See C. P. Westermeier, Man, Beast, Dust (1947, repr. 1987); M. S. Robertson, Rodeo (1961); F. Schnell, Rodeo (1971); K. Fredriksson, American Rodeo (1985).
Sport involving a series of contests derived from North American cowboy skills. Rodeos typically feature competitive or exhibition bronco riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, and Brahma bull riding. The sport developed from informal competitions among cowboys held from the mid-19th century. Denver is traditionally accepted as the birthplace of paid spectator rodeo, in 1887. The oldest surviving annual show is the Frontier Days celebration in Cheyenne, Wyo. (established 1897). The Calgary Stampede has been held annually in Alberta, Can., since 1923. In calf roping and steer wrestling, the contestant seeks to bring down the animal in the shortest possible time. In riding events, contestants seek to stay on their mounts as long as possible and are awarded points for style, control, and other factors.
Learn more about rodeo with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Rodeo (or /roʊˈdeɪoʊ/) is a 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, of what today is the western United States, western Canada, and northern Mexico. Today it is a sporting event that consists of several different timed and judged events that involve cattle and horses, designed to test the skill and speed of the human cowboy and cowgirl athletes who participate.
Rodeo, particularly popular today within the Canadian province of Alberta and throughout the western United States, is the official state sport of Wyoming and Texas, and the iconic silhouette image of a Bucking Horse and Rider is a federal and state registered trademark of the State of Wyoming.
In North America, the traditional season for competitive rodeo runs from spring through fall. The traditional peak time for the largest number of rodeos is the July 4th weekend. The modern professional rodeo circuit runs longer, and concludes with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas, Nevada which is now held in December.
Rodeo has provoked protest and opposition from animal rights advocates who argue that various competitions constitute animal cruelty. In some cases, these groups have succeeded in having a number of local municipalities ban or restrict certain events.
The Spanish word is derived from the verb rodear, meaning "to surround" or "go around," used to refer to "a pen for cattle at a fair or market," derived from the Latin rota or rotare, meaning to rotate or go around.
In Spanish America, the rodeo was the vaqueros' procedure for gathering up cattle for various purposes such as moving them to new pastures or to slaughter (matanza). The term was also used to refer to exhibitions of skills used in the working rodeo, and it is this latter usage which was adopted into the cowboy tradition of the United States and Canada.
The term rodeo was first used in English approximately 1834 to refer to a cattle round-up.
Rodeo events in the United States and Canada include the following forms of competition:
Roping encompasses a number of timed events that are based on the real-life tasks of a working cowboy, who often had to capture calves and adult cattle for branding, medical treatment and other purposes. A lasso or lariat is thrown over the head of a calf or the horns and heels of adult cattle, and the animal is secured in a fashion dictated by its size and age.
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 well-trained riding horses ridden by "pick up men" (or women), of whom there are usually at least two, tasked with assisting fallen riders and helping successful riders get safely off the bucking animal.
Many rodeo events were based on the real life tasks required by cattle ranching. The working cowboy developed skills to fit the needs of the terrain and climate of the American west, and had many regional variations. However, the skills required to manage cattle and horses date back even farther, to the Spanish traditions of the vaquero.
Early rodeos were informal events in both Mexico and the United States where cowboys and vaqueros tested their skills against one another. Early competitions were noted by the mid-1860s, and by the late 1800s, there were several formal competitive rodeos as well as traveling Wild West Shows that featured rodeo activities as a form of entertainment. By 1910, several major rodeos were established in western North America, including the Calgary Stampede, the Pendleton Round-Up, and the Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Rodeo-type events also became popular for a time in the big cities of the Eastern United States, with venues such as Madison Square Garden playing a part in popularizing them. However, there was no attempt to standardize the events needed to make up rodeo competition until 1929.
There are numerous organizations governing rodeo today, each with slightly different rules, different roles for women, and different events.
The oldest and largest sanctioning body of professional rodeo is the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) which sanctions around 700 rodeos annually. It was originally named the Cowboys Turtle Association, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the speed at which cowboys organized themselves. The Professional Bull Riders (PBR) is a more recent organization dedicated solely to bull riding. The Women's Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) is open exclusively to women age 18 and over. 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.
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. Other locales have similar ordinances and laws.
Groups such as PETA, SHARK, and the Humane Society of the United States generally take a position of opposition to all rodeos and rodeo events. A more general position is taken by the ASPCA, only opposing rodeo events that "involve cruel, painful, stressful and potentially harmful treatment of livestock, not only in performance but also in handling, transport and prodding to perform." The group singles out children’s rodeo events such as goat tying, calf riding and sheep riding (“mutton busting”), "which do not promote humane care and respect for animals."
The American Humane Association (AHA) does not appear to oppose rodeos per se, though they have a general position on events and contests involving animals, stating that "when animals are involved in entertainment, they must be treated humanely at all times. The AHA also has strict requirements for the treatment of animals used for rodeo scenes in movies, starting with the rules of the PRCA and adding additional requirements consistent with the association's other policies.
Unique among animal protection groups, the ASPCA specifically notes that practice sessions are often the location of more severe abuses than competitions. However, many state animal cruelty laws provide specific exemptions for "training practices." The American Humane Association is the only organization addressing the legislative issue, advocating the strengthening of animal cruelty laws in general, with no exceptions for "training practices.
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. Likewise, some bulls appear to understand that their "job" is to throw the rider and have learned not to buck when in the chute.
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.
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.