The History of Rodeos: Wild Men and Wild Horses

Cassidy Hanton

Have you ever heard about rodeos?

Not the contemporary ones with the professional bull riders but the ones that took place in the magical Era of the Wild West…

They were something, alright! Blood, sweat, and adrenaline filled the atmosphere and alpha males battling each other for first place. I’ll leave you a minute to picture it…

Let’s start unraveling the essence of what “rodeo” was and how it came to be what it is now. Shall we start from the basics? Is that a yes? Great!

Well, the word “rodeo” originates from the Spanish word “rodear” which means “to encircle.” Understandably, rodeos grew out of normal cattle ranch activities and, subsequently, the title is justifiable. Even before the original establishment of rodeos, cowboys got together to test each other in contests related to their ranch and cattle work. They competed in knowledge and skills.

Rodeos firstly began as small roping and riding contests among cowboys in towns near ranches or at camps at the end of the cattle trails. In Pecos, Texas, on July 4, 1883, cowboys from two ranches, the Hash Knife and the W Ranch, competed in roping and riding contests as a way to settle an argument (there was obviously no better way to settle their differences than this). This is recognized by historians of the West as the first real rodeo. The first exhibition for the “prize money” was held in Prescott, Arizona Territory, on the 4th of July, 1888.

Casual contests evolved into planned celebrations. Many were scheduled around national holidays, such as Independence Day, or during traditional roundup times in the spring and fall. (-Hey Honey, should we go on vacation for the weekend? -Goodness no! There is a rodeo in town!)

Early rodeos took place in open grassy areas. They gained popularity and soon dedicated rodeo circuits developed. In those rodeos, the ones that participated were mostly cowboys.

Undoubtedly, many ranchers tried to take part but they were at a disadvantage. The events the participants had to compete in included calf roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, bareback “bronco” riding, and barrel racing…no easy tasks for a soft fella! It took macho men to triumph in all the above-listed activities.

Although about 90% of rodeo contestants were men, women helped to popularize rodeo and several popular women bronc riders, such as Bertha Kaepernick, participated in men’s events. Even in the wild and dangerous West, women did not back down nor played by societal rules.

Girl power!

Now wildly popular across the country, the shows traveled throughout the eastern United States and even across Europe and showcased what was already a mythic frontier life.

You must have heard, at least once, of “Buffalo Bill”, have you not?

I’m sure you are thinking right now “That’s right! But I am not sure who he was or what he did for a living”.

Well, let me tell you! William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody was the first to recognize the broad national appeal of the stock “characters” of the American West and tried to import actual cowboys and Indians into his productions. Even though he did not want to name it as one, it was still, of course, a show. It was entertainment, little different in its broad outlines from the contemporary theater.

Buffalo Bill created his first show in 1883. He created many storylines that showed how life was like in the “Wild West”. He depicted many over changing scenarios such as westward migration and Indian attacks.

The cowboy riding and roping events of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and other traveling shows became so popular that many western towns created annual Cowboy Tournaments. The first professional rodeo was held in Prescott, Arizona, in 1888 which, as was mentioned above, had a cash prize.

In 1929 the Rodeo Association of America was formed in Salinas, California, and most of the events became standard and are just like the ones we have come to know today.

Well, my dear, now you know a little bit more about rodeos, their origins and their growth throughout the centuries…Bull riding, wrestling, and “bareback” horse riding are sports that have lasted for decades and are still popular today. People practice for years in order for them to participate in rodeos and others travel across the U.S to witness them.

How about you, then? Have you ever been to a rodeo contest? And if you have not, would you like to live an experience as such?

Don’t forget to leave a comment below, to let me know your thoughts!

Written by Cassidy Hanton

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