What is a Ranch Rodeo?

A ranch rodeo is a traditional type of rodeo in which teams of cowboys or cowgirls from different ranches compete against each other in events based on the type of work they do every day.


Although community brandings and roundups were commonplace for ranches across North America, formal organization of ranch rodeos grew slowly and organically.  The first organized ranch rodeo events in the United States—complete with betting and prizes—occurred in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

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.  

This sport has been around since the days when cattle were rounded up and branded. Cowboy contests would take place at these gatherings, with competitors from other local ranches trying out their skills in roping calves or horses – all for money! Over time this transitioned into an event known as “roundup” which later evolved into modern day rodeos we know today (such as those found across America).

Preceding even the grassroots rodeos of the United States, Mexican charreria and charro contests had the same foundation as America’s ranch rodeos.  Local vaqueros and rancheros (ranchers) would assemble for roundups and to show off their skills. 

These contests, called charrerias, were included in major Mexican fiestas and are considered the origin of bull riding.  These charrerias are where Anglo-Texans first encountered and participated in these events. Although the traditional Mexican charreria and the American ranch rodeos have taken separate forks over the past century, the fundamental skills and passion for the tradition of ranching remain the same.

One of the earliest “bronco-busting contests” on record was held on July 4, 1869, in Deer Trail, Colorado Territory.

Who competes?

Ranch rodeos differ from the more common PRCA-style rodeos in several ways. 

For starters, the contestants are not professional rodeo cowboys; instead, they are usually full-time ranch hands who compete in annual ranch rodeos for fun and for bragging rights.

The events in a ranch rodeo are more similar to the tasks commonly performed on a working cattle ranch, and all the equipment is exactly what you’d find there too. Instead of competing individually, these contestants compete as teams representing their respective ranches – truly riding for the brand!

Though there are often individual awards such as “Top Hand” and “Top Horse,” the main prize is for the top overall ranch team.

Competitive events

Most ranch rodeos consist entirely of timed events, with the goal being to complete the assigned task in the shortest possible time. Common ranch rodeo events include:

  • Calf Branding – Teams have to find and rope specific calves (identified by a randomly-assigned number) out of a larger herd of cattle, bring the calves to the branding area, and “brand” them by marking the calves with chalk.
  • Steer Doctoring – Similar to calf branding, except the cattle are older and larger, and the event simulates bringing a sick animal in from the herd for veterinary care.
  • Team Penning – Teams must sort off a few specific cattle (each identified by a specific flank number) from a larger herd, and move those cattle into a small pen at the other end of the arena.
  • Wild Horse Race – Teams must saddle a wild horse and ride it across the finish line at the far end of the arena.
  • Wild Cow Milking – The teams rope a wild cow and hand-milk it into an empty soda bottle. One member runs the bottle across the finish line on foot, then pours out some for judges to prove they accomplished their task!
  • Saddle Bronc Riding: 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.  

Popular ranch rodeos

Sanctioning bodies include the Working Ranch Cowboys Association, which sponsors the World Championship Ranch Rodeo in Amarillo, Texas; and the Western States Ranch Rodeo Association, which sponsors the WSRRA National Finals in Winnemucca, Nevada.

Other prominent ranch rodeos include:

Best of the West Ranch Rodeo in Fort Worth, Texas

World’s Richest Ranch Rodeo in Houston, Texas

Big Bend Ranch Rodeo in Alpine, Texas

Western Heritage Classic Ranch Rodeo in Abilene, Texas. Features some of the largest and most historic ranches in the United States. 

Pendleton Cattle Barons Ranch Rodeo in Pendleton, Oregon

Fort Sumner Ranch Rodeo in Fort Sumner, New Mexico

Ride for the Brand Ranch Rodeo in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The largest ranch rodeo sanctioned by the Working Ranch Cowboys Association. 

Wrap Up

Ranch rodeos are a far cry from the traditional, glitzy events that many people associate with professional rodeo. Though they remain dedicated to skill and determination just as much so if not more than any other type of competition out there today – this event dates back all way through time when America’s ranching culture first began!

From their grass-roots evolution in the 19th century to the thousands of annual events today, ranch rodeos connect generations of cowboys and cowgirls across the country. 

The nearly 200-year evolution of ranch rodeos has seen the sport evolve from localized roundups to formal associations and events.  One thing remains unchanged: ranch rodeos are integral in keeping Western culture alive for generations to come.

Until next time, mis amigos, happy trails! ★