Rodeo is a competitive sport which arose out of the working practices of cattle herding in Spain, Mexico, and later the United States, Canada, South America and Australia. It was based on the skills required of the working vaqueros and later, cowboys, in what today is the western United States, western Canada, and northern Mexico. Today it is a sporting event that consists of events that involve horses and other livestock, designed to test the skill and speed of the human cowboy and cowgirl athletes who participate. Professional rodeos generally comprise the following events: Tie-down roping, Team Roping, Steer wrestling, Saddle bronc riding, Bareback Bronc-Riding, Bull riding and Barrel racing. The events are divided into two basic categories: the rough stock events and the timed events. Depending on sanctioning organization and region, other events such as breakaway roping, goat tying, or pole bending may also be a part of some rodeos.
Rodeo has provoked opposition from animal rights and animal welfare advocates, who argue that various competitions constitute animal cruelty. The American rodeo industry has made progress in improving the welfare of rodeo animals, with specific requirements for veterinary care and other regulations that protect rodeo animals. However rodeo is opposed by a number of animal welfare organizations in the United States and Canada. Some local and state governments in North America have banned or restricted rodeos, certain rodeo events, or types of equipment. Internationally, rodeo is banned in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, with other European nations placing restrictions on certain practices.
The term rodeo was first used in English in approximately 1834 to refer to a cattle round-up. Today the word is used primarily to refer to a public exhibition of cowboy skills, usually in the form of a competitive event.
In the 1970s, rodeo saw unprecedented growth. Contestants referred to as "the new breed" brought rodeo increasing media attention. These contestants were young, often from an urban background, and chose rodeo for its athletic rewards. By 1985, one third of PRCA members had a college education and one half of the competitors had never worked on a cattle ranch. Today, some professional rodeos are staged in large, air-conditioned arenas; offer large purses, and are often telecast. Many other professional rodeos are held outside, under the same conditions of heat, cold, dust or mud as were the original events.
Historically, women have long participated in rodeo. "Prairie Rose" Henderson debuted at the Cheyenne rodeo in 1901, and, by 1920, women were competing in rough stock events, relay races and trick riding. But after Bonnie McCarrol died in the Pendleton Round-Up in 1929 and Marie Gibson died in a horse wreck in 1933, women's competitive participation was curbed. Rodeo women organized into various associations and staged their own rodeos. Today, women's barrel racing is included as a competitive event in professional rodeo, with breakaway roping and goat tying added at collegiate and lower levels. They compete equally with men in team roping, sometimes in mixed-sex teams. Women also compete in traditional roping and rough stock events at women-only rodeos.
Professional rodeos in the United States and Canada usually incorporate both timed events and "rough stock" events, most commonly calf roping, team roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc and bareback bronc riding, bull riding, and barrel racing. Additional events may be included at the collegiate and high school level, including breakaway roping and goat tying. Some events are based on traditional ranch practices; others are modern developments and have no counterpart in ranch practice.
Roping competitions are based on the tasks of a working cowboy, who often had to capture calves and adult cattle for branding, medical treatment and other purposes. The cowboy must throw a type of rope with a loop, known as a lariat, riata or reata, or lasso, over the head of a calf or onto the horns and around the hind legs of adult cattle, and secure the animal in a fashion dictated by its size and age.
- Calf Roping, also called Tie-down roping, is based on ranch work in which calves are roped for branding, medical treatment, or other purposes. It is the oldest of rodeo's timed events. The cowboy ropes a running calf around the neck with a lariat, and his horse stops and sets back on the rope while the cowboy dismounts, runs to the calf, throws it to the ground and ties three feet together. (If the calf falls when roped, the cowboy must lose time waiting for the calf to get back to its feet so that the cowboy can do the work. The job of the horse is to hold the calf steady on the rope. A well-trained calf-roping horse will slowly back up while the cowboy ties the calf, to help keep the lariat snug.
- Breakaway roping - a form of calf roping where a very short lariat is used, tied lightly to the saddle horn with string and a flag. When the calf is roped about the neck, the horse stops, the flagged rope breaks free of the saddle, and the calf runs on without being thrown or tied. In most of the United States, this event is primarily for women of all ages and boys under 12. In some nations and states where traditional "tie-down" calf roping is not allowed, riders of both genders compete.
- Team roping, also called "heading and heeling," is the only rodeo event where men and women riders compete together. Two people capture and restrain a full-grown steer. One horse and rider, the "header," lassos a running steer's horns, while the other horse and rider, the "heeler," lassos the steer's two hind legs. Once the animal is captured, the riders face each other and lightly pull the steer between them, so that it loses its balance and lies down. This technique originated from methods of capture and restraint for treatment used on a ranch.
Other timed events
- Barrel racing - is a timed speed and agility event. In barrel racing, horse and rider gallop around a cloverleaf pattern of barrels, making agile turns without knocking the barrels over. In professional, collegiate and high school rodeo, barrel racing is an exclusively women's sport, though men and boys occasionally compete at local O-Mok-See competition.
- Steer wrestling - Also known as "Bulldogging," is a rodeo event where the rider jumps off his horse onto a Corriente steer and 'wrestles' it to the ground by grabbing it by the horns. This is probably the single most physically dangerous event in rodeo for the cowboy, who runs a high risk of jumping off a running horse head first and missing the steer, or of having the thrown steer land on top of him, sometimes horns first.
- Goat tying is usually an event for women or pre-teen girls and boys; a goat is staked out while a mounted rider runs to the goat, dismounts, grabs the goat, throws it to the ground and ties it in the same manner as a calf. The horse must not come into contact with the goat or its tether. This event was designed to teach smaller or younger riders the basics of calf roping without requiring the more complex skill of roping the animal. This event is not part of professional rodeo competition.
In spite of popular myth, most modern "broncs" are not in fact wild horses, but are more commonly spoiled riding horses or horses bred specifically as bucking stock. Rough stock events also use at least two well-trained riding horses ridden by "pick up men" (or women), tasked with assisting fallen riders and helping successful riders get safely off the bucking animal.
- Bronc riding - there are two divisions in rodeo, bareback bronc riding, where the rider is only allowed to hang onto a bucking horse with a type of surcingle called a "rigging"; and saddle bronc riding, where the rider uses a specialized western saddle without a horn (for safety) and hangs onto a heavy lead rope, called a bronc rein, which is attached to a halter on the horse.
- Bull riding - an event where the cowboys ride full-grown bulls instead of horses. Although skills and equipment similar to those needed for bareback bronc riding are required, the event differs considerably from horse riding competition due to the danger involved. Because bulls are unpredictable and may attack a fallen rider, rodeo clowns, now known as "bullfighters", work during bull-riding competition to distract the bulls and help prevent injury to competitors.
Outside of competitive events, other activities are often associated with rodeos, particularly at local levels. A typical rodeo begins with a "Grand Entry", in which mounted riders, many carrying flags, including the American flag, state flags, banners representing sponsors, and others enter the arena at a gallop, circle once, come to the center of the arena and stop while the remaining participants enter. The grand entry is used to introduce some of the competitors, officials, and sponsors. It is capped by the presentation of the American flag, usually with a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and, depending on region, other ceremonies. If a rodeo queen is crowned, the contestants or winner and runners-up may also be presented.
Variety acts, which may include musicians, trick riders or other entertainment may occur halfway through the rodeo at intermission. Some rodeos may also include novelty events, such as steer riding for preteens or "mutton busting" for small children. In some places, various types of novelty races or events such as wild cow milking are offered for adults. Such contests often are unregulated, with a higher risk of injury to human participants and poor treatment of animals than in traditionally-sanctioned events, particularly if consumption of alcoholic beverages by participants is permitted.
Numerous organizations govern rodeo in the United States, each with slightly different rules and different events. The oldest and largest sanctioning body of professional rodeo is the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) which governs about a third of all rodeos staged in the US annually. It was originally named the Cowboys Turtle Association, later became the Rodeo Cowboys Association, and finally the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1975. The PRCA crowns the World Champions at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), in Las Vegas, featuring the top fifteen money-winners in seven events.
The Professional Bull Riders (PBR) is a more recent organization dedicated solely to bull riding. Rodeo gender bias was a problem for cowgirls and in response, women formed the Girls Rodeo Association in 1948 (now the Women's Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA)) and held their own rodeos. The Women's Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) is open exclusively to women. Women’s barrel racing is governed by the WPRA, which holds finals for barrel racing along with the PRCA with the cowboys at the NFR. There are associations governing children's, teen, and college level rodeos as well as associations governing rodeo for gays, seniors, Native Americans and others.
There are also high-school rodeos, sponsored by the National High School Rodeo Association (NHSRA). Many colleges, particularly land grant colleges in the west, have rodeo teams. The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) is responsible for the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) held each June in Casper, WY. Other rodeo governing bodies in the United States include American Junior Rodeo Association (AJRA) for contestants under twenty years of age; National Little Britches Rodeo Association (NLBRA), for youths ages eight to eighteen; Senior Pro Rodeo (SPR), for people forty years old or over; and the International Gay Rodeo Association. Each organization has its own regulations and its own method of determining champions. Athletes must participate only in rodeos sanctioned by their own governing body or one that has a mutual agreement with theirs. Rodeo committees must pay sanctioning fees to the appropriate governing bodies, and employ the needed stock contractors, judges, announcers, bull fighters, and barrel men from their approved lists. Other nations have similar sanctioning organizations.
Until recently, the most important was PRCA, which crowns the World Champions at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), held since 1985 at Las Vegas, Nevada, featuring the top fifteen money-winners in seven events. The athletes who have won the most money, including NFR earnings, in each event are the World’s Champions. However, since 1992, Professional Bull Riders, Inc. (PBR) has drawn many top bull riders, and holds its own multi- million dollar finals in Las Vegas prior to the NFR. Women’s barrel racing is governed by the WPRA, and holds its finals along with the PRCA with the cowboys at the NFR.
Contemporary rodeo is a lucrative business. More than 7,500 cowboys compete for over thirty million dollars at 650 rodeos annually. Women’s barrel racing, sanctioned by the WRPA, has taken place at most of these rodeos. Over 2,000 barrel racers compete for nearly four million dollars annually. Professional cowgirls also compete in bronc and bull riding, team roping and calf roping under the auspices of the PWRA, a WPRA subsidiary. However, numbers are small, about 120 members, and these competitors go largely unnoticed, with only twenty rodeos and seventy individual contests available annually. The total purse at the PWRA National Finals is $50,000. Meanwhile, the PBR has 700 members from three continents and ten million dollars in prize money.
Over the years, conditions for animals in rodeo and many other sporting events improved. Today, the PRCA and other rodeo sanctioning organizations have stringent regulations to ensure rodeo animals' welfare. For example, these rules require, among other things, provisions for injured animals, a veterinarian's presence at all rodeos (a similar requirement exists for other equine events), padded flank straps, horn protection for steers, and spurs with dulled, free-spinning rowels. Rodeo competitors in general value and provide excellent care to the animals with which they work. Animals must also be protected with fleece-lined flank straps for bucking stock and horn wraps for roping steers.
Laws governing rodeo vary widely. In the American west, some states incorporate the regulations of the PRCA into their statutes as a standard by which to evaluate if animal cruelty has occurred. On the other hand, some events and practices are restricted or banned in other states, including California, Rhode Island, and Ohio.St. Petersburg, Florida is the only locality in the United States with a complete ban on rodeo. Canadian Humane Societies are careful in criticizing Canadian rodeo as the event as become so indigenous to Western Canada that criticism may jeopardize support for the organization's other humane goals. The Calgary Humane Society itself is wary of criticizing the famous Calgary Stampede. Internationally, Rodeo itself is banned in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. with other European nations placing restrictions on certain practices.
However, a number of humane and animal rights organizations have policy statements that oppose many rodeo practices, and often the events themselves. Some also claim that regulations vary from vague to ineffective, and are frequently violated.
In response to these concerns, a number of cities and states, mostly in the eastern half of the United States, have passed ordinances and laws governing rodeo. Pittsburgh, for example, specifically prohibits electric prods or shocking devices, flank or bucking straps, wire tie-downs, and sharpened or fixed spurs or rowels. Pittsburgh also requires humane officers be provided access to any and all areas where animals may go—specifically pens, chutes, and injury pens. The state of Rhode Island has banned tie-down roping and certain other practices. Other locales have similar ordinances and laws.
Some accusations of cruelty are based on misunderstanding. For example, it is a myth that a bucking horse is a wild, terrified animal. The modern bronc is not a truly feral horse. A significant number of bucking horses are riding horses that learned to buck off their riders. Many bucking horses today are specifically bred for use in rodeos. A proven bucking horse can be sold for $8000 to $10,000, making "rough stock" a valuable investment worth caring for and keeping in good health for many years. Likewise, bucking bulls are also selectively bred. Most are allowed to grow up in a natural, semi-wild condition on the open range, but also have to be trained in order to be managed from the ground, safely loaded into trailers, vaccinated and wormed, and be loaded in and out of bucking chutes.
Young bucking horses are initially introduced to work with cloth dummies attached to the saddle. Others are already well-trained on the ground. Some champion bucking horses got their start as spoiled riding horses that learned to quickly and effectively unseat riders. Due to the rigors of travel and the short bursts of high intensity work required, most horses in a bucking string are at least 6 or 7 years old before they are used extensively, and are expected to be sound performers for many years. Awards are given to the owners of the best bucking horses, who are respected as equine athletes and perform for many years. Many are retired to pasture at the end of their careers. Many bucking horses understand their job well and reduce or stop their bucking, even while still wearing a flank strap, as soon as they either unseat the rider or hear the buzzer. Likewise, some bulls appear to understand that their "job" is to throw the rider; they learned not to buck when in the chute and buck far less once the rider is thrown.
Advocates for rodeo state that sick, injured, hungry, or severely abused animals cannot perform well in a given event. Rough stock must be healthy and well fed to give the cowboy a powerful and challenging ride sufficient to obtain a high score. The bucking strap has to be an incentive to an animal that already wants to buck off a rider, not a prod, or the animal will either flee the pain, not buck, quickly sour and refuse to work, regardless of any pain that might be inflicted. Steers and roping calves will not break from the chute fast enough for ropers to achieve a fast time if they are lame or weak, and they are not generally used for more than a single season.
Health regulations mandate vaccinations and blood testing of animals crossing state lines, so rodeo stock receives routine care. An injured animal will not buck well and hence a cowboy cannot obtain a high score for his ride, so sick or injured animals are not run through the chutes, but instead are given appropriate veterinary care so they can be returned to their usual level of strength and power. PRCA regulations require veterinarians to be available at all rodeos to treat both bucking stock and other animals as needed.
The PRCA emphasizes that they first promulgated rules for proper and humane treatment of livestock in 1947, a full 7 years before the founding of the Humane Society of the United States. Participants are fined for animal abuse, and a study of 21 PRCA rodeos found only 15 animals injured in 26,584 performances, a 0.06 percent rate.
On the other hand, there are occasions of rule violations and animal mistreatment at sanctioned rodeos. However, the major national rodeos are also under the most intense scrutiny and are the most likely to rigorously follow the rules. Rodeos not subject to the rules of the PRCA or other organizations, and rodeos outside of the United States and Canada, where animal cruelty laws are weaker, are more likely to be the sites of abusive practices. However, animal rights groups are less likely to target these cases.
Anthropologists studying the sport of rodeo and the culture surrounding it have commented that it is "a blend of both performance and contest", and that rodeo is far more expressive in blending both these aspects than attempting to stand alone on one or the other. Rodeo's performance level permits pageantry and ritual which serve to "revitalize the spirit of the Old West" while its contest level poses a man-animal opposition that articulates the transformation of nature and "dramatizes and perpetuates the conflict between the wild and the tame." "On its deepest level, rodeo is essentially a ritual addressing itself to the dilemma of man's place in nature."
Rodeo is a popular topic in country-western music, such as the 1991 Garth Brooks hit single "Rodeo", and has also been featured in numerous movies, television programs and in literature. Rodeo is a ballet score written by Aaron Copland in 1942, and choreographer Agnes de Mille's ballet, Rodeo was commissioned by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1942 with the Copeland score. The late country singer Chris Ledoux competed in bareback riding and wrote many of his songs based on his experiences.