Roping, riding, and bronco busting all form part of one of the oldest American spectator competitions, the rodeo. What began as a way for working cowboys to blow off steam has developed into a lucrative international skills competition replete with glitzy costumes, whooping audiences, and Broadway production values. Less violent than wrestling and even smellier than the circus, rodeo remains an enormously popular family entertainment option across the United States and Canada.
Traditionally, rodeo competition consists of eight events divided into two categories: rough stock and timed. In rough stock events, cowboys (or, in some instances, cowgirls) try to ride bucking horses or bulls for a specified length of time. The traditional rough stock events are bareback bronco riding (or "busting"), saddled bronco riding, and bull riding.
In timed events, contestants must complete a certain task, such as roping a steer, within a required number of seconds. The five traditional timed rodeo events are calf roping, steer wrestling, team roping, steer roping, and barrel racing. Customarily, female competitors take part only in barrel racing, a precision equestrian event that involves riding a horse in a cloverleaf pattern around an array of barrels. The advent of all-female rodeos, however, has resulted in the easing of this restriction.
The word rodeo derives from the Spanish word rodear, meaning to encircle or surround. Spanish settlers in sixteenth-century Mexico used the word rodeo to refer to a cattle round-up. It did not attain its present-day meaning—that of a skills competition devoted to roundup events—until the late nineteenth century. At that time, cowboys looked forward to the Fourth of July holiday (or "Cowboy Christmas" as it was also called) as an opportunity, not to grill up some burgers and set off some fireworks, but to ride through town roping steers and corralling them in the public square. Eventually, this activity was systematized into a form resembling today's organized rodeos.
A number of states, including Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming, take credit for being the birthplace of rodeo, though its true place of parentage is unclear. Cheyenne, Wyoming, was the scene of one of the first anarchic exhibitions, on Independence Day in 1872, when a band of cowboys thundered down its main drag on the backs of unruly steers. The next year, bronco busting was added to the mix, and thus began the diversification of activities that led to today's eight standard rodeo events.
Buffalo Bill Cody became one of the first impresarios of the rodeo during the 1880s. In 1883, Cody and others formed Buffalo Bill's Wild West, a traveling show that toured the United States and parts of Europe. The show included a mock battle with Indians and a demonstration of Cody's shooting skill. In addition, cowboys competed for prizes in the arenas of roping, riding, and bronco busting, and there was always a show-stopping bull ride finale. Cody used the term "rodeo" to sell these extravaganzas to a fascinated public. Sometimes as many as a thousand cowboys participated.
By the 1890s, rodeos had proliferated throughout the cattle-raising regions of the American west. Over time, they spread to other areas of the country as well. Today, rodeos are held in many parts of the United States, Canada, and Australia. The sport's continuing popularity can be credited to its increasing concentration on entertainment value, as a one-time leisure pursuit for drunken cowboys metastasized into a multi-million dollar entertainment extravaganza.
Nowhere were the changes in rodeo more visible than in the contributions of its female participants. Though barred from competing in many of the events, women made significant contributions to the rodeo from its very beginnings. Female equestrian performers carved out a niche with their acrobatic feats, pleasing crowds with their ability to balance themselves on two horses as they traversed the arena. When allowed to take part in the more rough-and-tumble events, they invariably wowed spectators with their steer-roping and bronco-busting prowess.
Women achieved their most noticeable impact on rodeo, however, in the area of costuming. In the early days of motion pictures, many female rodeo performers found that winning rodeo championships was a surefire way to break into silent films, so they began wearing highly decorated outfits to attract the attention of talent scouts. Bright-colored leggings and red velvet skirts with embroidered hems eventually gave way to bold pants, silk blouses, and eye-catching neckerchiefs. Rodeo fans became so enamored with these costumes that they soon demanded the men wear them also—to the chagrin of the blue jeaned and brown-shirted cowboys. Glitzy get-ups like the one worn by Robert Redford in the 1979 film The Electric Horseman became de rigueur for the rodeo set, giving the sport a raucous game-show quality that turned off some purists while winning many new adherents nationwide.
Over the decades, rodeo's "new adherents" turned up in some strange places. Prison rodeo was, for many years, a popular event in America's Southern penitentiaries, but in recent years it has been deemed cruel and unusual—or at least politically incorrect. The Angola Prison Rodeo, conducted annually at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, now stands as the only remaining competition of its kind. The official rodeo program promises "inmate cowboys flying off the backs of those bulls like corn in a popper."
With its incongruously festive atmosphere, the Angola Prison Rodeo features food booths and a fenced-in bazaar where inmates can sell their handicrafts. Many of the events are unique to Angola and only tangentially derived from rodeo. In fact, the activities of the Roman Coliseum may be a more apt antecedent. In one popular event, "Convict Poker," four inmates sit at a table in the center of the arena and a bull is released. A perverse game of chicken ensues, in which the convict who remains seated longest wins. The showstopper of every prison rodeo is the "Guts and Glory Challenge," in which an especially ferocious bull enters the ring with horns painted bright orange and a $100 chit attached to the front of its head. A group of inmates (whose typical salary for prison work is four cents an hour) are then given three minutes to subdue the beast long enough to retrieve the chit.
Whatever their quarrels with the mainstream culture, the gay and lesbian community has not remained immune from the charm of rodeo either. The idea for a "gay rodeo" originated with Reno, Nevada, gay activist Phil Ragsdale in 1975. It was Ragsdale who decided that a rodeo for homosexuals might be a good way to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). At first, Ragsdale was not able to find any ranchers willing to lease livestock for the spectacle, but eventually the animals were procured and the rodeo went on as scheduled. Crowds were sparse the first year, but Ragsdale opted to keep it as an annual event. The extravaganza became known as the National Reno Gay Rodeo and raised thousands of dollars for MDA over the first decade of its existence.
In fact, gay rodeo became so popular that it eventually spread to other localities—and other countries as well. In 1985, the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) was formed with the express intention of "fostering national and international amateur rodeo and other equestrian competition and related arts, crafts and activities which encourage the education on or preservation of Country/Western lifestyle heritage." The group immediately ratified bylaws, approved events, and standardized rodeo rules, largely along the same lines as traditional rodeo. By 1999, the IGRA was comprised of 19 Member Associations representing 22 states, the District of Columbia, and two Canadian Provinces.
—Robert E. Schnakenberg
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Wooden, Wayne S., and Gavin Ehringer. Rodeo in America: Wranglers, Roughstock, and Paydirt. Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 1996.
ro·de·o / ˈrōdēˌō; rəˈdāō/ • n. (pl. -de·os) 1. an exhibition or contest in which cowboys show their skill at riding broncos, roping calves, wrestling steers, etc. ∎ a similar exhibition or contest demonstrating other skills, such as motorcycle riding or canoeing. 2. a roundup of cattle on a ranch for branding, counting, etc. ∎ an enclosure for such a roundup. • v. (-de·oed, -de·o·ing) [intr.] compete in a rodeo. ORIGIN: mid 19th cent.: from Spanish, from rodear ‘go around,’ based on Latin rotare ‘rotate.’