- Historic Sites
The Late, Late Frontier
What started as fun and games at spring roundups is now a multi-million-dollar sport called rodeo
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
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.