Sunday, January 18, 2015

History of American Rodeos



History of American Rodeos 

I’ve only been to a few rodeos in my life. They were different than I expected (not really sure what I did expect—probably something like the movies or on TV), different in my lifestyle since I’m a city girl, and if that’s not bad enough, I’m an east coast southerner, and the rodeos were different from each other.

The first rodeo I ever went to was when I lived in Nebraska. It was quite a production with a beginning parade of cowboys, American Indians, cowgirls, and Fes Parker who played Davy Crockett from the TV series way back in the 1960’s. It was more of a western show than it was an actual competition. There was lots of fancy riding and sparkly outfits, but not much down and dirty competition. Sorry to say, it was my only western rodeo. When my friends and I traveled into Wyoming, we didn’t attend a rodeo, but now I wish we had. I think I would have experienced what a real competitive sport it is had we done so.

I have gone to a few local rodeos here in North Carolina. I was as surprised as you might be to learn there actually are rodeos here in my state. A friend of mine owned a western store where they sold everything in western wear, horse gear, saddles, and, believe it or not, horses, too. Anyway, those rodeos were very different from my Nebraska experience. No glitz or glamour to speak of, just cowboys in blue jeans riding on crazy horses and bulls, cowgirls racing on horses around barrels, and kids trying to wrangle animals like lambs and calves. Scary action, tension, hurt cowboys, and hysterical crowds added up to a climate of real excitement. I liked it.

Although I don’t have any stories with rodeos in them (maybe later I might), but I was impressed and excited enough about rodeos to dig up some history and facts about them. You know, maybe someday I might need the information to get down and write a story with a rodeo or a rodeo star in it. Who knows? Anyway, here are some things I found out about this American sport.


The first thing I learned surprised me; rodeos originated with Spanish wranglers called Vaqueros who had competitions amongst themselves back in the early 18th century to see who was the best wrangler was. They called these competitions simply cowboy tournaments or cowboy competitions. The word rodeo, which came from the Spanish word meaning ‘round-up’ to describe the gathering of cattle before a cattle drive, didn’t come about  until 1916.

These competitions included activities such as climbing up on the back of an angry bull and tying down runaway cattle. These affairs were usually impromptu gatherings of friends and family to brand cattle, to gather in the cattle to prepare for a drive, or some other necessary activity on the ranch and then they would celebrate with food and fun after the job was done.


Well that was okay for a while, but you know they had to find ways to up the ante because it seems the cowboy way is to see how hard they can make that competition. So, after the cattle were rounded up and branded, motivated vaqueros would put their roping and horseback riding skills on display. The tough vaqueros would climb onto the largest bull in the herd, and, with the aid of a thick piece of rope, see who could stay on the longest. The fastest horses and most skilled riders would race from one end of the pasture to the other, with the winner earning praise and applause from the cheering crowd. These primitive tests of skill set the foundation for all modern-day events. Of course these gatherings were free for whoever showed up.



In the mid 1800’s rodeos came to America. Pioneers looking for land and opportunity began to move west. Cattle ranching was the perfect occupation for new landowners and many of them began to hire the experienced Vaqueros to help them. Some ranchers had financial dilemmas trying to raise and sell cattle, so they had to find other ways to make money to support their families. Some innovative ranchers like Buffalo Bill Cody began to organize rodeo-type events to help supplement the income of many cattlemen who were willing to put their skills on display. These early rodeos included displays of roping and riding prowess, which would become the rodeo events we know today.


These early rodeos were fun, but they lacked consistency. Even the most popular rodeo organizers disagreed on how to promote events and pay the winning competitors. In 1936, a small group of cowboys formed a group to protest these inconsistent and unfair practices. Known as the Cowboys' Turtle Association, this group of expressive cowboys championed for fair prize money and safe treatment of both riders and rough stock. They changed their name to the Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1945, eventually becoming the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1975. The PRCA is the go-to organization for rodeo in the United States, hosting more than 650 sanctioned rodeos every year. The year-long battle to the top culminates in the National Finals Rodeo, the Super Bowl of the rodeo realm. The top 15 competitors in each event compete for millions in awards and prize money, along with the prestige of being crowed "World Champion" cowboy or cowgirl for the season. Plenty of blood, sweat and tears go in to making it to the top, and winning competitors wear their titles with all the honor and grace of the vaqueros that set the foundation for the rodeo events we know and love today.


The following is a list of organized events that take place during a rodeo:
Pro rodeos are composed of rough stock and timed events.

Timed events in a standard pro rodeo include:
Tie Down Roping
Team Roping
Steer Wrestling
Barrel Racing

Rough stock events include:
Bareback Riding
Saddle Bronc Riding
Bull Riding

Other events not seen in every rodeo but recognized by competitors as rodeo events include:
Breakaway Roping
Goat Tying
Pole Bending
Steer Roping

Other events not seen in every rodeo but recognized by competitors as rodeo events include:
Breakaway Roping
Goat Tying
Pole Bending
Steer Roping

Cowboys that participate in the Rough Stock events are referred to by competitors as “Roughies,” similarly, cowboys that participate in timed events are called “Timies”. Roughies and Timies do not usually compete in the other category. A Timie will normally hang with other Timies and vice versa.

Breakaway roping and goat tying for the ladies is a broken up version of the tie down roping for men. The calves used in the tie down roping can be a great challenge for a woman to flank; so they break up the event into two separate ones for the girls.”

So, there you have it, everything I’ve learned about rodeos and my own, although sparse, experiences with rodeos. I know you western ladies probably know a whole lot more, but I have to say it was fun digging into this bit of history. Now I think I’ll go corral a couple of dogs and a cat.



Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery, Victory Tales Press, Prairie Rose Publications and Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press, imprints of Prairie Rose Publications. She welcomes you to her website and social media:

Photographs courtesy of Wikipedia.
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19 comments:

  1. Thanks for all the history on rodeos. Made me think about rodeos I attended when I was growing up.

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  2. I wasn't aware of the Spanish connection until you wrote this article, though it makes sense as I have always known of the Spanish origin for the word itself. Interesting post. I recommend against trying to hear cats, however. It will drive you crazy. Did you ever watch Stoney Burke on TV years ago?

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  3. Linda, it was good that you had that opportunity growing up to attend rodeos. About as close as I ever came to a rodeo as a kid was the county fair. Yep. They have those even in the city of Charlotte.
    Thank you so much for coming to comment.

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  4. JD, I've never even heard of Stoney Burke, let alone watch it on TV. What is it about?
    No one could be more surprised than me about the beginnings of rodeos. That's what I like about doing thee blogs or Sweethearts of the West; I always learn this stuff I never knew.
    I really appreciate you coming today and commenting.

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  5. Hi, Sarah..even though I grew up on the South Plains of Texas--near Lubbock and Amarillo, there were few rodeos. If one came near Mother and Daddy called them 'dirt rodeos,'with nothing but sand and dust and dirt.' Not even fun. So..I never attended a rodeo.
    Never.
    But I wrote a short novel titled Rodeo Man, and loved learning about the rodeo. I had to Google Bull Riding and Bronc Riding, and oh, my goodness, I had to watch dozens of videos of bull riders and bronc riders. Let me tell you, Sarah, it was agony and such work watching all those cowboys...ummm, excuse me, while I catch my breath...well, anyway, I did learn more about the rodeo. Whew! Let me get some fresh air.
    I knew about the original rodeos--I wrote a blog once about the Spanish, the Vaqueros....who were the first ones.
    What a good post, Sarah. Thanks so much.

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  6. Celia, I should have known you would know all about the history of rodeos. I imagine those "dirt rodeos" were all over Texas. I remember the heat in central Texas, so it must be torture to get into something as physical as a rodeo, or even just sit in the sun and watch. But, I guess a contestant has to get into some competitions to earn the stripes to compete in the major rodeos and a "dirt rodeo" was probably a good way to help them get up to snuff.
    Rodeo Man sounds like a good story for me to read. If a genuine Texan has to research rodeos to write a story, I can tell you right now my chances of writing a rodeo story is pretty much nil. LOL
    I really appreciate that you came over and commented, Celia. I always enjoy your blogs and your comments.

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  7. Fun post, Sarah....I have spent many many hours at rodeos! And yes, vaqueros were the original cowboys here in North America. My husband was a 3 time bull riding champion -- rode in college and afterwards -- and so was my brother-in-law. All 3 of our kids participated in rodeos, including drill team and calf riding and the boys rode bulls, too....and all of our kids and grandkids continue to ride in the 'mutton - bustin' event as well as calf riding. We have two local rodeos every year, and we've been a part of the local association for over 40 years. A familiar expression for all bull riders -- just before the rodeo begins is, "Bareback riders get ready, and bull riders pull down and start pukin'!"

    My husband never got thrown from a bull in the 8-10 years he rode...and I attribute it to the fact that he hauled 1000 bales of hay everyday in summer (twice a day actually -- off the field and into the barns), from the time he was a kid until he was over 30... He had amazing upper strength. He also never got hurt -- although I've seen a lot of cowboys get seriously hurt. Thankfully, all of our kids have been fortunate in not getting hurt.

    Locally we have a few additional events -- including the wild cow milking contest; saddle cow riding; wild horse race; packer's race, etc. These can be wild and woolly, too. My husband and his brother "took" many of those events over the years -- but now we enjoy the rodeo from the stands -- oh, except for working our own cattle. Sometimes that's a rodeo....in fact the guys often say as we're getting ready to go after cows, "you ready to rodeo?"

    I rode barrels once (local playday) and would have loved to have done it more...love barrel racing! Some of those horses are incredibly beautiful -- and very expensive. We raise our own horses, and they make good ranch stock.

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  8. Fascinating history of rodeos, Sarah. I knew Vaqueros influenced American cowboys and actually worked alongside them on ranches and cattle drives. But I had no idea they started the rodeo tradition. Makes sense, though, as another commenter said.

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  9. Interesting post. I had started a story years about about a rodeo man, but never finished it. Makes me want to pull it out again and see if I can. :)

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. Great post, Sarah. Being a beach suburbanite, I have only been to two rodeos--one being a terrific Friday night rodeo in Bandera, Texas! I do write about rodeo cowboys in my books sometimes, though although never the actual hero, as I don't know enough. I did know the whole thing was started by vaqueros, from which the Anglicized term buckaroos derived, but your post today includes so much more! Thanks, thank you! I know I will be back here for future fact-finding! Xo

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  12. I deleted one comment because it posted twice, sheesh.

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  13. Hey Gail. I see you have the genuine cowboys in your family. Writing a realistic western probably comes more naturally to you than to me. I have to scrounge around and dig into research for every little tidbit of western life. I guarantee you I will never write a story about rodeos. I know when I'm in over my head. LOL
    Thank you for coming over here and commenting. I saw your comment on the PRP loop and was amazed that you actually barrel raced once. Wow!

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  14. Lyn, no one is surprised more than me about the history of rodeos. Only in my imagination would I want to participate in a rodeo, but they are fun as a spectator sport. I guess it's something many city folk as well as country folk are interested in because I see they have rodeos on ESPN. It looks dangerous, for certain.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting. I appreciate it.

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  15. Karen, I would love to read that story. I hope you do get it out and work on it. Do you think you will put some paranormal elements in it? I would love that, ya know.
    Thank you so much for coming by. I'm always happy to see you.

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  16. Tanya, you sound like me--more of a beach girl than a rodeo girl, but isn't it fun to write about those amazing western ways of life? I would have never guessed that you weren't living on a ranch deep in the heart of the west driving cattle and riding horses.
    I really appreciate you coming by and reading my blog. I'm looking forward to reading your next story.

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  17. Sarah--I grew up on the South Plains, the flat as a pancake area just below the Panhandle of Texas and butting up against New Mexico. There's far more dirt out there than where we presently live--Central Texas--we sit on a high earthquake fault and it's all layered limestone beneath. We have about four inches of soil.

    I researched rodeos because my hero in Rodeo Man is a bull rider headed for his second National PBR title--Professional Bull Riders. I also watched and listened to a rodeo or a ride being taped. I need the lingo the announcers used while a cowboy was on a bull. I will say this..I don't think there's an ugly bull rider in the country...See?

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  18. Hi Sarah -- and Celia --

    I have to agree, Celia...there are very few "ugly" bull riders or rodeo riders. I have to say that over the 44+ years of my rodeo contacts and involvement, almost all of them were the epitome of good manners and great humor. Oh, yes, I know there are many rogues, but by and large, the cowboys/ranchers/farmers I know (and I know hundreds), are not what so many would like you to believe. They can be hard-talking and cuss (a LOT), spit and chew, but they are helpful to each other and even in competition, they support each other -- always ready to jump in and save each other if need be.

    I would like to write more on the real lives of cowboys and ranchers. It is the life I know deeply and love so much..... haven't tried a rodeo story, but maybe I should :-)

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  19. Sarah,
    Stoney Burke was a 60s TV show starring Jack Lord (Hawaii 5-0) as a rodeo cowboy who followed the circuit.

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