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

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