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Why Rodeo?

Published 03/15/02
By Eric Mills
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 33 Number 1, Spring 2002

An international spotlight focused on rodeo as controversy raged over the “Olympic Command Performance Rodeo” at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Thousands of letters and calls of opposition were received, but the event proceeded as planned. The rodeo cowboys (40 each from the U.S. and Canada) competed for $140,000 in prize monies, unlike the true Olympic athletes, who are forbidden financial gain.

In no other Olympic event are half the participants forced to perform via flank straps, electric prods, raking spurs, twisted tails, pain and fear. Every major animal welfare/rights organization condemns rodeos due to their inherent cruelty, and the terrible message that such a violent activity sends to impressionable young children. It’s high time we acknowledged that human abuse begins with animal abuse.

Some Background

There are about a dozen “professional” rodeo organizations in the U.S. which, together, sponsor some 1,000 rodeos annually. There are probably four times that number of non-sanctioned events. Rodeos come in many colors: standard, military, police, all-women, gay, Native American, the all-black Bill Pickett Rodeo, senior, even “L’il Britches” affairs for the pre-school set. All have one thing in common: domination of the animals.

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), the nation’s largest, with a membership of 10,000, sponsors 700 rodeos annually, mostly west of the Mississippi. Based in Colorado Springs, CO, the PRCA has its own Commissioner, judges, even an Animal Welfare Committee (the fox guarding the henhouse, as it were). The PRCA has improved its animal welfare rules, though these are not always properly enforced. The PRCA also requires on-site veterinarians at its events, as do the Gay Rodeo folks. The International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA), the nation’s second largest, does not, deeming an “on call” vet to be sufficient. It isn’t. All rodeos require on-site ambulances and paramedics, and rightly so. Don’t the animals deserve the same consideration?


There are seven sanctioned events seen at most rodeos: saddle bronc, bareback bronc, bull riding (the “roughstock” events), steer wrestling, team roping, calf roping, and women’s barrel racing. A cowboy’s score in the roughstock events is based on style and difficulty. Of the possible 100 points, half are scored for the cowboy, half for the animal. The rider must stay on the horse or bull a minimum 8 seconds to score.

Surely calf roping is the Achilles’ heel of rodeo; even many cowboys don’t like it. Often, the calf is jerked into the air by the taut rope before being slammed to the ground (a “jerkdown”). Imagine the public outcry if rodeo cowboys mistreated companion dogs thus.

Most of rodeo is bogus from the get-go: real working ranch hands never routinely rode bulls, or rode bareback, or wrestled steers, or put flank straps on the animals, or attempted to rope, throw, and tie a calf in 8 seconds flat. Rodeo is simply a detour en route to the slaughterhouse for most of these animals, all in the name of a questionable “entertainment.” Even the horses and bulls are likely to end up on a dinner plate in Europe or Japan, once their usefulness in the arena has dwindled.


The PRCA’s claims notwithstanding, rodeo injuries are frequent, to humans and non-humans alike. But at least the cowboys are in the arena by choice, not so the animals.

According to the PRCA’s 2001 injury survey, there were 25 animal injuries requiring veterinary care at the 67 rodeos monitored (of 700). In 2000, 38 injuries were reported at 57 rodeos. This is an appalling injury rate. Things are even worse on the amateur circuit.

A bucking horse named “Great Plains” suffered a broken back on live TV at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas last December. Thanks to the miracle of the “7 second delay,” ESPN TV and the PRCA were able to hide this incident from the viewing audience. This is dishonest reporting, serving only to reinforce the PRCA’s false claims of a near-zero injury rate at rodeos, (Note, too, that ESPN TV’s rodeo coverage never shows the running calf hitting the end of the rope, or any of the frequent jerkdowns, another attempt to mislead the public about the realities of this cruel “sport.”)

Earlier, another horse suffered a similar fate at a PRCA rodeo in Kansas City, where a roping calf was also knocked unconscious. I was at the California Rodeo in Salinas in 1995 when five animals were killed. Although vets were present, a roping calf with a broken back was not euthanized, but simply trucked off to slaughter, terrified and in agony. Painkillers? None given, for “that ruins the meat,” one vet told me. All this carnage is but the tip of the iceberg. (For more extensive injury documentation, contact Action for Animals [AFA].)


Charreadas are Mexican-style rodeos common throughout California and the American Southwest, especially Arizona and Texas. Some of the nine standard events are similar to those of American rodeo, except there’s no 8 second limit in the bucking events. The rider stays on the horse or bull until he’s bucked off or until the animal gives up. No prize monies are awarded in charreada, just prestige and trophies.

Two charreada events are of particular concern: horse tripping and steer tailing.

In horse tripping, running horses are lassoed by the legs, which can cause broken legs or broken necks. (Horse tripping has been banned in CA, FL, IL, ME, NM, OK, and TX.)

In steer tailing, a mounted charro (cowboy) attempts to grab a running steer by the tail and drag or slam the hapless animal to the ground. Sometimes the steer’s tail is broken or torn off, and horses may have their legs broken when the steer runs the wrong way.


The City Council of Pasadena, CA last year approved an ordinance banning all rodeos and circuses with exotic animal acts, a major victory. It is hoped that other cities will do likewise. Rhode Island outlawed tie-down calf roping in 1989, and several cities — Pittsburgh, PA and Leestown, VA, among others — have placed severe restrictions on the use of rodeo tack (flank straps, electric prods, spurs, etc.), in effect banning rodeos.

AFA sponsored California rodeo legislation which became law on January 1, 2001. It requires either on-site or on-call vets at all rodeos, bans the use of electric prods on animals in the holding chutes, requires the presence of a conveyance to remove injured animals, and requires written veterinary reports of any animal injuries to the State Veterinary Medical Board within 48 hours of the injury.

Two California counties (Alameda and Contra Costa) now ban steer tailing and require on-site vets at all rodeos. AFA is currently sponsoring 2 rodeo bills in CA. SB 1306 would outlaw the steer tailing event. The other (no bill number at press time) would require that animals used in charreadas receive the same minimal protection as the animals in American style rodeos.

All the negative publicity generated by the ill-advised “Olympiad Rodeo” ought to inspire local and state legislation (and maybe even the American Veterinary Medical Association) to consider legislation and policies to help the animals used and abused in rodeos. They (and we) deserve better.

Eric Mills is coordinator for Action for Animals and a field representative for The Fund for Animals.

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