Are rodeos humane? No buckin’ way!

SHARK photo

Kathleen Stachowski  Other Nations

It’s summer, and summer means rodeo. Crowds buzzing with excitement; the sound of groans, gasps, and cheers filling the dusty rodeo grounds; pretty rodeo queens waving to wide-eyed kids, and neck-snared calves hurtling through the air and slamming to the ground shaken, terrified, and sometimes injured. You can’t get family entertainment like that just anywhere!

Ah, rodeo. Romantic, tragic rodeo, the stuff of legend and country music.Tales of love–and life–lost to rodeo. George sang it in I Can Still Make Cheyenne; Garth sang it in The Beaches of Cheyenne.

A different tune–sad and true–came out of Cheyenne recently, when a saddle bronc was fatally injured and euthanized at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo–“The Daddy of ’em All.” SHARK (SHowing Animals Respect and Kindness) captured the horse’s collapse in a brief video. “Almost immediately the animal injuries start(ed) piling up,” SHARK reports on its page. Scroll down at that page for the first calf roping injury video, also. (Three separate steer injury videos and a second horse injury can be viewed at the conclusion of the saddle bronc video linked above.)

Given the volume of injury in just this one rodeo, the following claim by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association stretches credibility:

The PRCA has continually called up by on-site, independent rodeo veterinarians at PRCA-sanctioned events to conduct livestock welfare surveys. The purpose of the surveys is to determine the rate of injury to rodeo livestock and the effectiveness of PRCA livestock welfare rules. Over the years, the results have continued to show a rate of injury that is very, very low. The most recent survey, conducted at 194 rodeo performances held during the 2009 PRCA rodeo season. As in the past, the rate of injury is proving to be very low with the rate of injury calculating out to .00037.

The complete results of the survey are as follows:


Apologists for rodeo industry cruelty will tell you that “the contests were designed with thorough knowledge and respect of the animals’ capabilities and limitations, and are regarded as reasonable use of animals” (Friends of Rodeo). Reasonable use of animals? You’ll find this harder to swallow than a big ol’ cow pie after viewing a few of the videos referenced above or below…guaranteed.

The PRCA (see their explanation of animal welfare vs. animal rights here) governs roughly one-third of U.S. rodeos and repeatedly points to their 60 rules, “…the most comprehensive set of animal welfare rules in the sport of rodeo…” PRCA not only wrote the rules, but also enforces the rules. Accountability? You’ll have to take their word for it, as information about violations and penalties is a closely-guarded secret. Read SHARK’s take on the rules here, and decide for yourself who has the best interest of animals at heart.

Brutality masquerades as Western tradition in calf roping, team roping, and steer wrestling, where burly men test their mettle by manhandling frightened domestic animals. Today’s timed and judged competitive events are a far cry from the ranch and range skills from whence they came. Watch a few more videos–this one from Killeen, TX in 2007 includes calf roping, the use of electric prods on horses to move them out of the chutes, and steers whose tails are painfully twisted into a rope or raked over the bars of the chute so they’ll explode out when the gate opens, escaping one torture for another. And this one, a montage of rodeo cruelty.

Kids born into the rodeo life learn the ropes early with their own events–the odiously-named “mutton busting” and goat and pig chasing (“We use fresh pigs every time we go,” you’ll hear the announcer say in a generous nod to animal welfare; he delivers this message above the frantic squealing of piglets being dragged by their hind legs). Goat tying–a youth and girls’ version of calf roping–is popular in high school rodeos. Watch as the small, tethered goats attempt to flee the approaching horses and riders to no avail. The Vancouver Humane Society, addressing “animal welfare issues at rodeos and stampedes” says this at

 Aside from what rodeo does to animals, there is also the question of what it does to us. That is, what message does rodeo give to the public, especially children? Most civilized societies rank kindness to animals amongst the highest behavioural values of humankind. … Animal advocates say no one could argue that rodeo demonstrates kindness or compassion to animals. On the contrary, they say, rodeo explicitly condones and glorifies violence and brutality toward animals – surely an undesirable message for children.

Watch enough of this stuff (as I have done today)–the downed horses, the calves jerked into the air by the neck, the steers roped by head and hind legs in team roping events or wrestled to the ground with a violent wrench of the neck–and you’ll start to feel numb. You might have to remind yourself that this stream of brutal images has as its object unique and sentient individuals, frightened and hurting and sometimes permanently broken. And don’t forget that the rodeo industry supports horse slaughter. “A large percentage of broncs are the result of specialized breeding programs designed to produce horses that want to buck,” according to Cowboy Way. Where do those who don’t want to buck go? Where do injured and worn-out bucking horses go? A large animal veterinarian with former ties to rodeo discusses rodeo animals’ fate at Stop the Rodeo! (To go directly to her statement, click here. She’s also interviewed in a 9-minute “Hard Copy” expose’ uploaded to YouTube in 2007 and worth a look.)

Can change be wrought? Yes. In 2007, one of Canada’s largest pro rodeos–Cloverdale in British Columbia–eliminated the violent timed roping and wrestling events after the death of a calf (this came on the heels of an earlier steer death) and protests and disruptions from animal activists at Liberation BC. The exploitive rodeo industry won’t give ground willingly, but the hearts and minds of compassionate humans–the many who say they “love animals”–can be won. Those of us who advocate justice for animals must lead the way peacefully and persistently.

Rodeo isn’t wrong just because animals are injured. Rodeo is wrong because it denies (or worse–disregards) animals’ sentience and uses them as nothing more than disposable means to an end–a buckle, some cash, a name in a record book. It treats thinking, feeling beings as mere currency with which to purchase these desires. To head-off the predictable and simplistic retort, “If you don’t like rodeo, don’t go,”–listen up: it’s not about me. Justice for the oppressed and exploited has never been won by staying home and keeping silent. Denying anyone else their good time isn’t the point, either. But when your “fun” cruelly exploits those who can’t defend themselves, boy howdy, I’m speakin’ up.

The Western Montana Fair rolls around in August, and with it the Missoula Stampede Rodeo, a PRCA-sanctioned event. I’ve scoped out the ticket price–$15 for a good seat, $10 for a cheap seat. I’ll be sending a $15 donation–the cost of a rodeo ticket–to SHARK  to help keep their cameras rolling.  If the price of admission to your nearby rodeo (or Missoula’s, if you aren’t near one) won’t break the bank, you might consider doing the same. We can blog, comment, and share our outrage until the cows come limping home, but talk is cheap. SHARK’s kind of action, on the other hand, requires a cash flow to keep exposing the hard evidence of rodeo industry cruelty.

Notwithstanding the abundant evidence of abuse and cruelty, there’s a trend afoot where rodeo public relations hacks promote the “livestock” as “animal athletes.”  This sleight of phrase is just what you’d expect from an industry desperate to convince the public that rodeo animals are willing participants in the bodily assaults, snared necks, twisted tails, prod shocks, and binding flank straps they endure.

Are you buying it? Me neither. No buckin’ way.

6 Responses

  1. A well-written eye opener. SHARK will get the price of a ticket from me, too.

  2. Thank you Kathleen for such an informatively post that quite adequately puts the rodeo ruse in it’s place. I’m sure it was a challenge as the layers of lies are thicker than cowboy skin.

    I keep hoping the good works of SHARK and all the other advocates against these horror hoe-downs will make a dent in there existence. Sadly, just when I think we might make some headway, I see China now has permitted rodeos in an effort of “cultural exchange”.

    It’s frustrating and sad… You’re absolutely right – absolutely nothing civilized, decent or humane at a rodeo.

  3. My cousin was a rodeo queen and I grew up going to rodeos. It was so much a part of my early indoctrination that I recognized the injustice in the meat & fur industries, horse & dog racing, circuses, lab research, dog, cock and whatever else fighting, hunting, fishing and pet breeding industries looong before I took a look at rodeos. What is particularly tragic to me is that people like my cousin, who loves horses (and I’m not being sarcastic, she really does, or thinks she does), are often participants in things like rodeo or horse racing. This kind of “moral schizophrenia” to quote Gary Francione, is rife in things like rodeo, which tends, oddly enough, to attract people who are attracted to animals. Thank you and SHARK for laying out some excellent talking points on this (personally) sore subject.

  4. Love SHARK – and rodeo’s are deplorable. Just another way for men to flex their “muscle” over animal in an effort to compensate for their um – short-comings.

  5. i just emailed my state senators and congressman pleading with them to help our poor souls-rodeo animals. i urge everyone out there to do the same. ask that rodeo animals be included in animal cruelty laws. also ask they support s.#1176 american horse slaughter prevention act of 2011, and also s.#1281 horse transportation safety act of 2011. these will help our rodeo horses tremendously. thank you from christine and all the animals.
    p..s. also ask that animal cruelty become a federal crime. it’s getting way out of hand.

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