History of Rodeo
Rodeo stresses its western folk hero image and its being a genuinely American creation. But in fact it grew out of the practices of Spanish ranchers and their Mexican ranch hands (vaqueros), a mixture of cattle wrangling and bull fighting that dates back to the sixteenth-century conquistadors.
One of the activities introduced by the Spanish and incorporated into the sporting version of rodeo was bull riding. Another was steer wrestling, involved wrestling the steer to the ground by riding up behind it, grabbing its tail, and twisting it to the ground. Bull wrestling had been part of an ancient tradition throughout the ancient Mediterranean world including Spain. The ancient Minoans of Crete practiced bull jumping, bull riding, and bull wrestling. Bull wrestling may have been one of the Olympic sports events of the ancient Greeks.
The events spread throughout the Vice-royalty of New Spain and was found at fairgrounds, racetracks, fiestas, and festivals in nineteenth century southwestern areas that now comprise the United States. However, unlike the roping, riding, and racing, this contest never attracted a following among Anglo cowboys or audiences. It is however a favorite event included in the charreada, the style of rodeo which originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
There would probably be no steer wrestling at all in American rodeo were it not for a black cowboy from Texas named Bill Pickett who devised his own unique method of bulldogging steers. He jumped from his horse to a steer’s back, bit its upper lip, and threw it to the ground by grabbing its horns. He performed at local central Texas fairs and rodeos and was discovered by an agent, who signed him on a tour of the West with his brothers. He received sensational national publicity with his bulldogging exhibition at the 1904 Cheyenne Frontier Days. This brought him a contract with the famous 101 Ranch in Oklahoma and its traveling Wild West exhibitions, where he spent many years performing in the United States and abroad.
Pickett attracted many imitators who appeared at rodeos and Wild West shows, and soon there were enough practitioners for promoters to stage contests.
The first woman bull-dogger appeared in 1913, when the great champion trick and bronc rider and racer Tillie Baldwin exhibited the feat. However, women's bulldogging contests never materialized. But cowboys did take up the sport with enthusiasm but without the lip-biting, and when rodeo rules were codified, steer wrestling was among the standard contests. Two halls of fame recognize Bill Pickett as the sole inventor of bulldogging, the only rodeo event which can be attributed to a single individual.Rodeo itself evolved after the Texas Revolution and the U.S.-Mexican War when Anglo cowboys learned the skills, attire, vocabulary, and sports of the vaqueros. Ranch-versus-ranch contests gradually sprang up, as bronc riding, bull riding, and roping contests appeared at race tracks, fairgrounds, and festivals of all kinds. William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) created the first major rodeo and the first Wild West show in North Platte, Nebraska in 1882.
Following this successful endeavor, Cody organized his touring Wild West show, leaving other entrepreneurs to create what became professional rodeo. Rodeos and Wild West shows enjoyed a parallel existence, employing many of the same stars, while capitalizing on the continuing allure of the mythic West. Women joined the Wild West and contest rodeo circuits in the 1890s and their participation grew as the activities spread geographically. Animal welfare groups began targeting rodeo from the earliest times, and have continued their efforts with varying degrees of success ever since.
The word rodeo was only occasionally used for American cowboy sports until the 1920s, and professional cowboys themselves did not officially adopt the term until 1945. Similarly, there was no attempt to standardize the events needed to make up such sporting contests until 1929. From the 1880s through the 1920s, frontier days, stampedes, and cowboy contests were the most popular names. Cheyenne Frontier Days, which began in 1897, remains the most significant annual community celebration even today. Until 1922, cowboys and cowgirls who won at Cheyenne were considered the world’s champions.
Until 1912, organization of these community celebrations fell to local citizen committees who selected the events, made the rules, chose officials, arranged for the stock, and handled all other aspects of the festival. Many of these early contests bore more resemblance to Buffalo Bill's Wild West than to contemporary rodeo.
While today's PRCA-sanctioned rodeos must include five events: calf roping, bareback and saddle bronc riding, bull riding, and steer wrestling, with the option to also hold steer roping and team roping, their Pre-World War I counterparts often offered only two of these contests. The day-long programs included diverse activities including Pony Express races, nightshirt races, and drunken rides. One even featured a football game. Almost all contests were billed as world's championships, causing confusion that endures to this day. Cowboys and cowgirls often did not know the exact events on offer until they arrived on site, and did not learn the rules of competition until they had paid their entry fees.
Before World War II, the most popular rodeo events included trick and fancy roping, trick and fancy riding, and racing. Trick and fancy roping contestants had to make figures and shapes with their lassos before releasing them to capture one or several persons or animals. These skills had to be exhibited on foot and on horseback. Fancy roping was the event most closely identified with the vaqueros, who invented it. In trick and fancy riding, athletes performed gymnastic feats on horseback while circling the arena at top speed. Athletes in these events were judged, much like those in contemporary gymnastics. The most popular races included Roman standing races wherein riders stood with one foot on the back of each of a pair of horses, and relays in which riders changed horses after each lap of the arena. Both were extremely dangerous, and sometimes fatal.
Another great difference between these colorful contests and their modern counterparts was that there were no chutes or gates, and no time limits. Rough stock were blindfolded and snubbed in the center of the arenas where the riders mounted. The animals were then set free. In the vast arenas, which usually included a racetrack, rides often lasted more than 10 minutes, and sometimes the contestants vanished from view of the audience.
During this era, women rode broncs and bulls and roped steers. They also competed in a variety of races, as well as trick and fancy roping and riding. In all of these contests, they often competed against men and won. Hispanics, blacks and Native Americans also participated in significant numbers. In some places, Native Americans were invited to set up camp on the grounds, perform dances and other activities for the audience, and participate in contests designated solely for them, Some rodeos did discriminate against one or more of these groups, but most were open to anyone who could pay the entry fee.
All this began to change in 1912, when a group of Calgary businessmen hired American roper Guy Weadick to manage, promote, and produce his first Stampede. Weadick selected the events, determined rules and eligibility, chose the officials, and invited well-known cowboys and cowgirls to take part. He hoped to pit the best Canadian hands against those of the US and Mexico, but Mexican participation was severely limited by the civil unrest in that country. Nonetheless, the Stampede was a huge success, and Weadick followed with the Winnipeg Stampede of 1913, and much less successful New York Stampede of 1916. Although Weadick’s last production, the 1919 Calgary Stampede, was only a minor success, he led the way for a new era in which powerful producers, not local committees, would dominate rodeo and greatly expand its audience.
Rodeo enjoyed enormous popularity in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia, as well as in London, Europe, Cuba, South America, and the Far East in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, none of those venues is viable. Despite numerous tours abroad before World War II, rodeo is really significant only in North America. While it does exist in Australia and New Zealand, top athletes from those countries come to America to seek their fortunes.