Rodeo stresses the Old West, rugged individualism, Western folk heroes, patriotism, and that what is genuinely unique to America. While it may have grew out of the Spanish ranchers and the Vaqueros, as a mixture of cattle wrangling and bull fighting that’s said to date back to the sixteenth-century conquistadors, it is all American.
Rodeo is a competitive sport which comes out of the working ranch, the skills and traditions of cattle herding in Spain, Old Mexico, Texas, Florida, Spanish California, and the Old West. The word itself is interesting in the fact that it comes from the Spanish verb "rodear" which in Spanish means to "surround." Specifically the Spanish noun "rodeo" refers to a "cattle roundup."
The rodeo was not originally a sporting event as it is today. It was in fact an integral part of cattle-ranching in areas of Spanish influence. The working rodeo was retained in parts of the Southwest even after the US-Mexico War. In fact, it was important enough to merit legal status in California.
In 1851, the newly formed state of California passed a bill to regulate rodeo, Act to Regulate Rodeos (April 3, 1851) which states the following:
“Every owner of a stock farm shall be obliged to give, yearly, one general Rodeo, within the limits of his farm, from the first day of April until the thirty-first day of July, in the counties of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and San Diego; and in the remaining counties, from the first day of March until the thirty-first day of August ... in order that parties interested may meet, for the purpose of separating their respective cattle."
This of course led to ranch-versus-ranch contests with bronc riding, bull riding, roping, and branding contests. Soon rodeos appeared at race tracks, fairgrounds, and festivals of all kinds in communities. The participants were usually working ranch cowboys who were there representing the ranch they worked for.
William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody created the first spectator rodeo and the first Wild West show in North Platte, Nebraska in 1882. Per the Wild West Museum there, "North Platte's Cody Park is the site of the world's first spectator rodeo, hosted by Buffalo Bill Cody in 1882." Following the success of that event, the Wild West Show and the Cowboy Exhibition evolved into the modern sport of Rodeo. Cody's touring Wild West show started it, but he left it to others to create what became professional rodeo.
Rodeos and Wild West shows employed many of the same cowboys. But let's face fact, it was also an effort to capitalize on the romanticism of the West during that time as well. In fact while women such as Annie Oakley joined Cody's Wild West Show, women were also becoming a part of rodeo.
The separation of rodeo and the Wild West Shows came when rodeo circuits were established by the 1890s. Rodeos were less showmanship and more sportsmanship by then. And as for both participants and spectators, both element grew as rodeo spread geographically.
Of course, being labeled a "sport" and not an actual working even meant that animal welfare groups began targeting rodeo from the earliest times. This has continued in varying degrees ever since.
Some rodeo events trace their history back to a simple dare from one cowboy to another, as is the case in bull riding. And while that may be the case for bull riding and steer wrestling, most of today's rodeos are based on the skills required of the working vaqueros and later the American cowboys on ranches in what is today the Western United States, Western Canada, and Northern Mexico.
Today, rodeo is a sport that consists of events involving horses and other livestock, designed to test the skill and speed of the cowboys and cowgirls who participate. The term "rodeo" has become a collective term which we use to refer to these sporting events as a whole. While the whole event is a rodeo, rodeos consist of many events.
They generally comprise of calf roping, team roping, saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, which were indeed things needed to be done on working ranches. But today they also have events such as barrel racing, steer wrestling, and bull riding which most legend says started out as challenges and dare between cowboys and cowgirls. Some rodeos, depending on what "sanctioning organization" and region of the country it's being held in, have other events such as breakaway roping, goat tying, or pole bending. Those events, may be a part of some rodeos but not others.
And please, don't make the mistake of thinking that rodeo today is not packed with a number if rules regarding competition. Fact is each event has its own set of detailed rules. As for a what those events entail, here's a small overview of the events and their rules. I think knowing what's taking place and the rules involved in each event will give you greater enjoyment when watching rodeos.
The Rough Stock
What the heck is "rough stock" you're asking? Well, rodeo events fall into one of two categories. They're either a "Riding Events" which are commonly called "Rough Stock" events, or "Timed Events."
Rough Stock includes events such as bull riding, bareback riding, and saddle bronc riding which of course is the the bucking broncs of unbroke horses. These are so dangerous, sadly on occasion some competitors have actually lost their lives while competing in those events.
"Stock" is the term used to refer to the livestock such as the bulls, broncs, calves and steers. Stock just refers to the animals. In the Rough Stock events, a competitor is judged and given a score if he or she is able to ride for the prerequisite 8 seconds. They're disqualified and given no score if they are bucked-off before the 8 seconds mark.
You can also be disqualified if the hand you have in the air for balance - which is known as the "free hand" - touches your body, the stock you are riding or your equipment, and there are various other rules to the events as well.
Bareback bronc riding is a rough and explosive rodeo event where cowboys ride rough horses without the benefit of saddle or rein.
It is said that bareback riding is the most physically demanding of all the rodeo events, and the first event to compete at most rodeos.
They ride "bareback" on the horse and use a leather rigging, which looks like a heavy piece of leather with a suitcase handle.
The cowboys ride one handed and cannot touch themselves or the horse with their free hand. As with saddle bronc riding, the mark out rule is in effect.
The cowboys spur the horse from shoulder to rigging, in a frantic style trying make a qualified ride of 8 seconds.
An event where a bucking bronc is rode without a saddle, but with a special rigging instead, for 8 seconds. When the 8 seconds has elapsed the rider's form and the horses' bucking and moves are judged for a score.
Scoring for this event is based half on the bucking action of the bronc, and half on the control and spurring technique of the rider.
Only allowed to grasp the "rigging" with one hand, the cowboy must stay on the horse for 8 seconds, and is disqualified if he touches his equipment, himself, or the animal with his free hand.
The bareback rider starts out in the chute with his feet placed above the break of the horse's shoulders.
If the cowboy's feet are not in the correct position when the horse hits the ground on the first jump out of the chute, the cowboy is disqualified for failing to "mark out" properly.
The cowboy then pulls his spurs along the horse's neck or shoulders towards himself while the bronc is in the air, then snapping his spurs back to the horse's neck just before its front feet hit the ground.
Once the ride is completed, pick-up men swoop in to 'pick up' the rider and set him safely on the ground.
Cowboys are judged on their control and spurring technique, and the horses are judged on their power, speed, and agility. A good score in the bareback riding is in the mid 80's.
Cowboys competing in bareback take a lot of punishment on their arm, neck, and back due to the power and quickness of the bareback horses.
Saddle Bronc Riding
Saddle Bronc Riding is the classic Old West ranching event of rodeo.
It is the oldest event of rodeo, and it traces its roots back to the Spanish and then the Old West where cowboys would break and train wild horses.
Known as rodeo’s classic event, saddle bronc riding is judged similarly to bareback bronc riding but there are additional possibilities to being disqualified.
That is, losing a stirrup or dropping the thickly braided rein that is attached to the horse’s halter.
The cowboy sits on the horse differently due to the saddle and rein, and the spurring motion covers a different area of the horse.
And just for the record, Saddle Broncs are usually several hundred pounds heavier than bareback horses. They also, generally speaking, buck in a slower manner than barebacks do.
An unbroke horse is also known as bronc, or bronco in some circles. Knothead in other places.
And yes, in the Old West, Bronc Busters or Bronco Busters were cowboys who breaks horses -- so that they could be ridden on a regular basis.
It is all about "breaking horses" to ride. That is the roots of this event, and it's traditions can be traced back to ranches where cowboys used similar skills to train the horses.
Agility, strength and bucking ability are some features of the horses used in these events. Bucking ability is an important part of this rodeo event.
The horse will raise its hindquarters and lower the head in order to overthrow the rider. This movement is known as bucking. Bucking is an instinctive movement of the horse and can be triggered by various factors.
Unlike the horses used in other rodeo events, these horses do not receive much training.
Additionally, these knotheads are bred in a semi-wild and natural environment.
Horses with high bucking ability are purchased by the stock owners for enormous sums of money and are used in Saddle Bronc Riding.
The horses used in rodeos today are generally between the ages of 6 and 7.
The saddles used in this sport do not have saddle horns. Furthermore, they are very light in weight.
A halter is placed on the head of these horses and a hack rein is attached to it. The cowboy can make use of the hack rein to maintain his position on the horse.
An event where a bucking bronc is rode with a saddle for 8 seconds. When the 8 seconds has elapsed the rider's form and the horses' bucking and moves are judged for a score.
Two judges are used in this competition. One rates the horse while the other awards points to the cowboy. Scoring for this event is based half on the bucking action of the bronc, and half on the control and spurring technique of the rider.
Only allowed to grasp the "bronc rein" with one hand while sitting in a specially built saddle, the cowboy must stay on the horse for 8 seconds, and is disqualified if either foot comes out of the stirrups, or if he touches his equipment, himself, or the animal with his free hand.
The bronc rider starts out in the chute with his feet placed above the break of the horse's shoulders. A cowboy’s timing, finesse, and skill will win out over brute strength.
If the cowboy's feet are not in the correct position when the horse hits the ground on the first jump out of the chute, the cowboy is disqualified for failing to "mark out" properly.
The cowboy then pulls his spurs along the horse's neck or shoulders to the "cantle" (back of the saddle) while the bronc is in the air, then snapping his spurs back to the horse's shoulders just before its front feet hit the ground.
Both cowboy and horse can get a maximum score of 50. Any combined score above 80 is very good, while exceptional riders can score in the nineties.
The horse will be rated on its bucking abilities while the cowboy has to complete the ride skillfully. Timing, spur motion and control are some factors based on which the rider will be awarded points. As is the case with bareback riding, mark out rule applies to this sport as well.
According to this rule, the spurs of the cowboy must touch the animal above the shoulder level, during the initial jump from the chutes.
The rider will be awarded a no score, if he fails to follow this rule. The judges will determine whether the cowboy has followed the rule or not.
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) takes several measures to ensure that horses used in this sport are not subjected to cruelty.
Besides, there is a great deal of incentive to take care of a good bucking horse. Fact is they can fetch around $10,000. Hence most stock owners treat them with proper care.
Since an injury hinders performing, stock owners ensure that horses are healthy and fit.
An often quoted saying about bull riding is "it's not if you get hurt, it's when." It is a saying that every bull rider can attest to.
Bull riding has been traced back to the early 1700's, when Spanish ranchers governed the southwestern portion of America.
The Spanish ranchers influenced many cowboys, and soon became the modern the sport of bull riding.
At the end of every long cattle drives, cowboys would usually hold a contest to see who the best to riding and roping. The contests eventually started bull riding.
Bull Riding is rodeo's most dangerous and exciting event, competitors must ride a bucking bull for eight agonizing seconds with no more than a bull rope as a handhold.
As with bareback riding and saddle bronc riding, bull riders ride with one hand and cannot touch themselves or their bull with the free hand. Doing so results in a no score.
The dynamic ways in which bulls buck, and the excitement of the event, make it the most popular in rodeo.
Bull Riding is the most recognized and popular of all the rodeo events. And yes, it is also the most dangerous.
Typically, bull riding is conducted at the end of a rodeo.
Compared to broncs which typically only buck straight and up and down, bulls will spin to the right or left while they are bucking, making it very difficult to ride.
An event where one must ride a huge horned bucking beast for 8 seconds.
When the 8 seconds has elapsed the rider's form and the horses of bucking and moves are judged for a score.
Scoring is the same as in the other rough stock events. Two judges give 1-25 points for the cowboy's performance and 1-25 points for the animal's performance. Since 100 points is the maximum, that is considered a perfect ride.
It's usually impressive enough just to remain seated on an animal that can weigh more than a ton and is as quick as he is big.
Unlike broncriders, bullriders are not required to spur. But, for those cowboys who do manage to spur are usually rewarded with all sorts of extra points.
To ride, bullriders use a bullrope and rosin. The bullrope is a thickly braided rope with a cowbell attached.
The rosin is a sticky substance that help increases the grip on their ropes.
Bull riders wrap their bullrope around the bull and use the remainder to wrap around their hand tightly, trying to secure themselves to the bull.
Supposedly the cowbell acts as a weight, allowing the rope to safely fall off the bull when the ride is over. Personally, I always thought it was there to aggravate the bull even more than he already is.
Unlike the horse events, there is no mark out in bull riding. But remember, cowboys can spur for extra points - although just staying on the bull for 8 seconds is the main priority.
The rider must stay atop the bull for a full 8 seconds holding on with only one hand, and is not allowed to touch the bull, himself, or any part of his equipment with his free hand or he will be disqualified.
After the ride, bullriders are aided by rodeo clowns who are also known as "bullfighters" today, and barrelmen who distract the bull and allow the cowboys to escape safely.
These rodeo clowns, American bullfighters, and barrelmen, are athletes who protects the bull rider after he dismounts or is bucked off by distracting the bull and directing its attention to the exit gate, sometimes stepping between the bull and the bull rider
Yes, the work off guts and a real concern for that bullrider.
A good score in the bull riding is in the 90's. There has been one perfect score of 100 in the PRCA. It was the first, and so far the only, 100-point ride in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association history.
The Perfect Ride
Back on Oct. 26, 1991, near Medford, Oregon, a young bull rider and an angry ton of beef danced around the arena floor at a Central Point Rodeo in front of a crowd that was watching history in the making.
For an amazing 8 seconds, Wade Leslie, a 5-foot-2, 125-pound horseshoer from Moses Lake, and a meaner than all get out Wolfman Skoal rode into history.
The ornery 2,000-pound bull Wolfman Skoal and the 125 pound cowboy Wade Leslie were perfect in the eyes of two judges.
Judges Russell Davis of Hermiston, Oregon, and Raymond Lewis of Ione, California, liked what they saw. And yes, it was perfection.
Bull riding requires balance, flexibility, coordination, and courage. Facing down a two-thousand pound bull takes as much mental preparation as it does physical ability.
Bull riding has taken on a life of its own with the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) tour, and its popularity shows no signs of slowing down.
Barrel racing is a timed event where the object is to circle three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern in the shortest amount of time.
Cowgirls compete in the arena against each other and the clock. Since barrel racing is a timed rodeo event, the fastest time is what matters most.
Barrel racing is about cooperation between horse and rider. It's about burn and turn, shit and get!
Because of the competition and money involved, finding a good horse is very important to the competitors.
A top of the line barrel horse can cost a great deal of money. But then again, there are stories of horses that have been bought for relatively little money and won big.
For the barrel racing event, the arena is cleared and three barrels are set up at different marked locations.
The riders then enter the arena at full speed, quickly rounding each barrel in a cloverleaf pattern and then exiting where they entered.
A stopwatch or timer is used registering down to a hundredth of a second. Speed is what it is all about in this event.
Riders steer their horses as close as they can to the barrels trying to shave precious seconds off the clock.
For each barrel they knock over - which the rider tries to prevent from happening by steering the horse close but not too close - a 5 second penalty is assessed to their total time.
Leaving the barrels standing and ripping through the course is every barrel racers goal.
A 13 to 14 second run is generally a winning time in this event, but this will vary according to the size of the arena, as all rodeo arenas are not created equal.
Typically only cowgirls compete in this event at rodeos. And yes, for my money, I believe some of the best riders in the world are these cowgirls!
Steer Wrestling is also called "Bulldogging." It is a rodeo event where a contestant attempts to throw a steer by seizing the horns and twisting the neck. It was called bulldogging because in the early days of rodeo the cowboy would stop the steer by biting the animal's lip in the same way that a bulldog would to stop a bull on the move.
Historically, steer wrestling was not a part of ranch life. The event originated in the 1930s, and is claimed to have been started by Bill Picket.
Bill Pickett was a legendary cowboy from Taylor, Texas of black and Indian descent. He was born December 5, 1870, at the Jenks-Branch community on the Travis County line.
From 1905 to 1931, the Miller brothers' 101 Ranch Wild West Show was one of the great shows in the tradition begun by William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody in 1883.
The 101 Ranch Show introduced bulldogging with Bill Pickett, one of the show's stars.
Riding his horse, Spradley, Mr. Pickett came alongside a Longhorn steer, dropped to the steer's head, twisted its head toward the sky, and bit its upper lip to get full control.
Cowdogs of the Bulldog breed were known to bite the lips of cattle to subdue them. That's how Pickett's technique got the name "bulldogging."
As the event became more popular among rodeo cowboys, the lip biting became increasingly less popular until it disappeared from steer wrestling altogether.
Bill Pickett, however, became an immortal rodeo cowboy, and his fame has grown since his death. He died April 2, 1932, near Ponca City, Oklahoma.
As I was saying earlier, this event was originally called "bulldogging" and requires the cowboy to lean from a running horse and “jump” onto the back of a 600 pound steer. "Bulldoggers" start out in the box just like the calf roping and team ropers. The barrier is placed across the box and the steer is loaded into the roping chute.
As soon as the cowboy nods his head the steer is released and he charges after it on his horse. The steer is then given a 10 second head start after which time the chase is on.
The cowboy has to catch it behind the horns, stop the steer’s forward momentum and wrestle it to the ground with all four of its legs and head pointing the same direction.
The “bulldogger” is assisted by the hazer, who rides along the steer’s right to keep the animal running straight. Remember, the object of this event is to leap from a galloping horse onto a steer and twist its head so it falls to the ground and get all four legs pointing in the same direction in the shortest amount of time.
No, this is not easy! But yes, steer wrestling is the quickest of the rodeo events.
Remember, the steer generally weighs more than twice as much as the cowboy, and by the time the two come together, they're both moving at around 30 miles per hour.
Speed and precision, the two most important ingredients in steer wrestling, make bulldogging one of rodeo's most challenging events. Bulldogging requires strength, speed, and timing. Many of steer wrestlers are large, hefty cowboys which is why this event is sometimes called “the big man's event.”
Steer wrestling is a timed event, and cowboys compete against each other and the clock.
The steer wrestler catches up to the steer as quickly as possible and then leans over, jumps off of his horse and grabs the steer by its head.
The bulldogger then plants his feet and tosses the steer onto its side, thereby stopping the clock.
Steer wrestlers require the use of a hazer to keep the steer running straight and from turning away from them.
A winning time is usually between 3 to 4 seconds, but these big boys keep getting faster and faster. If the barrier is broken before the steer's head start, the bulldogger is given a 10 second penalty - a 10 second penalty which effectively puts you out of the money.
Calf Roping (aka Tie-Down Roping)
Calf Roping is the classic Old West ranch chore done during brandings out on the range.
It is now one of the most competitive of rodeo events. The new name for "Calf Roping" is "Tie-Down Roping."
Why the change? Who knows, but since I was taught to call it Calf Roping by my grandpa - and it was called Calf Roping in the Old West - that's what I'll call it.
Calf Roping originated in the Old West and was used where calves were roped and tied down for medical treatment and brandings.
Ranch hands took pride in the speed with which they could rope and tie calves which soon turned their work into informal contests.
This is a timed event requiring not only roping skill, but extraordinary teamwork between the cowboy and his horse.
The object in this event is to rope a calf from the back of a horse, leave the horse and tie three of the calf's four legs in the shortest amount of time.
Calf ropers compete against each other and the clock for the prize money. Like the bulldoggers and team ropers, calf ropers start in the box ready to compete.
The calves are lined up in a row and moved through narrow runways leading to a chute with spring-loaded doors.
When a calf enters the chute, a door is closed behind it and a lightweight 28-foot rope, attached to a trip lever, is fastened around the calf's neck.
The lever holds a taut cord or "barrier" that runs across a large pen or "box" at one side of the calf chute, where the horse and rider wait.
The barrier is used to ensure that the calf gets a head start.
When the roper is ready, he calls for the calf, and the chute operator pulls a lever opening the chute doors and releasing the calf. The calf runs out in a straight line.
When the calf reaches the end of the rope, that trips the lever, the rope falls off the calf, and the barrier for the horse is released, starting the clock and allowing horse and rider to chase the calf.
The roper must rope it as quickly as possible. As soon as a catch is made the cowboy dismounts, sprints to the calf and tosses it on its side, which is called flanking.
The calf must be stopped by the rope but cannot be thrown to the ground by the rope. If the calf falls, the roper loses seconds because he must allow the calf to get back on its feet.
When the roper reaches the calf, he picks it up and flips it onto its side.
Once the calf is on the ground, the roper ties three of the calf's legs together with a short rope known as a tie-down rope or "piggin' string".
The piggin' string is often carried between the roper's teeth until he uses it. The horse is trained to assist the roper by slowly backing away from the calf to maintain a steady tension on the rope.
A half hitch knot is used, sometimes referred to colloquially as "two wraps and a hooey" or a "wrap and a slap," to get any three of the calf's legs tied securely.
When the tie is complete, the roper throws his hands in the air to signal "time" and stop the clock. Remember, time stops when the cowboy throws up his hands.
After the calf is tied, the roper remounts his horse, puts slack in his rope and waits 6 seconds for the calf to struggle free. If it does, the cowboy receives a no time and is effectively disqualified from the round. But, if the calf remains tied then the cowboy receives his time.
As in the other timed events, if the roper breaks the barrier he receives a 10 second penalty added to his time. Calf roping requires timing, speed, agility, and strength. It also requires a highly trained horse.
Horses used in calf roping play a major role in the success of the competitor. Horses are taught to know when to start walking backward thereby keeping the rope taught and allowing the cowboy to do their work on the other end.
Top professional calf ropers will rope and tie a calf in 7 seconds. The world record is just over 6 seconds.
It is truly amazing to watch as cowboy and horse compete together in one of rodeo's oldest events.
Like calf roping and saddle bronc riding, team roping grew out of ranching in the Old West when cowboys needed to treat or brand steers too large or difficult for one man to handle alone.
Larger cattle would have to be immobilized for branding and doctoring by two ropers due to their strength and size.
Team Roping is still a common practice on ranches today.
Team Roping is a true team event requiring coordination and timing between two cowboys, the "Header" and the "Heeler".
In this event, one cowboy called the "Header" must rope a steer around the horns after which the other cowboy called the "Heeler" must rope both of the steers back legs in the shortest time possible.
Team roping is the only team event in rodeo. Today, team roping is a timed event that relies on the cooperation and skill of the cowboys and their horses.
The two cowboys involved in team roping have unique goals: The first cowboy, known as the "Header," does just what the name implies and ropes the head of the cattle. The other cowboy, known as the "Heeler," ropes the heels or hind legs.
As with the other timed events, the team ropers start from the box. Once the chase begins, the Header is the first out trying to rope the head as quickly as possible without breaking the barrier.
There are only 3 legal catches that the Header can make. These are: both horns, one horn and the head, and the neck.
The Header must rope the steer either around both horns, around one horn and the head, or around the neck. Any other catch by the header is considered illegal and the team is disqualified.
Once the catch is made, the Header dallies and turns the steer left, this opens up the way for the Heeler to work his magic and rope the back legs.
The clock is stopped when there is no slack in both ropes and the horses face each other.
If the barrier is broken a 10 second penalty is added to the time. Also, if the Heeler manages to catch only one leg, then a 5 second penalty is added.
Team roping is great event to watch due to the amazing coordination and cooperation of all the competitors. Team ropers must work together as well as with their horses.
It's also an extremely fun event to try out if you are so inclined. Of course, you may want to start with a bale of hay, a roping dummy steer head, and a rope - then get practicing!
Today's Rodeos are windows into our past while at the same time offers a unique and fully modern sport with an exciting and interesting atmosphere.
Rodeo, particularly popular today within the Canadian province of Alberta and throughout the western United States, is the official state sport of Wyoming, South Dakota, and Texas.
And yes, the iconic silhouette image of a "Bucking Horse and Rider" is a federal and state-registered trademark of the State of Wyoming.
While some in Canada might argue the point, most folks understand that rodeo is as American as apple pie and the 4th of July!