I ride an old paint, I lead an old dan
I'm goin' to Montana to throw the hoolihan
They feed in the coulees, they water in the draw
Their tails are all matted, their backs are all raw
But what is a hoolihan, please?
We get questions about the meaning of "hoolihan."
In the 1933 Cowboy Lore, by Jules Verne Allen (more about that here) one interesting section of commonly used terms includes entries such as "HOOLIHANING, the act of leaping forward and alighting on the horns of a steer in bull-dogging in a manner to knock the steer down without having to resort to twisting the animal down with a wrestling hold. Hoolihaning is barred at practically all recognized contests."
In response to our posting that information, Rod Miller wrote "The line 'throw the Hoolihan' that appears in 'I Ride an Old Paint' almost surely refers to a type of loop used in roping, often for catching horses. A hoolihan is a kind of backhand loop, but distinct from a regular backhand loop in that the roper rolls his wrist and the loop rolls over in the air. That rolling motion also describes the motion of a hoolihanned steer in bulldogging -- it does a forward roll. It is unlikely that the line in the song has reference to bulldogging as Bill Pickett is credited with inventing that particular activity long after, I suspect, 'I Ride an Old Paint" was first written and sung."
Rod also referred us to the definition of "hooley-ann" in Ramon F. Adams' Cowboy Lingo (1936): "The term 'hooley-ann' was a roping term and the throw was used mostly to catch calves out of a bunch and to rope horses. The roper rode with his loop in his hand, and when the chance presented itself, he swung the loop backward instead of forward, and as it came over it was turned in such a way as to cause it to flatten out before it reached the head of the animal to be roped. Just one swing and it could be tossed thirty feet forward. The size of the loop depended upon the distance it was to be thrown and the size of the animal. A good calf-roper who used the 'hooley-ann' might be thirty feet from a wee tot of a calf and start a loop that a beef steer could pass through, but the noose ran out by reason of the distance, and by the time it reached the calf, it was barely large enough to pass around the calf's neck."
Adams' definition of "hoolihaning" is word-for-word the same as that in Jules Verne Allen's Cowboy Lore cited above. Cowboy Lore was published three years before Adams' book.
A history site here: http://historywired.si.edu/detail.cfm?ID=49 claims "A Hoolihan is a left-hand-and-around horse throw. The rope is released with minimum of movement."
A site here: http://home.att.net/~basicbrian/iride.html has the song and a note: "A very dangerous rodeo move, jumping from a horse at full gallop onto a moving cow, to flip it over. The move, named after it's originator, is now banned in competition."
The PBS History of the West site places the song in the 1868-1874 period, but without documentation.
In May, 2006, Don comments:
"My Dad, who grew up in the 1920's and 1930's on a ranch in west Texas, said that throwing the hoolihan could be used to mean 'getting ready to die' similar to 'headin' for the last roundup.'"
In July, 2006, Milton writes:
Hoolihan is a loop thrown, usually when you're roping horses.