The cowboy cure

The APA Monitor has an article on how ‘nervousness’ in 1800s America was treated by sending male intellectuals ‘out West’ for prolonged periods of cattle roping, hunting, roughriding and male bonding.

This, I suspect, sounded a great deal more innocent in the 1800s.

But nevertheless, this sort of intense deliberately masculine physical exercise was thought to be a genuine antidote to brain-exhausting intellectual life.

Among the men treated with the so-called “West Cure” were poet Walt Whitman, painter Thomas Eakins, novelist Owen Wister and future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

Although the Rest and West cures involved wildly different therapeutic strategies, both were designed to treat the same medical condition: neurasthenia. First described by American neurologist George Beard in 1869, neurasthenia’s symptoms included depression, insomnia, anxiety and migraines, among other complaints. The malady was not just an illness, he said, but also a mark of American cultural superiority.

According to Beard, excessive nervousness was a byproduct of a highly evolved brain and nervous system. A “brain-worker” who excelled in business or the professions might experience nervous breakdowns if he overtaxed his intellect. His highly evolved wife and children could easily succumb to the same malady, particularly if they engaged in excessive study or “brain work.”

The famous neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell wrote of neuroaesthenia that, under great nervous stress, “The strong man becomes like the average woman.”

As a male psychologist who is regularly outclassed by his female colleagues I have learnt this, sadly, to be true, but not, I suspect, in the way Weir Mitchell meant.

Link to APA Monitor article on the cowboy cure.

7 thoughts on “The cowboy cure”

  1. Perhaps the “therapeutic” effect came more from simply feeling connected with nature again, than from “masculinity forged by conflict”, which BTW, is also a very common value brought over by the Scots-Irish who re-settled mainly in the southern U.S., after fleeing centuries of fighting and constant border conflicts. Read “Born Fighting, How the Scots-Irish Shaped America”, by VA Senator Jim Webb, and it’s clear how this kind of “warrior culture” assumption that everything in life is about “conflict”, has shaped everything from our own cultural admiration for the “cowboy”, to our politics and foreign policy.

  2. I’ll disagree with the above commenter, I’m not sure it was getting “back to nature” that had the effect. I’d chalk it up to the general benefits of a vacation where you are totally away from your usual life. Jumping into a new environment that stresses your body and mind in ways completely different than usual is a good thing. Now we do it with skiing trips and cruises instead of heading out to play at being a cowboy but it’s the same thing.

    1. Yes, it does seem to be about different activities – not cutting them out altogether (beach-lounging etc etc).

      ‘Pottering’ is another phrase that comes to mind where recuperation is at stake.

      But… ranching? cattle-driving? Huh?

  3. Dude Ranches still provide a similar experience. I always enjoyed hiking in the Sierras when I lived in California and climbed a few mountains but I often did it to be alone or hike with a few kith or kin. Never thought of it as a cure for my work as a computer programmer. I ran across a Dude Ranch along the Pacific Trail through the Sierras just south of Lake Florance when I did a 100 miles hike in 1984. I always found the concept of a Dude Ranch or Hunting Camps a bit strange. They are so artificial.

  4. We should also probably keep in mind that T.R.’s time was very different, and “urban life” was still pretty much a “novelty” compared to the rest of the country then. And forget about stuff like “yuppies” or “metrosexuals”, and changing “roles”… let alone Robert Bly or the “Men’s Movement”!

  5. There is a person who puts together trips on real working ranches in Montana. You ride a working horse (kinda grouchy) , learn to do the real work like gathering, roping , branding, vaccinating. You camp out in tents, no bathroom or shower facilities, simple meals from the kitchen trailer, no hot tub or spa treatments or tennis courts or electricity. If you want a hot shower, you can put a black plastic sun-shower bag full of water on top of a truck. You may be 60 miles from anything that can be called a town. You might bring a book with you but it won’t engage you as much as the beauty of land and sky. There is no light pollution because there are no cities close enough– not even the gleam from a ranch house window. You might see the Northern Lights or watch the moon rise over the edge of a canyon. You might see how a cowboy wrangles the horses into a pen early in the morning after they’ve been loose grazing all night. You might participate in a neighborhood round-up where you can practice what you’ve learned and meet some locals.
    Nothing artificial about it. Although people think you are crazy to PAY to work.

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