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Since the first attempts to domesticate animals, humans have been pitted against them. Civilizations throughout time and across the world have a history of providing spectacles of man versus beast. Rodeos of today reflect elements from each of these cultures.

The rodeo of North America is different, however, from all other events involving humans and animals due to the presence of one character: the cowboy. The beginnings of rodeo are tied to the men who worked cattle from the back of a horse. Cowboys were hired as laborers by cattlemen to drive feral cattle (longhorns) across the plains from Texas to Kansas and Missouri, where they were put on railroad cars and shipped to eastern markets. Cattle drives across the open plains lasted only thirty years, with the peak from 1870 through the 1880s. By the close of the 1880s, the long cattle drives were losing their usefulness and importance. The decline was due to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869 as well as the change from herding wild longhorn cattle across open plains to the raising of docile Herefords, imported from England, in fencedin range land.

Though cattle drives had ended, the life and romantic image of the western cowboy did not. Working cowboys still had to round up cattle off the range, to count and brand spring calves, and to attend to the sick ones. The roundups were a relished time for cowboys; it was a time to see people and hear all the local news. It was a time for drinking, gambling, running footraces, and having "cowboy fun"—roping and bronc-riding contests and horse racing. The term bronc is a colloquialism for bronco, which is a partially-tamed or wild horse. The cowboy fun of the late 1800s and early 1900s closely resembles what is called rodeo today, which is no accident. As Michael Allen notes, "Rodeo is derived from the Spanish verb rodear, meaning 'to encircle' or 'to round up,' and American rodeo is a direct descendant of the work festivals of early North American cowboys," (p. 16).

The Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame indicates that the first recorded rodeo contest was held in eastern Colorado near a town called Deer Trail in 1869; the event was bronc riding. The contest involved cowboys from two rival ranches, and each group bet on their best rough rider. There were no rules, no spectators, and no entry fees, and the cowboys were the judges. The winner, Emilnie Gradenshire, an Englishman, received no cash reward, but the cowhands from his ranch gave him a new suit of clothes.

In the 1880s, rodeo contests became commonplace in western towns. At typical organized events, spectators paid admission, officials judged the events, and winners received cash prizes. The events at the rodeo were also becoming standardized.

Standard Events in Rodeo

In modern rodeo, there are four timed events and three roughstock events. The timed events include steer wrestling, calf roping, team roping, and barrel racing. The roughstock events are bareback, saddle bronc, and bull riding. While women are not barred from competing in any of these events by the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA), large numbers of women have not competed in any of the events except for barrel racing.

Timed Events In the steer wrestling event, the cowboy jumps from a running horse and wrestles a steer to the ground. The "bulldogger" (the cowboy wrestling the steer) is assisted by another cowboy called a hazer. The hazer rides on another horse alongside the steer to keep the steer running straight. With the steer between the hazer and the bulldogger, the bulldogger leans from his horse, grabs the steer's horns, then jumps from his horse and, using his momentum, drops with the steer to the ground.

The objective of the cowboy in the calf-roping event is to rope and tie a running calf. Both horse and calf start running from chutes—small holding areas in the arena—with the calf getting a head start. As the roper approaches the calf, he swings the loop of his rope over his head and then casts it toward the calf. Once the calf is caught in the rope (the most common catch is around the head) the roper quickly pulls the slack out of the rope as the horse slides to a stop. As the roper dismounts the horse to run to the calf, the horse keeps the line taut. Grabbing the flank of the calf, the roper throws the calf to the ground. Using a six-foot rope called a "pigging string," the roper ties three of the calf's legs together.

The team-roping event involves two cowboys, a header and a heeler, and a steer. Both cowboys and steer leave the chutes with the steer between the cowboys. The header, riding in the lead, ropes the steer's horns and moves to the side so the heeler can move into position to cast his rope. The heeler is aiming to catch both back legs. If only one is caught, a five-second penalty is added to the team's time. After the heeler tightens his rope, both cowboys must face each other with the steer between them.

In professional rodeos, barrel racing is the only all-female event. Most PRCA rodeos have barrel racing, but in American rodeos it is considered an optional event and is governed by the Women's Professional Rodeo Association (WRPA). In this event, the horse and rider enter the arena, and the cowgirl directs her horse into a sprint. The clock starts when the horse crosses an electronic timing signal. The rider guides the horse through a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels crisscrossing the arena. After the horse has circled the last barrel, it runs full speed back to the starting line. While technically considered an optional event, barrel racing is the most popular and exciting event in the rodeo next to bull riding.

Roughstock Events While the goal of timed events is speed, roughstock events capitalize on the style of the cowboy.

In bareback riding the cowboy mounts the horse in a chute. The horse does not have a saddle but a strap running around its girth. The cowboy holds on to a rawhide "suitcase" handle that is attached to the strap. The event starts by the chute door opening and the cowboy leaning back and spurring the horse. The cowboy must "mark" or spur the horse on the first jump. If a rider doesn't mark the horse he is disqualified. The rider has eight seconds to perform the best style of bucking on the back of the horse and is judged on his style and ability to spur the horse.

Of the three roughstock events, saddle bronc riding is the only one whose roots are in ranch life. The event is similar to bareback riding, but the horse is saddled. The rider is again judged on his style and ability to spur the horse; failure to mark the horse on the first jump results in the rider being disqualified.

Compared to most other cowboys, bull riders are small, averaging 150 pounds. The bulls they attempt to ride can weigh ten times that weight. The event starts in a chute with the rider mounting the bull's back. The only handhold is a specially plaited rope that encircles the bull just behind its front legs. In order to successfully ride such a massive animal that is capable of jumping five feet in the air, the bull rider relies on his sense of balance, timing, and anticipation of the bull's moves. The bull rider is not expected to mark the bull as in bareback and saddle bronc riding; rather he is judged on his showmanship and riding skills. The bull wants the rider off his back and tries to do this by bucking, jumping, spinning, and cranking his head from side to side to get at the cowboy. After the bull rider either falls off or dismounts following a successful ride, bull fighters (not rodeo clowns) distract the bull to keep the rider safe.

Varieties of American Rodeo

The most common and highly publicized rodeos are the PRCA-sponsored events with men competing in all of the events except barrel racing. There are variations to PRCA events, however, that receive less media coverage and mass appeal yet serve specific cultural and ethnic groups. Several rodeo associations have formed to represent these specific groups and allow riders to participate without facing prejudice or discrimination. Specialty rodeos include Mexican American or Hispanic rodeo; Native American rodeo; Hawaiian rodeo; Black American rodeo; gay rodeo; celebrity rodeo; prison rodeo; police, firefighter, and military rodeo; senior rodeo; and women's rodeo.

See also: Western America Leisure Lifestyles, Wild West Shows


Allen, Michael. Rodeo Cowboys in the North American Imagination. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998.

Fredriksson, Kristine. American Rodeo, from Buffalo Bill to Big Business. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985.

LeCompte, Mary Lou. Cowgirls of the Rodeo: Pioneer Professional Athletes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Wooden, Wayne S., and Gavin Ehring. Rodeo in America: Wranglers, Roughstock and Paydirt. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Patti A. Freeman

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