On The Rodeo

Helen Thompson’s guide to this most Texan of events.
Wed December 31, 1969 6:00 am

Every season in Texas is rodeo season, but the biggest rodeos in the state are in February and March. Here’s our guide to rodeos—how they got started, how they work, which is the best, and rodeo champions’ secrets to being the best. We’ll also give you valuable tips on how to talk about rodeo without putting your Gucci loafer-shod foot in your mouth—when, for instance, it’s ok to use the label “hooker” in polite company, and when a pickup man can save your life. Rodeos have a strong hold on our culture. Even in Texas, where they are so commonplace that you can find one almost any weekend in small towns all over the state—rodeos are still a big deal, no matter how lavish or how little they are.

How it all got started

Rodeo comes from the Spanish word, “rodear” which means to encircle or to surround. To the Spanish in New Spain (now Mexico) in the mid-sixteenth century, a rodeo was simply a cattle roundup. It is probably inevitable that a competitive and flashy culmination to these roundups would evolve: it was a chance for cowhands to show off their skills breaking an especially wild bronco or flaunt their flair as a roper. But it wasn’t until the mid-eighteen hundreds that these contests got organized into full-fledged celebrations.

Texas would like to take credit for the first rodeo celebration: In the early 1880s in the West Texas town of Pecos, cowboys would get off work and come into town on the Fourth of July (also known as Cowboy Christmas). They would thunder down Main street roping steers and corraling the critters in the courthouse square. By some historical accounts, this was the birth of rodeo. Even though Coloradoans also claim that distinction, Texans did have something to do with one of the earliest rodeos, this one in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1872. The occasion was the forerunner of the weeklong Frontier Days still held in Cheyenne. As the story goes, a group of Texas cowboys arrived in Cheyenne and decided to celebrate July Fourth with an exhibition of their steer-riding prowess. The even t must have been successful, because the next year local cowboys chose to do a little bronco-busting to celebrate Independence Day—down the middle of one of Cheyenne’s main streets. (Bronco-busting a hundred years ago didn’t have the advantage of a life-saving buzzer going off after 8 seconds—cowboys rode the bronc until either it or the rider gave out, and sometimes that was as long as twenty minutes.)

Rodeos emerged from the workaday world of the cowboy along with America’s growing fascination with the West: in 1882 Buffalo Bill Cody turned the west into lucrative entertainment with his first Wild West show. Cody used the term “rodeo” for these extravaganzas which included roping, riding, bronco-busting, and bull riding (always the thrilling finale). Sometimes as many as a thousand cowboys competed for prizes. By the 1890s rodeos were commonplace all over the catt le-raising regions of the West. Nowadays the rodeo has shifted away from its origins as a way for working cowboys to blow off steam: it is more of a show, and demands all the time and money a major theatrical productions might cost. An aspiring cowboy or cowgirl will have to compete in 80 to 125 rodeos a year, be well-subsidized (thousands and thousands of dollars can be spent on travel and entry fees alone, not to mention horses, equipment, and maintenance), and expect to spend at least 200 days a year on the road.

Today’s rodeos are glitzy affairs—and seem a far cry from the simple display of a cowboy’s working skills. Of course, no self-respecting cowboy would appear on the range in some of the gaudy get-ups they sport in the arena. They have the women to thank f or the change in rodeo costuming: in the early years of motion pictures, winning a rodeo championship was almost a sure way for a woman to break into silent films. Often these skilled equestriennes were performers anyway—in their divided skirts and spang led shirts they could wow an audience bulldogging steers, busting broncos, or balancing on two horses as they spun around an arena. Women began wearing colorful leggings and red velvet skirts with lavishly embroidered hems; in later years bright trousers, silk shirts, and dashing neckerchiefs were popular. Cowboys had to capitulate to please their fans—and that’s why most of them today look more like performers than like cowboys. Nowadays rodeos are a raucous amalgam of both America’s oldest, and newest, icons: the roundup, the Wild West show, and the movies.

How to talk sensibly about rodeo’s essential elements.

Average: scores on all go rounds (see below) plus the score on the short go (see below). Whoever has the highest average wins.

Bareback bronc: a horse whose rider isn’t using a saddle but is hanging on courtesy of a strap around the horse’s rib cage.

Barrel man: the rodeo clown, an important factor in the bullriding event. He hides in a barrel until he is needed to distract a dangerous bull from injuring a thrown rider; also leads a dismounted bull away from the cowboy and out of the arena; a good clown can also coax a better performance out of a bucking bull before he is dismounted.

Circuit finals: Regional finals before the championship. Texas is the only state that has its own circuit.

Clover leaf: the route contestants in the barrel race follow

Dogie: a motherless, or wild, calf

Free hand: in rodeo riding events one hand must stay free at all times

Go round: a contestant’s turn at a rodeo event

Good bucker: a bucking horse or bull admired by the contestants

Hooker: a bull who, when he bucks, throws the rider forward so that he can hook the rider with his horns.

Houlihan: the head-over-heels tumble a steer takes in the steer wrestling event

Low time: the winner in a timed rodeo event

Luck of the draw: the animal

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