Cowboy Hats

I have never understood farmers’ preference for baseball caps, other than that feed and equipment dealers pass them out the way banks pass out ball-point pens. Cowboy hats are, after all, the perfect solution for those who make their living outdoors. Hats are important to the health of such folks.

It is well-known that, past the age of about ten, or whenever they start working in the fields, a little bit of both farmers’ and cowboys’ brains—or the males’, anyway—do leak out every time they take their hats off. They therefore take them off as seldom as possible. Well, some say the brains don’t leak out so much as dry out a little, or freeze. As a result, cowboys share with old-fashioned nuns and their equally frequently hatted brethren, farmers, a line above which the forehead stays distinctly pale. With age, some folks even develop a little dent in their forehead, which helps keep their hats from riding too low.

I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but one of the reasons country folks can always spot city folks is that city folks do not have tan lines or hat dents on their foreheads. And they don’t even try to cover this up with a hat at all times when they end up in the country. This make country folks as suspicious of city folks as one might be of a naked woman without any tan lines, or with no bra straps dents in her shoulders. There is only one way on this Earth that can happen: not wearing your hat. Now, how smart can someone be, if they don’t wear their hat all the time?

There is another reason country folks always wear their hats. Why, everyone remembers once at one church supper one evening, when Claudie Baker, I think it was? accidentally knocked Floyd Olson’s hat off reaching for Maggie Shepardson’s slaw, and every Methodist in the county saw that Floyd was bald. Slicker and shinier than a fleeced sheep. He didn’t look like himself at all. Maudie Olson fainted on the spot. Heard they’ve been divorced since then. First divorce in the Olson family since anyone remembers, and Maudie’s living with her widow Mom in town, now. Anyway, between the benefits of keeping the smarts you started with and your looks at least consistent, it’s best to keep your hat on.

So, we can agree that wearing a hat is important. And, I think we can all agree that cowboy hats, especially as they come in a variety of brim widths and brim rolls and crown heights and hatbands, offer much greater fashion statement potential than a baseball cap. All you can do with a baseball cap is pick a logo, a color, and a brim orientation. With the variety of cowboy hat styles available, anyone can find one that suits.

Besides fashion, there’s politics involved, admit it or not. To wear a baseball cap is to allow yourself to be exploited as a living billboard for whoever made the hat and put their logo on it. Go ahead. Find me a baseball cap without some logo on it. Now, find me a cowboy hat with a logo on it. See what I mean? Cowboys really are independent.

There are practical considerations. Wide brimmed all around where the baseball ball cap shades only the eyes, the cowboy hat is surely superior. It does not leave the ears and the back of one’s neck bare to the sun. Thus, no cowboy would ever earn the nickname ‘red-neck.’

Cowboy hats are like built-in umbrellas. Being outdoors all the time does mean that you know what direction the weather comes from. You can see the storms coming and how fast they are moving, but that doesn’t mean you will have time to ride back to the farmhouse to get an umbrella or a poncho when you are miles out riding the fence line and see a storm headed for you.

Turn up the back of your collar, lean back a little and tip your hat just so, and the rain which has been collecting in the curves of the brim just sloshes off behind you. Your horse probably can’t tell the difference between the water you dumped on his back from the rain drenching you both, so it usually won’t mind. True, if you look down, the rain sloshes into your lap, but since the seat of your saddle as well as your hat has been collecting the rain, that doesn’t much matter. But if you want a dry neck and collar, now, a cowboy hat’ll do that for you.

A cowboy hat held upside down can also carry water like a bucket, unless it is the straw kind, of course, but those are only for around the house or garden. Murphy and Country appreciated this use of my hat more than once on hot days when a pond was on the wrong side of a fence line. It’s not a big bucket, but it’ll eventually get your stock watered when they need it. Don’t waste your time trying this with a baseball cap.

Baseball caps make poor fans. That dinky little brim doesn’t move enough air to even bother a mosquito. You’ll seldom see farmers holding their baseball caps by the brims, flapping the soft head parts around; they know it makes more sweat than it dries, with the  head part being so limp. But you can get a real wind going with a cowboy hat. You can hold it by those dents in the front or by one side of the brim, and they are usually made so you can re-shape the brim after a bit. That’s the kind you want, anyway.

Cowboy hats also have a hatband, a great place for a pack of matches until it rains, or a pack of cards, or a letter, or a grocery list  you are adding to through the day as you ride the fence line. Toothpicks, hoofpicks, a roll of tobacco, a picture of your mother or your girlfriend, the lottery number you know will win one day, a Swiss Army knife, about anything you need easier to hand than in your pockets, those thing go in your hatband…but only if you’re wearing a cowboy hat.

Horses are also much more impressed by cowboy hats than by baseball caps. Smack a horse on the rump with a baseball cap and they might raise their head to see what the tickle was. If you smack a horse rump with a cowboy hat just right, you get an attention-getting ‘Whop!’ from the air caught in the head part, plus the brim has just the right  flex and stiffness in it to make a clear and large impression on horse butt fur. They notice that more.

If the horse is out of physical reach, or is one which you don’t want to be within arm’s length of when you whop it on the butt, cowboy hats make decent Frisbees. For at least the first time or two, you can surprise a horse into action by spinning your hat at them from a safe distance. Or maybe it’s the same kind of surprise to the horse that Maude Olson had when Floyd’s hat came off. After the first time or two, the horse realizes the hat just bounces off even if it does hit, but it’s good for a couple times with most horses, more with others.

Anyway, this one lean young fellow having breakfast in the diner was wearing a cowboy hat, not a baseball cap. He had the quiet, supple, observant, thoughtful demeanor that horses speak to. We nodded our good mornings to each other as he tossed a few bills on the counter, and he sauntered (as one must when wearing cowboy boots as he was) out to his pick-up.

I do understand why farmers do not wear cowboy boots. City folks may think farmers wear cowboy boots, but farmers just have them for formal occasions. City folks think their country relatives wear cowboy boots all the time because they only meet their country relatives at funerals and such. For every day, farmers wear boots you can walk in, like construction boots if you are working in the fields, or mud boots if you are working in the feedlot, or sneakers if you are fixing equipment in the shed. Cowboy boots are not made for walking, since cowboys ride, or rode recently, or intend to be riding again soon.

It’s not that the boots’ pointed toes are uncomfortable. They are very practical. The pointed toes are great for knocking dirt out of corners so you can sweep up better. Get the right size boot and the pointed toes are fine.

Cowboy boots are tall, reaching some distance up the rider’s leg according to personal preference. This is also a practical matter. This is to protect the rider’s legs from rubbing against parts of the saddle, or parts of the world like tree branches and thorns and rattlesnakes. Still, most riding boots are made such that the seam where the foot part is sewn to the tall leg part hits right about at the ankle bone. That seam, when walking, lays a blister down quicker than any other footwear I know. This why cowboys ride or see to it they will be riding again soon. Cowboy boots have a heel, too, often more than a two-inch heel.

This is different than the heel on a woman’s shoe, of course, as any cowboy will assure you. The heels on cowboy boots, like any proper riding boot, are a safety measure. They keep the rider’s foot from slipping all the way through the stirrup, which is major dangerous. It doesn’t always work, but I would rather have a heel on my riding boots than not. The heels on cowboy boots are higher than those on English riding boots, though. I’m not sure why. The heels on cowboy boots are slanted forward and I’m not sure exactly why that is, either. They say it’s so you can dig your heels into the dirt when you are throwing down the calf you just roped, but those heels can be downright treacherous on flat ground.

Those blisters and heels do change the way you walk. So, as this lean young fellow sauntered out of the diner, I couldn’t help but recognize that particular swing and roll that cowboy boots lend to a stride. It’s much different than the clumping gait of the construction- booted farmer.

 When I see people wearing cowboy hats now here in Virginia, especially if the hat looks implausibly clean, I challenge them to pass the cowboy hat test. Failing the test means voluntarily relinquishing thereafter their right to wear The Hat.

Question One: what’s the difference between hay and straw? Question Two: what’s the difference between horse manure and cow manure? Question Three: given the wide, shading brims of cowboy hats, what happens to the hats when two people, both legitimately wearing cowboy hats, kiss?

Some folks get the first one right, perhaps from a summer spent on a grandfather’s farm bucking a few bales without getting in the regular help’s way too badly. Fewer get the second one right, for that requires more than an easy summer visit on the farm to learn. So far, everyone I’ve challenged wants to know the answer to the third one.

Real cowboys wouldn’t have to ask, and they wouldn’t know how to be so crass as to say what happens, in so many words. They’d circle their arm behind me, in a sheltering kind of way, and catch my hat for me, like any gentleman would.