A Beginner’s Guide to Rodeo

Head to any small county in Texas, South Dakota, Wyoming, New Mexico, or basically anywhere in the West and Northwest, and you will likely have an opportunity to see the local rodeo in town.  If fact, the Fort Worth Stockyards hosts a rodeo every weekend evening, while the major rodeos of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Calgary Stampede, the Pendleton Round-Up, and the Cheyenne Frontier Days draw tens of thousands of fans for each performance. And, of course, there’s the “national championship” for every rodeo cowboy and cowgirl, The National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas each December.

While rodeo stresses its western folk hero image as a genuinely American creation, in fact, it grew out of the practices of Spanish ranchers and their Mexican ranch hands known as vaqueros, as a mixture of cattle wrangling and bullfighting that dates back to the sixteenth-century conquistadors of Spain. The term “rodeo” (from the Spanish word rodear) means “to surround” or “go around,” and was first used in American English about 1834 to denote a “round up” of cattle.  

Early rodeo-like affairs of the 1820s and 1830s were informal events in the western United States and northern Mexico with cowboys and vaqueros testing their working skills against one another. Bullriding, for example, originated with Mexican equestrian contests known as charreadas, where competitors wrestled the steer to the ground by riding up behind it, grabbing its tail, and twisting it to the ground. Bull wrestling had been part of an ancient tradition throughout the ancient Mediterranean world including Spain. The events spread throughout the Viceroyalty of New Spain and were found at fairgrounds, racetracks, fiestas, and festivals in nineteenth century southwestern areas that now comprise the United States.

While rodeo stresses its western folk hero image as a genuinely American creation, in fact, it grew out of the practices of Spanish ranchers and their Mexican ranch hands.

However, unlike the roping, riding, and racing of the early festivals of the American west, rodeos never attracted a following among Anglo cowboys or audiences until after the Texas Revolution and the US-Mexican War, after which Anglo cowboys started to realize the value of learning the skills, attire, vocabulary, and sports of the vaqueros. Ranch-versus-ranch contests gradually sprang up, as bronc riding, bull riding, and roping contests appeared at race tracks, fairgrounds, and festivals of all kinds.

The first rodeo

While there is not universal agreement as to the first official rodeo, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody is credited with creating a major rodeo and the first Wild West show in North Platte, Nebraska in 1882. Following this successful endeavor, Cody organized his touring Wild West show, leaving other entrepreneurs to create what became known as professional rodeo. While most recognized rodeo organizations weren’t established until the early 20th century, much of what we know about rodeo today evolved from the Prescott Rodeo held on July 4, 1888. Rodeos and Wild West shows enjoyed a parallel existence, employing many of the same stars, while capitalizing on the continuing allure of the mythic West. Women joined the Wild West and contest rodeo circuits in the 1890s and their participation grew as the activities spread geographically, and eventually evolved into what we know as rodeo.

Modern day rodeo is a competitive sport practiced in the United States, Mexico, Central America, South America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It’s a sporting event that involves horses and other livestock, designed to test the skill and speed of cowboys and cowgirls, as well as that of horses bred to compete in rodeo events. American style professional rodeos generally comprise events divided into two basic categories: the timed events of tie-down roping, team roping, steer wrestling, and barrel racing where winners are determined by the fastest time, and the rough stock events of saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, and bull riding where winners are determined by the highest score. Depending on sanctioning organization and region, other events such as breakaway roping, goat tying, and pole bending may also be a part of some rodeos. Other rodeos can have any nature of events, limited only by the imagination of the organizers.

Your rodeo guide

So, here’s a little bit about the most popular events in any rodeo:


Trevor Brazile, who has won 24 “gold buckle” world championships, is known as the “King of the Cowboys.” Photo courtesy of Dan Hubbell and The Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Like many rodeo events, tie-down roping is practiced on the working ranches of the American West.  The roper begins his run from a “roping box,” with a barrier rope across the open front. The box is adjacent to a chute, containing the calf. One end of the breakaway barrier is looped around the calf and released as soon as the calf reaches its advantage point. If the roper beats the calf out of the chute, a 10-second penalty is added to his final time for the “broken barrier.” Once the calf is caught by the cowboy’s loop, the horse is trained to stop and pull back to remove any “slack” or extra rope to keep the calf still. The cowboy quickly dismounts and sprints down his rope to the calf and “flanks” the calf by hand flat on the ground. Once flanked, the roper ties any three of the animal’s legs together with a short looped rope called a “pigging string.” To signal his run is complete, the cowboy throws his hands in the air and remounts his horse. He and his horse must wait six seconds to ensure that the calf does not kick free, which would result in a “no time.” The practice of tie down roping is used on the working ranch to catch a runaway calf for purposes of doctoring, branding, or otherwise capturing, and because the animal is younger, the capture of a calf can be handled by one cowboy.


Like tie-down roping, team roping is used on the working cattle ranch to capture a steer for purposes of doctoring or branding, but unlike tie-down roping, it takes two cowboys to rope the larger steer and so this is the only true team event in rodeo — one “header” who ropes the head of the steer and one “heeler” who ropes the heels, or feet, of the steer. Each contestant begins in their respective roping box with a chute containing the steer in the middle. Similar to the other timed events of tie-down roping and steer wrestling, a breakaway rope or “barrier” is attached to the steer and released once the steer reaches its advantage point. The “broken barrier” rule also applies here too, with a 10-second penalty added to a team’s time. Once the steer is out, the header leaves the roping box in pursuit of the steer, roping it around the horns, neck, or a horn-neck combination. He then turns the steer quickly to the left so the heeler has a shot at both of its hind legs. The clock stops when their horses are facing each other and their ropes are pulled tightly. If the heeler catches only one leg, a five-second penalty is added.


Sometimes referred to as “bulldogging,” steer wrestling is an all-out battle of strength. The cowboy starts out horseback in a box with the barrier rope attached to the steer. Once the cowboy nods to indicate his readiness, the gate is opened and the steer exits the chute. When the steer reaches the end of the rope, the barrier is released and the cowboy takes off in pursuit. If the cowboy leaves before the steer, a 10-second penalty is added to his final time for the broken barrier. If the cowboy reaches the steer, he dismounts using strength and leverage, slows the animal by digging his heels into the dirt and maneuvers the steer to the ground. In order to catch the sprinting steer, the bulldogger relies on a “hazer,” which is another mounted cowboy running beside the steer.  Time stops when the steer is on its side with all four feet pointing in the same direction. If you are on a working ranch and need to get a steer on the ground quickly, this is how you’d do it.


Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash

Arranged in a triangle, barrel racers must run around all three barrels in a pattern known as a “cloverleaf” being careful not to turn one over. Riders may begin on the left or the right barrel first, but the pattern cannot be broken. Horses must be not only swift, but accurate in their ability to maneuver around the barrels with ease and agility. If the rider or the horse makes contact with a barrel, it can be touched in order to keep it from falling. Each fallen barrel, though, adds a five-second penalty to the rider’s final time. This sport, unlike other timed events, is timed to the hundredth of a second through the use of an “electric eye” or an automatic stopwatch.


Saddle bronc riding is rodeo’s classic event since it derived from the practice of “breaking” or training saddle horses in the early days of the American West. A contestant sits in a standard saddle attached to the back of the horse – but with no saddle horn. For leverage, he holds a thick “rein” or rope that is attached to the horse’s halter, which can only be held with one hand.  When the gate swings open, the cowboy must adhere to the “mark-out” rule in which he must have his heels touching the animal above the point of the horse’s shoulders when it makes its first jump. Otherwise, the cowboy will be disqualified and given zero points. Synchronization with the horse’s movements earns higher scores. When the horse’s front feet are on the ground, the rider’s heels must be in front of the horse’s shoulders, toes turned out. As the horse resets for its next move, the cowboy brings his heels to the back of the saddle, all the while anticipating the animal’s next jump. If the contestant touches any part of the horse or himself with his free hand during the eight-second ride, he will be disqualified.


With nothing to hold but a “rigging” or suitcase-like handle on a strap secured comfortably behind the horse’s front legs, the cowboy must maintain balance and control while the horse bucks and pitches. A “flank strap” is secured around the horse’s hind end which tells the animal it’s go-time! The ride is judged on the cowboy’s spurring motion in coordination with the horse’s movement, as well as the bucking action of the animal. A rider is disqualified if he fails to mark out properly as in the saddle bronc event. And, as before, the rider cannot touch any part of the horse or himself during the eight-second ride.


The ultimate test of will versus will, a cowboy and a bull battle each other.

One 2,000-pound animal paired against one 150-pound man ensures an adrenaline rush for those brave enough to climb in the chutes. To stay on, a rider grasps a flat braided rope or “bull rope” which is wrapped around the bull’s chest just behind its front legs. One end of the bull rope, called the “tail,” is threaded through the loop on the other end and fastened around the animal. The rider then wraps the tail around his hand holding the rope, sometimes weaving it through his fingers to further secure his grip. When the chute gate opens, the rider must stay on for eight seconds, while a twisting, bucking mass of muscle tries anything and everything to buck them off. If the contestant makes contact with the animal or themselves with their free hand, they receive no score. Points are based on rider’s ability to stay on, as well as the bull’s bucking action. Extra points are awarded to those who are controlled enough to spur their bull with one or both of their dulled spurs.

“Between them almost-had-’ems and broken bones and the dream of a buckle I’ll never put on, I’m jaded, and I hate it.”

Country singer Cody Johnson‘s love song to the sport of rodeo, “Dear Rodeo”

While not every working cowboy participates in rodeos, and while not every rodeo cowboy works on a ranch on a regular basis, every cowboy is a cowboy plain and simple. Each draws their heritage from the traditions of the working ranch of the American West. And each celebrates the spirit of western heritage every time they enter an arena, be it for a rodeo competition or to get a day’s work done.

Rodeo is a popular sport to watch, and its competitors are among the most talented athletes you’ll find. The working cowboy has a special affinity for the sport of rodeo, and rodeo fans love their cowboys and cowgirls. While rodeo is particularly popular today throughout the western United States and within the Canadian province of Alberta, it’s also the official state sport of Texas, South Dakota, and Wyoming. And, rodeo is so important to Wyoming that the iconic silhouette image of a bucking horse and rider is the federal and state-registered trademark of the State of Wyoming!

So, the next time a rodeo comes to your town, or you are visiting a rural county most anywhere in the American West, you might buy a ticket, grab some food, and take a few hours to settle in for a fun time marveling at the skill of the competitors, both human and animal.

Until next time, happy trails! ★


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