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The Late, Late Frontier

May 2024
15min read

What started as fun and games at spring roundups is now a multi-million-dollar sport called rodeo

The crowd roars. The bell clangs. The chute gate swings wide and a beleaguered animal dashes into the arena to put on an exciting exhibition of pain and panic.

The rodeo is presented as a colorful epic of the cattle industry in the days of the Chisholm Trail, evoking the sturdy moral values of frontier life or, as the Pendleton (Oregon) Round-Up recently rephrased the idea, “Four Big Days of Fun in the Ol’ West.” But what is rodeo, really?

The answer varies, depending upon one’s vantage point. The spectators see a show and read into it what they will. The riders and ropers see money and the fame that accompanies mass entertainment. The humane societies, far from being monolithic in their approach to rodeo’s undoubted cruelties, present divergent points of view, although no national animal-protection society approves of rodeo. But whatever rodeo is—stirring historical pageant, nostalgic symbol, popular entertainment, or commercialized brutality—it is undeniably Big Business.


Some forty million spectators attend more than three thousand rodeo shows in a typical year between the season’s opener on New Year’s Day (Odessa, Texas, this year) and the National Finals, an event held in recent years at Oklahoma City in December and promoted as “rodeo’s World Series.” More than three thousand professional athletes, some with earnings that top fifty thousand dollars a year, swing around the rodeo circuit by automobile, by truck or camper pulling a horse trailer, or by private plane. There are also substantial awards donated to consistent winners by pant-and-shirt manufacturers and boot-and-saddle makers. Local firms add more modest gifts—hats, wrist watches, jackets, gloves, scarves and scarf pins, ties, cigarette cases and lighters, ropes, spurs, and, as one chronicler of rodeo inadvertently wrote, “silver-mounted brides.” There are also profitable sidelines, such as modelling and endorsing tobacco products, for rodeo country is usually tobacco country.

Also present at the arenas, and a part of the multi-million-dollar economics of the rodeo, are stock contractors who provide the animal raw material, stock foremen, Indian chiefs, beauty queens, sales agents for accessories, hillbilly singers, concessionaires, arena directors, bandsmen, juvenile gunslingers, owners of dog acts, photographers, public-relations men, judges, timers, women barrel racers, baton twirlers, trick ropers, Roman riders, comedy mules and monkeys, and—of course—the bawling, restless livestock, indispensable yet expendable.

Romantic types, such as press agents, have seen a resemblance between the rodeo and the knightly tournaments of the Middle Ages in which high personages jousted in the European tradition of courtly love. Less friendly observers of the rodeo scene are reminded of the Roman populace in the Circus Maximus, lusting after the blood of man and beast.

Neither of these rather loose analogies can be pressed very far. There is nothing aristocratic, certainly, about the rodeo, although some of the “rastlers” are college material, having attended Northeastern State College at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, on a football or basketball scholarship, or having wrangled their sheepskins from Sam Houston State. At the same time, very few of them are authentic cowboys; instead, they began their careers in junior rodeos or in high-school competition or may have attended a school operated by a professional.

As for the bloodlust, it may be there, buried in the crowd’s id, but the thoughts of the ticket holders are usually under the firm control of the man at the microphone, who guides them into happy, constructive channels. If there is a mishap in the calf-roping contest, for example, and the animal has to be sledded out of the arena and shot, the soothing voice on the loud-speaker quickly relieves the anxiety of the squeamish: “Don’t worry about him, folks. He’s just had the breath knocked out of him.”

The announcers also deliver inspirational talks to schools and service clubs between their tours of duty up in the crow’s-nest, and they make radio and television appearances to promote the sport. They are the scops and minnesingers who shape the legends of the rodeo’s supermen and often become authentic celebrities in their own right, as did Cy Taillon, who has been saluted by a rodeo Plutarch as “one of the few educated men I know who talk educated without sounding unnatural.”

The rodeo generates purse money in the range of three to four million dollars annually for the dues-paying members of the Rodeo Cowboys Association, which participates in about five hundred rodeos each year, or about one sixth of those held in the nation. The RCA is a trade organization interested in fees and percentages and fair judges; in ethics (pay your bills before leaving town; always have a permanent address); in the elimination of conflicting dates; and in the bonding of officials who handle the money. The association also keeps an eye on antirodeo legislation. In addition, the RCA sponsors a national Intercollegiate Rodeo and a women’s auxiliary called the Girls’ Rodeo Association. The game even has its “little league.” The members of the American Junior Rodeo are already in training to preserve the best of the Old West, get a cut of the prize money of the future, and, hopefully, some day to be immortalized in the rodeo’s national shrine, which stands on Persimmon Hill in Oklahoma City and is known as The National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center.

The cowpoke was long ago elevated to a unique position in American popular culture by Owen Wister’s The Virginian and its imitators, by the Western pulp magazines, by the movies, juke boxes, shoot-em-out television dramas, and by the manufacturers of cap pistols. Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain praised the manly qualities of the cowboy, who continues to appear on the backs of cereal boxes. “Since the cowboy is the hero of the pre-adolescent,” Professor David Brion Davis of Yale University has noted, “he must prove himself by their standards.”

The sum of this idealization, despite its incongruities, has been skillfully appropriated by the propaganda of the rodeo. Athletes who rodeo (in familiar usage the noun becomes a verb) are accepted as modern reincarnations of Wyatt Earp and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. These latter-day buckaroos have been received by the highest local, state, and federal officials—by President Eisenhower at the White House, to cite one example. Such exposure provides highly visible endorsement of the “heritage angle.”

The rodeo has a tenuous relationship with the era of the trail herds, but it could easily be exaggerated, and usually is, in rodeo rhetoric. The voyageur is gone. The mountain men are gone. So are the Virginia City miners. The buffalo hunters, too, have ridden, as one rodeo belletrist has written, “across the Great Sunset.” But we are left with the “action-crammed” arena performances and rodeo prose. This literary genre owes much to the style of sports reporting passed on to us by the 1920’s. It is elaborate, redundant, ridden with clichés, circumlocutions, and euphuisms. Oklahoma becomes “the Sooner State.” Clowning is “the baggy profession.” Bulldogging is “toro twisting.” The man who performs that act is “the leather-tough twister whose guts and wits are matched in the arena with the worst action outlaw stock has to offer.” Sympathy is carefully directed away from the rodeo bronco. He is vicious and ornery, a “widow maker,” or sometimes “a scary explosion of animal energy” with “thrashing hooves splintering the chute boards”; while the bulldogger, as he makes his leap for the steer’s head, “slams into sudden brute power.” There is also a more poetic but equally inflated style that associates the performance with an appreciation of the natural world the coyote’s howl, the starry heavens, clean air, clean living, the call of the wild, and “the immensity of God’s sublime creation.”

The origins of the rodeo (from the Spanish rodear , “to surround” or “round up”) may be discerned in the spring roundup of range cattle before the long drive began to the northern cow towns. Trail-driving the longhorns actually lasted for a brief span —one generation with the big years falling between 1870 and 1885. But some time shortly after the Civil War the men who earned their living trailing cattle found amusement and relaxation in doing rope tricks and in competing in breaking wild horses, testing for themselves the legend of “the man who couldn’t be throwed.” It was homemade recreation, a work-play situation. No fanfare. No audience. No gate receipts.

According to one account, an intercamp broncobusting contest was held at Deer Trail, Colorado, on July 4, 1869, where ponies pitched, kicked, and seesawed to escape the spurs and rawhide whip. Another source places the first rodeo at Point of Rocks, Arkansas, in 1872. Still another agrees as to the year but not the location: there was an exhibition of steer riding on the Fourth of July at Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1872. Better documentation comes in a letter dated June 10, 1874, which mentions a gathering of cowboys at Santa Fe, where they had a “Donneybrook Fair” accompanied by generous infusions of whiskey and dancing in the streets.

The free grass and the free rodeo came to an end at about the same time, because at Prescott, Arizona, in 1888, an admission was charged for the first time to see the “passion play of the West.” Rodeo had become a spectator sport. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody employed cowboy acts in his Wild West show in the early eighties, but the roping and the riding were incidental to the re-enactment of such dramas as an attack on a wagon train or “Custer’s Last Stand.” Rodeo, by contrast, developed as a competitive “sport,” with the contestants timed or judged against one another’s records.

By the year 1890, at any rate, when the trailing of cattle had been terminated by the completion of the rail network and the arrival of the granger and barbed wire, brisk rivalries had sprung up between communities over the staging of rodeos—Cheyenne versus Denver, or Pendleton versus Walla Walla, for instance. Each city discovered in the go-arounds a tourist attraction and a stimulus for local business.

“Up in the air and down with all four legs bunched stiff as an antelope’s, and back arched like a hostile wildcat’s, went the animal,” wrote the Denver Republican ’s, man on the spot at an 1887 cowboy tournament. “But the rider was there, and deep into the rowels he sank the spurs while he lashed shoulders and neck with keen stinging quirt. It was brute force against human nerve. Nerve won. … The crowd cheered, and an admirer dropped a box of cigars into the hands of the perspiring but plucky victor.” The reporter found the performance “as exciting as a bull fight … the kind of sport nine men in ten like.” With such credentials, the man in the ten-gallon hat, leather-fringed chaparejos, and bright fuchsia shirt began to appear regularly at fairs, expositions, jubilees, vigilante days, stock shows, and especially Fourth of July celebrations.

Cheyenne, Wyoming, elaborated the first of the bigtime rodeos under the rubric Frontier Days. At high noon on September 23, 1897, Battery A of the 76th Field Artillery fired a salvo, bells rang, factories and locomotives blew their whistles, and the visitors who had arrived on a Union Pacific excursion from Denver (two dollars) and Greeley (one dollar) shot off their artillery, too. At the rodeo grounds there were, in addition to the usual contests, a pony-express ride, a sham battle, and a “predominant Western mood.” Contributing to this atmosphere was the seizure of a “robber” by masked vigilantes who hustled him to a high pole across from the race track. It is only fair to say that the figure which was hauled up the pole and riddled with bullets was merely a dummy.

The Frontier Days rodeo has been innovative and imaginative in many ways, in hiring operatives from the Burns Detective Agency to patrol the streets and in introducing the first rodeo clown, the bucking chutes, and a baby-sitting service. Teddy Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan came to see the fun, Sally Rand brought her fan dance, and in 1931 an inspired committee presented the first Miss Frontier, which “made queen participation in rodeos both popular and dignified.”

There were, of course, Indians present. One year, when the local committee negotiated with the Indians directly, the red men refused to work unless they were issued beefsteaks and watermelon twice a day. After that, the chiefs were hired through “a responsible Indian.”

Equally rich in tradition and prize money is the important Oregon event that pays homage to the pioneers, the Pendleton Round-Up, where the boys who are “ridin’ the shows” gather in September when the nights are getting cooler and the goldenrod is turning to bronze. Since 1908, when the first Pendleton Round-Up was held on a baseball field, Pendleton has been honoring “the qualities of the American West” by means of an annual rodeo. Visitors are entertained by simulated shoot-outs, by ox teams and Mormon carts, Indian chiefs, a competitive Tribal Ceremonial Dance—a total, one recent September, of eighteen crowd-pleasing events “run with clock-like precision.”

The modern rodeo consists of five standard events, usually run off in this order: saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, steer wrestling (a euphemism for bulldogging), and steer or calf roping. These are de rigueur . There may also be team roping, novelty acts such as working a bull with a cape, comedy-style, and optional events such as the wild-cow-milking competition, in which two men try to catch a few drops of milk in a Coke bottle, a popular number that adds “zest and a bit of robust humor.”

Most rodeos open with a serpentine parade called the Grand Entry, consisting of fifty to a hundred horsemen and horsewomen, richly garbed in gabardine and satin, with silver-mounted equipment glittering and jingling, a color guard, judges and officials in line, sheriffs’ posses and Shriners’ patrols, too, and often a nubile Queen of the Rodeo escorted by her court. The colors are posted, the national anthem is played, and the fun begins.

The ’dogging and bull riding are strictly show biz: they were never a part of the working hand’s routine except in emergencies. Steer and calf roping both trace their origins back to the working ranch, but contest steer roping has largely given place to the throwing of light, low-grade stock because, as Mary S. Robertson notes in Rodeo: Standard Guide to the Cowboy Sport , “it got so a stockman would cringe every time he saw a man rope and slam down a full grown steer.” On the ranch a calf is roped gently in a corral to avoid injury or restrained for doctoring in a “squeeze chute.” The economics of rodeo call for something quite different. Rodeo is a show. Speed and drama are the essence of it. So the dogie bolts out of the gate at a furious gallop. The rider who drops the loop over “the vealer” is racing the clock to down the animal and make a fast tie. A ranch calf gets roped once in his lifetime. The rodeo animal can be chased and roped as many as seven times a day in a large rodeo. If the beast flies head over heels, it is said to have been “busted,” which is prohibited but often unavoidable. In practice sessions, the animal can be used over and over again; used until used up, that is, until it breaks a leg or has an eye burned out by the taut rope. When this happens in competition, the band strikes up a tune and a clown draws the attention of the spectators away from the crippled animal. The dogie will soon be dog food. In fact, one packing house markets its canine victuals under the trademark Rodeo.

Complicated and minute rules govern all contests approved by the Rodeo Cowboys Association. The performers accumulate points that determine their scores and the prize money received. In bronc riding, for instance, the rules specify not only the length of time the rider must be able to stay on the horse (ten seconds) but the kind of equipment to be used, how the rein is to be held, and how he must come out of the chutes—raking the animal from the shoulder back to the rump with steel spurs to produce the desired bucking action on the part of the pony. As further assurance of a frenzied reaction, just before the chute gate is opened, a fleece-lined bucking or flanking strap is passed around the animal just aft of the rib cage, in the area of the intestines, and cinched up tight. This device can be clearly seen in most photographs of rodeo action. Every kick draws it tighter, and it leaves no mark. At the same time an electric prod, known familiarly as the hot shot, is applied. It is most effective in the rectal area.

Since the same animals are used over and over, knowledgeable horses often begin to fight the strap even before it is tightened, especially if a nail, tack, piece of barbed wire, or device made of sharp metal and known as a spider has been placed under the bucking strap. Such “rigging” of the strap is a breach of the rules, but it is hard to detect.

The rodeo bull is also fitted with the flanking strap, and he, too, bucks to get rid of it. Bull riding has “some of the atmosphere of the Mexican bullfight,” according to a rodeo historian. The appeal is spiced by the fact that a man may be gored. It is a made-up thriller.

Bulldogging, on the other hand, is so old that it is the subject of an ancient Greek epigram, and in Greek sculpture Thessalonian bullfighters are shown leaping from the backs of their horses to throw the bull to the ground by twisting his head. In American practice, the ’dogger jumps from his horse onto the animal, grips the horns, and forces the head down and sideways until the glaring eyeballs stare straight up and a fall is achieved. In times past the man set his teeth in the bull’s sensitive lip and held on like a bulldog— hence the name of the game—or dug his fingers into the beast’s eyes or nostrils. According to today’s rule book, contestants may be disqualified for “mistreatment of stock.” The regulation is applied with discretion. There is no penalty, for example, for breaking off a horn.

These unwilling performers, the livestock, actually consist of specially bred animals that have to be activated in the ways described. The Texas longhorn is now a zoological novelty, a lonely, grotesque, and pathetic beast, rarer than the buffalo, existing primarily for stock shows and rodeos. But in rodeo publicity the steers are fierce and malevolent. The crossbreed Brahma used in bull riding is a “loose-hided, hump-backed, droop-eared bundle of fury,” while the horses are “outlaws” and often bear such names as Dynamite, Tombstone, Bad Whiskey, or Cyanide. The clowns, in their fright wigs and long, bright-red underwear, fill in the dull spots, glossing over delays at the chutes if an animal proves to be a “chute fighter.” It is especially their job to distract the bull so that the rider can leave the arena without being trampled. The spectators strongly hope, with some titillation, that there will be no mischance. But if the worst occurs, the ticket holders want to see it.

Rodeos come in all shapes and sizes. There are other big extravaganzas in addition to those domiciled at Cheyenne and Pendleton, many held in indoor sports arenas at Houston, Denver, San Antonio, Omaha, in San Francisco’s Cow Palace, and in Madison Square Garden in New York City. The role of civic-group sponsorship is indicated in such names as the Annual Lions’ Rodeo at Alexander, Louisiana, and the Four-H Benefit Rodeo at St. Pierre, South Dakota. Some names aim for local color, such as the Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo at Waco, the Hellsapoppin’ Rodeo at Benson, Arizona, or the Strawberry Festival Rodeo at Pleasant Grove, Utah, where the committeemen wear glorious strawberry vests during rodeo days and nights. At least two unusual rodeos are exhibited in prisons.

Middle-sized rodeos include La Fiesta de los Vaqueros at “sun-drenched” Tucson. It is under the patronage of the Chamber of Commerce, which owns an original Butterfield stagecoach and the carriage in which Maximilian and Carlota rode into Mexico City. Phoenix combines rodeo with resort atmosphere, while the Elks Helldorado and Rodeo at Las Vegas offers the Strip, Hollywood stars, a plush gambling setting, girly-girly shows, and the Twenty Mule Team from Death Valley. There are also small, folksy rodeos, affectionately called “pun’kin rollers,” where the fan can get “dirt in the face and dung on the feet from close proximity to the arena action.” They are held all over: Grover, Colorado; Vernal, Utah; Hill City, Kansas.

Canada’s most spectacular venture in rodeo, and one of the largest anywhere, is the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede. Today it is also a trade fair, agricultural show, and “Mardi Gras of the prairie provinces.” Canadians look with disfavor upon the “bite-’im-kid” school of bulldogging and have substituted their own variation, called steer decorating. The ’dogger makes his leap, but instead of applying the head twist, he attaches a band decorated with ribbons to the horns.

Several attempts were made by the late promoter John Van “Tex” Austin to introduce rodeo in England. But the shock of the steer-roping episodes, requiring the pursuit and “busting” of tame animals in an area from which there was no escape, was too much for the British sense of fair play. Rodeo can, however, take a large part of the credit for the passage by Parliament of the Protection of Animals Act of 1934, which made it an offense to rope an untrained animal or to ride one using a cruel appliance such as a strap cinched tight around its genitals.

Whatever rodeo may be, it is a genuine expression of the American booster spirit, for its sponsorship is provided by such socially potent organizations as the Elks, Chamber of Commerce, Shriners, Jaycees, American Legion, or local volunteer firemen. Profits go into plant equipment or for worthy charities such as eye banks, orphanages, Four-H clubs, clinics for crippled children, and the like. When profits are elusive, there still remain such benefits as a lift in business for banks, motels, gas stations, and restaurants and a sense of community pride in working together and having competed vigorously for a slice of America’s amusement dollar.

The future of the rodeo industry is clouded by one nagging problem: adverse legislation. Rodeo is inherently cruel. As was demonstrated in England, when it isn’t cruel it isn’t rodeo, and the fans sit on their hands. Cruelty is defined by the animal-protection laws in most American states as the infliction of physical pain and suffering. In the state of Washington, to take one example, it is a misdemeanor for any animal to “be chased, worried or injured by any man or animal” as an amusement, or even for a devotee of rodeo to “be present at such fighting, chasing, worrying or injuring of such animal as spectator.” Nevertheless, rodeos have been held in recent years in Bremerton, Ellensberg, Kennewick, Monroe, Moses Lake, Newport, Omak, Othello, and Walla Walla; and last fall Yakima presented saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, calf roping, team roping, and what is jocosely called longhorn grappling—in short, the works. New York law, which forbids baiting animals, makes an exception of “exhibitions of a kind commonly featured at rodeos.”

Perhaps our urbanized civilization, having lost touch with its natural environment, finds in the hell-for-leather athlete in his distinctive costume a reassuring, if remarkably juvenile, symbol of man’s ability to conquer the brute forces of nature. The package becomes all the more seductive if presented as Americana. Leaders in the humane movement describe rodeo as “phony romanticism.” Rodeo apologists dismiss their critics as little old ladies in sneakers, or as radicals, agitators, fanatics, and probably vegetarians. But forty-seven states have outlawed “steer busting,” a style of roping from a horse that upends the steer, which is then dragged around the arena until benumbed enough for the rider to tie its legs. The state of Ohio and the city of Baltimore have ruled out the flanking strap and electric prod, and legislation for the same purpose has been pressed in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

To many observers, no worthwhile purpose is served by the rodeo. The animals consumed in this fun industry don’t feed us, clothe us, or promote the general welfare. They are simply props in a theatrical production, something to shout at. There is skepticism as to how rigorously the cowboy sport polices itself. There is the moral problem of how much pain and abuse the rodeo animals should have to endure for such a trivial purpose, or whether they should have to endure any at all. Pro-rodeo witnesses are not especially sensitive to the issues involved, judging by their lighthearted remarks given during the hearings conducted on the Baltimore anticruelty bill. One councilman said that a horse with a bucking strap is no more uncomfortable than “a South Sea native who puts on a girdle for a couple of minutes.” As for the hot-shot prods, a county-fair official declared : “They just tickle, like your wife sticking you with a pin.”

Why, then, are there rodeos? Perhaps Max Lerner put his finger on the reason when he wrote in America as Civilization: “Every people … must have a chance to yell for blood.”

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