man by shaking or touching him, as he might wake suddenly and shoot you.

• Real cowboys are modest.  A braggert who is “all gurgle and no guts” is not tolerated.

• Be there for a friend when he needs you.

• Drinking on duty is grounds for instant dismissal and blacklisting.

• A cowboy is loyal to his “brand,” to his friends, and those he rides with.

• Never shoot an unarmed or unwarned enemy. This was also known as “the rattlesnake code”: always warn before you strike. However, if a man was being stalked, this could be ignored.

• Never shoot a woman no matter what.

• Consideration for others is central to the code, such as: Don’t stir up dust around the chuckwagon, don’t wake up the wrong man for herd duty, etc.

• Respect the land and the environment by not smoking in hazardous fire areas, disfiguring rocks, trees, or other natural areas.

• Honesty is absolute – your word is your bond, a handshake is more binding than a contract.

• Live by the Golden Rule.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated January, 2011.


Cowboy Wisdom

  1. There are three kinds of men: The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence.
  2. Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear or a fool from any direction.
  3. When a cowboy’s too old to set a bad example, he hands out good advice.
  4. Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.
  5. Don’t squat with your spurs on.
  6. A decent cowboy does not take what belongs to someone else and if he does he deserves to be strung up and left for the flies and coyotes.
  7. Never miss a good chance to shut up.
  8. If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
  9. Conflict follows wrongdoing as surely as flies follow the herd.
  10. If you get to thinking you’re a person of some influence, try ordering somebody else’s dog around.
  11. Never drop your gun to hug a grizzly.
  12. If you’re riding ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.
  13. Broke is what happens when a cowboy lets his yearnin’s get ahead of his earnin’s.
  14. Worry is like a rockin’ horse. It’s something to do that don’t get you nowhere.
  15. Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.
  16. Keep skunks, lawyers, and bankers at a distance.
  17. Don’t corner something meaner than you.
  18. When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.
  19. Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance
  20. Don’t worry about bitin’ off more’n you can chew; your mouth is probably a whole lot bigger’n you think.
  21. Only a fool argues with skunk, a mule, or a cook.
  22. There’s two theories to arguin’ with a woman. Neither one works.
  23. Speak your mind, but ride a fast horse.
  24. There never was a horse that couldn’t be rode, there never was a rider that couldn’t be throwed.
  25. An old timer is a man who’s had a lot of interesting experiences — some of them true.
  26. Never drink unless you’re alone or with somebody.
  27. A full house divided don’t win no pots.
  28. No one but cattle know why they stampede and the ain’t talking.
  29. An angry bull is less dangerous than an angry woman.
  30. Good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that comes from bad judgment.