Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Saturday, 17 October 2009 12:18 UK

Cowboys of the Wild West live on

Cowboy horses on the Great Plains
There is still rugged terrain on the Great Plains only accessible by horseback

The traditions of America's cowboys are alive and well on the Great Plains despite modern technology encroaching on their way of life on the prairie, as Kevin Connolly found when he visited Montana and the Dakotas.

When I grew up watching old Westerns at Saturday morning pictures back in the 1960s, it never crossed my mind that the age of the cowboy would last long enough for me to meet some of them at work on America's northern Great Plains, where cattle are still roped and branded by tough, taciturn men on horseback.

It is like finding a place where history is still alive and running concurrently with the present.

Walking into a Stetsoned and booted town like Glendive, Montana, feels like walking into a bar in Rome and finding gladiators relaxing over an espresso.

'Horse wreck'

But cowboys are more than merely living reminders of the toughness and determination with which America claimed and tamed the great oceans of land between its coasts.

They are still - for now at least - important figures in American ranching, prized for their ability to follow cattle on horseback over the roughest of ground.

Cowboy Neil Tangen
Neil Tangen lost all his teeth in what he called a "horse wreck"

When you get talking to them though, you quickly forget any romantic thoughts about how their eyes speak of long, lonely days watching the endless skies and rolling plains chasing each other towards the horizon.

They have pretty much the same concerns as any other Americans - one of them, Neil Tangen, gave me a more graphic insight into the healthcare debate than I have got from interviewing any number of doctors and nurses.

He had no front teeth. This was the result of what he described as a "horse wreck", when an animal he was in the process of breaking in, bolted and ran into a fence post. Neil's jaw was smashed and he lost most of his teeth.

When the time came for treatment he said his insurance company agreed to pay for all his back teeth to be fixed because they are unarguably used primarily for chewing.

Front teeth, he said he was told, are essentially cosmetic, at least in part, and were therefore not covered.

Neil is tackling this problem with his trusty ballpoint and insurance form, rather than with the traditional cowboy methods of conflict resolution. The gun fight and the mass brawl in the crowded saloon have been consigned to history.

The main threat to this way of life comes, rather curiously, from something called an all-terrain vehicle which looks a little like a cross between a golf-buggy and a lunar landing craft

Economically, things are not good on the ranches of the plains. Falling cattle prices mean hard times, and the cowboy himself seems a little like an endangered species - a man whose basically 19th-Century skills belong to the age of the sail-maker and the barber who doubled as a surgeon.

The main threat to this way of life comes, rather curiously, from something called an all-terrain vehicle which looks a little like a cross between a golf-buggy and a lunar landing craft.

It can do many of the jobs done by horses on the rough, craggy terrains of Montana and the Dakotas and it can do them without getting tired. It offers nothing of the mystical closeness you sense between horse and rider, but it is cheap and easy to use, and a horse is neither of those things.

'Tough lifestyle'

Add to that the difficulty of selling a tough, lonely, rural lifestyle to a generation reared on air conditioning and computer games, and the future can suddenly seem as bleak as an October day on the plains, when the clouds seep over the horizon and into the sky like sand filling an hour glass.

But the cowboy has been written off before and lived to tell the tale.

And I do not mean in his endless gunfights with quick-on-the-draw rivals in the dusty streets of small frontier towns, or indeed in his long-running confrontation with those original inhabitants of the West who we no longer call Indians.

The cowboy embodies many of the characteristics which Americans see as part of their identity

The cowboys' main enemies in fact have always been economic.

The coming of the railroads at the end of the 19th Century, for example, meant that ranchers no longer needed to pay ranch hands to drive their herds from the prairies to the stockyards of the big cities.

And there was worse to come.

On the Great Plains, many people will tell you that you can date the beginning of the end to the day in 1876 when a businessman called John Gates demonstrated barbed wires to sceptical ranchers in San Antonio, by creating an enclosure in a city square and penning cattle inside it.

Not all of Mr Gates's ideas were quite so good - he once lost $1m betting on which one of a pair of raindrops on the window of a railway carriage would dribble to the bottom first.

Once ranchers realised that barbed wire would contain their animals without injuring them, the era of the highly-paid horseman shepherding cattle around the plains seemed all but over.

Lone riders

However, there are still cowboys all over the West, from North Dakota down to New Mexico, partly because there is still some rugged terrain where the horse remains the best way of getting around.

But it is also partly because the cowboy embodies many of the characteristics which Americans see as part of their identity - the tough, self-reliant figure riding alone who tamed the unconquerable wilderness from which America drew its wealth.

How much longer that lifestyle will survive on the ranch rather than the tourist heritage park is hard to say, of course.

But not for the first time, the cowboy finds himself staring towards a far horizon, wondering what challenges lie beyond it.

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