A look at how rodeo is perceived as both an American pastime and a contest in cruelty
By Katie Marsico
Bucking broncos, cowboys waving lassos, and cheering crowds seem an innocent enough depiction of the American pastime known as rodeo. For an activity that some consider as red, white, and blue as baseball, however, rodeo competitions have attracted a great deal of controversy, most of which stems from the objections of animal advocates. What are the allegations—and the truths—behind the event that certain people consider a sport and others regard as indisputable cruelty?
Rodeo has its roots in several continents besides North America, including South America, Europe, and Australia. The displays of sportsmanship that made so many cowboys famous as they subdued stallions and herded cattle in the United States in the late 1800s have now become major spectator events that draw massive crowds and wealthy advertisers. Calf and steer roping, steer wrestling, bareback and saddle riding, and barrel racing are a sampling of the activities that involve animals such as horses and bulls at various stages of physical development. Proponents of rodeos argue that these pastimes represent a historically significant element in U.S. culture and are quick to support the men and women who enter the ring.
“The competitors in modern rodeos are athletes,” says Cindy Schonholtz, animal welfare coordinator for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), the sanctioning body for U.S. rodeo that is headquartered in Colorado Springs, CO. “Those watching a rodeo will see well-trained, well-practiced athletes. There is no doubt that rodeo is a direct reflection of the United States’ western heritage, and it is important to preserve that heritage, especially in this day and age, when so many Americans are so far removed from the family farm and livestock. Rodeo keeps our heritage alive and allows the public to see livestock and the skills of ranching up close and personal.”
But not everyone agrees with Schonholtz’s perspective about the role of rodeos in U.S. history and what benefits they provide attendees. Eric Mills, the coordinator of Action for Animals (AHA) an Oakland, CA-based animal-rights group, is particularly well known for his objections to these events.
“Rodeos offer spectators a big lie,” Mills insists. “It is based on the pain, suffering, stress—and sometimes death—of the animals involved. Rodeo is not a ‘sport,’ though it’s hyped as such. True sports involve willing, evenly matched competitors. Rodeo doesn’t qualify. Real cowboys never routinely rode bulls, rode bareback, wrestled steers, or tried to rope, throw, or tie a terrified calf in eight seconds flat. Nor did they put bucking straps on the animals, without which most would not buck. Bull riding and steer wrestling have nothing to do with a working ranch. Both were created for the arena.” Yet what precisely goes on in the arena that has animal advocates like Mills so eager to see rodeos come to a halt?
The controversial use of electric prods, spurs, and bucking (or flank) straps is among the reasons that opponents of rodeo decry what they regard as a blatant display of cruelty trussed up to resemble an all-American sport. Animal-rights activists strongly condemn the aforesaid tools as instruments of torture that rodeo participants and organizers rely upon to force bulls and horses to buck, run, and otherwise display aggression or fear.
“First of all, if it is natural for the animals to behave according to their fear and flight instincts, then why would a human need to use electric cattle prods, spurs, and bucking straps across the testicles of rodeo horses to make them buck?” questions Vivian Grant, president of the International Fund for Horses, a nonprofit equine-advocacy group with U.S. headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Horses run and kick for fun, but alone when they are playing—not with someone on their backs.” According to Schonholtz, however, the utilization of these devices merits more public education and understanding.
“Prods are used to move large animals; they are by far the most humane way [to do so], and veterinarians have testified time and time again the livestock have no ill effects as a result. Prods involve very little electronic stimulation, similar to a pet fence. Spurs used in rodeos are required to be dull, and flank straps are employed in bucking events to encourage an animal [who] already has the tendency and ability to buck to kick higher. The horse flank strap is required to be lined with fleece or neoprene and cannot have any sharp object in it.” Although Schonholtz references veterinary testimony, some do not consider the opinions of the animal experts who advocate rodeo events to be of extreme value.
“The vets and so-called animal-welfare people connected to rodeos will not give you the facts that … undercover videos clearly show,” notes Grant. “While there must be some people in the rodeo world who care about the animals, such care usually comes under the heading of ‘[We] are aware of the cruelties but are willing to look the other way.’ Others simply insist that the animals involved do not suffer the same way humans do in order to justify this barbaric and outdated ‘sport.’”
Mills adds that, despite the fact that rodeos might feature on-site veterinary staff, this does not guarantee humane treatment. He also notes that the arena is frequently a pit stop filled with painful and unnecessary injuries for animals [who] end up at the slaughterhouse. “At the California State Fair in Sacramento in 2002,” he recalls, “a rodeo bull had his back broken. Was he [humanely] euthanized? No, though a vet was present. He was trucked off to a ranch more than an hour away and then shot to death the next day.”
With such vivid accounts swirling at the center of a clearly heated conflict about rodeos, what lies in store for these events in 21st-century America? “Rodeo will continue to thrive,” predicts Schonholtz, “as long as the industry continues to keep what is best for the livestock at the forefront. Self-regulation is the key to success … [as is] educating the public and legislators about the sport and the livestock involved. When the truth about the care these animals actually do receive is brought to light, the rodeo wins.”
In making this assertion, however, Schonholtz also acknowledges that animal advocates frequently propose and sometimes achieve bans on rodeos or specific rodeo events in certain states and municipalities. And as far as animal-rights leaders like Mills are concerned, rodeo enthusiasts should not expect a decrease in such efforts any time in the near future.
“As long as I’m alive, the rodeo is in for lots more regulation,” he promises. “Hopefully, we’ll even win some outright bans on various events, such as calf and steer roping. We need to pressure ESPN-TV to show rodeo honestly, as in televising roped calves hitting the end of the rope. Then I don’t think the public would stand for it.” Regardless of whether Americans abhor or adore rodeo, however, discussion and debate surrounding an event that dates back to early U.S. history does not promise to disappear from the forefront of animal welfare any time in the near future.