FORT WORTH, TEX.-We’ve lined Exchange Ave. in the Stockyards National Historic District to see modern-day cowboys at work in the heartland of the city.

Here they come at 11:30 sharp — five men and a lone woman sitting tall on American quarter horses and dressed all 1880s style in chaps and vests.

But we mostly have eyes for the 16 Texas Longhorns they’re “driving.” They’re as gorgeous as cattle get, what with dramatic horns and mixed colouring.

“These guys have run a couple of times and it’s frightening,” whispers trail boss Kristin Jaworski. “We want them to go as slow as possible. Nice and calm.”

This is more like a walking of the steers than a Pamplona-style running of the bulls. We’re told to stand on the sidewalks, probably so we can make a quick getaway if the castrated male cows suddenly go wild.

It takes just a few minutes for this historical cattle drive re-enactment to wrap up. There’s zero drama but lots of oohing, ahhing and photo taking.

Exchange Ave., which has been temporarily blocked to traffic, quickly reverts to normal. The Fort Worth Herd will be back at 4 p.m.

The trick is to come half an hour early and chat up the “cowboys” who are playing drovers. That’s the name for the diverse group of people — men, women, African Americans, American Indians, Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) — that drove Texas Longhorns from South Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail during the cattle drive era of the late 1800s.

“We get paid to keep history alive,” drover David Mangold says laconically from his mount Oliver. “We’re here 362 days a year except Christmas, Easter and American Thanksgiving.”

It’s hard to make a living with horses and this is a good gig, training the horses (who have cattle drive-inspired names) and spoiling them rotten, tending to the stalls, doing school education programs, performing cattle drive re-enactments and chatting up tourists.

Jose Hernadez, on a horse named Charlie, represents Mexican vaqueros today. Brenda Taylor, representing female drovers, sits on Chisholm and hands me a trading card of a longhorn named Snow, who was born into a snow bank in 2002.

The real stars of this show — and of the Stockyards — have their own trading cards. You can chat up the drovers to get them, or buy a complete pack from the nearby Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame gift shop.

Fort Worth, you had me at cattle drive. And then there’s the Stockyards National Historic District, 15 blocks of Old West meets Wild West meets Truly Texas.

This former frontier town (population 812,000) won’t be standing in the shadow of Dallas, Austin and San Antonio for much longer.

It’s carving its niche as the “City of Cowboys and Culture.” To most, this civic slogan alludes to the walkable cultural district with multiple museums (and North America’s only Michelangelo). To me, it means you can watch a concert at Panther Island Pavilion while floating on inner tubes. The city has an ambitious Trinity River Vision project to create an entire waterfront community.

At the Stockyards Stables, grad student Lacey Jensen saddles up horses for us, just steps from Exchange Ave. We head out through a hotel parking lot, across a busy street and along the Old Chisholm Trail.

“You can ride your horse down here and eat at a restaurant, which is pretty crazy,” Jensen confides. “The Coyote Drive-In is free if you’re on a horse. They’ve got water and hitches. You can ride to Love Shack and they’ll serve you.”

Alas, those are perks for people on private horses. Our trail ride doesn’t come with meals, movies or drinks, but what a treat to ride along the Trinity River.

Here in the Stockyards, cowboys and culture combine at the world’s only indoor rodeo held at the Cowtown Coliseum every Friday and Saturday night. Kids can join the mutton scramble during the intermission to chase a sheep for a prize. On Exchange Ave., everyone can climb on a live (and very docile) “picture steer” for a photo.

There’s the free Cowtown Opry on Sundays if you want to hear cowboy songs. ThePawnee Bill’s Wild West Show and the mock gunfights inside Stockyards Station are a little hokey but fun for a laugh.

“We’re working the cowboy gig,” acknowledges Eats Beat food writer Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram over a meal of “glorified chuckwagon cooking” at Reata.

“This is where the West begins and where the East thins out,” Kennedy adds, reciting a popular swipe at rival city Dallas to the east.

Reata is downtown but really should expand to the Stockyards, which works a family-friendly vibe by day and a Vegas vibe at night.

This is where people come to eat, drink and carouse.

You can drink on the street. You can have a beer at the bars inside Maverick Fine Western Wear or Fincher’s White Front Western Wear. You and 5,999 others can cut loose at Billy Bob’s Texas, a 100,000-sq.-ft. honkytonk with live music, line dancing, professional bull riding, gambling and a photo bull (this one is stuffed).

Be sure to stay at the Stockyards Hotel. Bonnie and Clyde were guests in 1933 and their actual room is booked months in advance. This hotel oozes Old West charm and the rooms open with old-fashioned keys instead of swipe cards.

You’ll find earplugs beside your bed.

“Sometimes it gets pretty wild around here and the walls are thin,” advises front desk staffer Erik Chipman. “I won’t go into details, but guests have fun and then the streets get pretty wild.”

The earplugs are officially called “cowboy silencers — the cure for loud cowboys.”

Jennifer Bain was hosted by the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, which didn’t review or approve this story.

When You Go

Get there:

It’s a 2.5- to three-hour direct flight with Air Canada to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and then a 30-kilometre drive west to Fort Worth.

Get around:

Public transportation isn’t great, so rent a car or take taxis. Molly the Trolley is a free, vintage downtown trolley that runs every 15 minutes between the convention centre and Sundance Square. On Saturdays, Molly goes to the Stockyards for $1.75 (U.S.)

Stay:

The Stockyards Hotel (stockyardshotel.com) oozes personality and was one of Bonnie and Clyde’s hideouts.

Hyatt Place Fort Worth Historic Stockyards (stockyards.place.hyatt.com) is in the heart of the action and has free breakfast.

Omni Fort Worth Hotel (omnihotels.com) is ultra-modern, downtown, with multiple restaurants, Starbucks and a rooftop pool.