Originally, the English word "cowherd" was used to describe a cattle herder, (similar to "shepherd," a sheep herder) and often referred to a preadolescent or early adolescent boy, who usually worked on foot.(Equestrianism required skills and an investment in horses and equipment rarely available to or entrusted to a child, though in some cultures boys rode a donkey while going to and from pasture) This word is very old in the English language, originating prior to the year 1000.In antiquity, herding of sheep, cattle and goats was often the job of minors, and still is a task for young people in various third world cultures.
The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century arose from the vaquero traditions of northern Mexico and became a figure of special significance and legend.
A subtype, called a wrangler, specifically tends the horses used to work cattle.
In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work for or participate in rodeos.
As the ever-practical cowboy adapted to the modern world, the cowboy's equipment and techniques also adapted to some degree, though many classic traditions are still preserved today.
Originally, the term may have been intended literally—"a boy who tends cows." By 1849 it had developed its modern sense as an adult cattle handler of the American West. "Cowhand" appeared in 1852, and "cowpoke" in 1881, originally restricted to the individuals who prodded cattle with long poles to load them onto railroad cars for shipping.
"Cowboy" is a term common throughout the west and particularly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, "Buckaroo" is used primarily in the Great Basin and California, and "cowpuncher" mostly in Texas and surrounding states.
The word cowboy also had English language roots beyond simply being a translation from Spanish.
Cowgirls, first defined as such in the late 19th century, had a less-well documented historical role, but in the modern world have established the ability to work at virtually identical tasks and obtained considerable respect for their achievements.
There are also cattle handlers in many other parts of the world, particularly South America and Australia, who perform work similar to the cowboy in their respective nations.