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A Rich History of Rodeo

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A Rich History of Rodeo

A line of cowboys at a rodeo.

Image © Mary R. Vogt
Rodeo is one of the most varied sports in the history of the world. It encompasses a number of different events that allow cowboys, and cowgirls, to compete against furious bulls and charging horses to make a winning run and bring home the big bucks. Rodeo's roots vary depending on who you ask, but the general history of the sport is rich, vibrant and full of fabulous tales of roping and wrangling.

Birth of Rodeo

Early records of modern-day rodeos date back to the early part of the 18th century. The term "rodeo" is derived from the Spanish word "rodear", which translates into "to surround," the actual act of gathering the cattle. Vaqueros, or Spanish cattle wranglers, would host sporting events to determine who was the strongest and best wrangler on the ranch. Early rodeo competitions often involved climbing aboard angry bulls or roping and typing down runaway cattle. These impromptu gatherings often happened during the annual roundup and branding of the herd, where friends and family would come together to feast and celebrate a job well done. After the cattle were rounded up and branded, ambitious vaqueros would put their roping and horseback riding skills on display. Hardy vaqueros would climb aboard the largest bull in the herd, and, with the aid of a think 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.

The Changing American West

In the mid-1800s, the American landscape underwent a drastic change. People began pushing westward as they sought expansive, open lands and a simpler way of life. Raising cattle was the perfect opportunity for many landowners, and vaqueros looking for work found plenty of it on the plains of the western half of the United States. However, raising cattle turned out to be less profitable than many people imagined, and they began to look for other ways to keep their families fed. Entrepreneurs including Buffalo Bill Cody began to organize rodeo-type events to help supplement the empty pocketbooks of many cattlemen who were willing to put their skills on display. These early rodeos included displays of roping and riding prowess, which would evolve into the rodeo events we know today.

Rodeo Goes Formal

As much fun as these early rodeos were, they lacked uniformity. Popular rodeo organizers disagreed on how to promote events and pay the winning competitors, and, in 1936, a small group of cowboys formed a group to protest these unfair practices. Known as the Cowboys' Turtle Association, this group of gregarious cowboys continued to champion 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.

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