Rodeos - Cruel Entertainment?

History of rodeos

Rodeo as a sport arose out of the working practices of cattle herding in both Spain and Mexico. Later, it took hold in the United States, Canada and Australia. Although there are numerous theories for its origin, the word rodeo is based in the Spanish language, and the most common English translation is “round up” From a historical and western perspective it was based primarily on the skills required by cowboys of what today is western United States when handling horses and steers on large ranch properties. Today, it is considered a sporting event that is made up of several different times and judged events involving both cattle and horses, designed to test the skill and speed of the human contestants against the speed and strength of animals.

Rodeo in Australia

The Australian rodeo has many events that involve the use of animals. There are approximately 4000 rodeo stock used in some 600 rodeos held around Australia each year. However, the number of calves and steers used in roping events is unknown. Despite having a committee, the Australian Professional Rodeo Association (APRA) and a Code of Practice, most rodeos are self-regulated and many cruelty issues never really make public knowledge. Furthermore, any rules stipulated by APRA are voluntary and only apply at APRA rodeo events.

Transportation equipment available today also makes a difference. Horses are typically shipped in trucks, often without air conditioning. "I can remember when we'd jam as many as we could into a stock trailer and head off to a rodeo," says Mike Beers of Powell Butte, Ore. "Today our trailers have air-ride suspension and some even have air conditioning. Which really adds value to our transports."

The common 6 rodeo events in the Australian rodeo include:

  • Steer Wrestling: This event involves two riders with one rider keeping the released steer in a straight line, while the other rider jumps off the horse onto the steer and “wrestles” the animal to the ground by grabbing it by the horns and twisting the animal’s neck.For the rider it can be the most dangerous event as it involves the high risk of the rider jumping off a running horse head first and missing the steer, or having the thrown steer land on top of him, sometimes horns first. For the steer the stress of being chased then having its neck twisted in a quick and brutal manner while running can result in strained muscles and painful tendons.
    The Roping events involves a number of time trials that are supposedly based on the real-life tasks of a working cowboy, who often had to catch calves and adult cattle for branding, medical treatment and other purposes. A rope lasso or lariat is thrown over the head of a calf or the horns and heels of adult cattle, and the animal is supposedly secured by its size and age.
  • Calf Roping (tie-down roping): A frightened calf is released from the holding chute before being chased on horseback. The calf is then roped around the neck by a lariat, the horse stops and set back on the rope while the ‘cowboy’ dismounts, runs to the calf, throws the animal to the ground and ties three legs together with ‘pipping string’. If the calf in not on its feet after it is roped, it must be let up and “re-thrown”.
    If the horse throws the calf, the contestant loses time waiting for the calf to get back to its feet so that the cowboy can throw it to the ground himself and tie the legs within a 30 second limit. This event has been documented as being very cruel as the calf can be jerked off its feet into the air while running at high speeds. Calves have been known to run as fast as 43km/hr, and they can hit the end of the rope with 2020 pounds of force. Due to increasing concern to animal welfare the Australian Professional Rodeo Association (APRA) has introduced some rules in an attempt to reduce trauma to calves. These include a mandatory weight range being that of 100kg-130kg, as well as contestants having a roping device attached to the saddle. This device consists of a 13cm metal frame with several cross bars and a slack, 15cm piece of rope needing to be drawn through the cross bars when the calf comes to the end of the rope. The aim is to reduce the harm caused by the abrupt stop. However, the roping device will not eliminate any bruising or trauma caused by a rope being pulled around the neck, although it will reduce the chances of the calf being pulled off its feet.
  • Team Roping: A steer is released from the holding chute as a pair of riders attempt to rope him within 30 seconds. One of the ropes must be around the horns, neck or half a head, while the second rope must be around the back legs. A steer that has been correctly roped is stretched between the two horses and the opposite pull from the ropes causes him to fall to the ground.
    Apart from the roping and wrestling events, rodeos also have “rough stock” competition, involving horses and bulls. Commonly referred to as “bucking” events, the aim of the riders is to stay on the animal for 8 seconds after it has been released from the chute
  • Bronc riding: there are two divisions in this event, bareback riding, where the rider is only allowed to hang onto a bucking horse with a surcingle, and saddle bronc riding, where the rider is allowed a specialized western saddle without a horn and may hang onto a heavy lead rope attached to a halter on the horse. Contrary to popular belief the horses used in these events are not wild horses or “broncs”. Most often they are riding horses or tamed horses that have been trained to buck. To force the animal to come out of the chute bucking a flank strap is pulled tightly around their groin. When pulled tightly, the flank cuts into the sensitive area, irritating them and causing them to buck in an attempt to relieve the discomfort.
    Once the flank strap is removed, the horse stops bucking. Studies carried out by the US Humane Society found that gentle horses bucked when a flank strap was applied, while rodeo horses didn’t buck when there was no flank strap (PETA, "Rodeo: Cruelty for a Buck). To further increase bucking, riders are allowed to wear metallic spurs with loosened rowels (star shaped wheels). Just prior to being released the rider digs his spurs into the animal’s side to further aggravate it, as well as help him stay on the animal.
  • Bull riding: this event involves the “cowboys” riding full-grown bulls instead of horses, and using skills similar to bareback riding. Bulls are very unpredictable and may attack a fallen rider, so Rodeo Clowns, work during the bull riding competition to help prevent injury to the fallen competitor. Bulls have been known to be given an electric shock at the gate of the chute as it is opened. A hand held prod is used to deliver a shock to the shoulder or rump. Although the APRA Code of Practice states that prods should not be routinely used, there has been video evidence of their use, especially at country rodeo shows.
    Apart from electric prods, flank straps and spurs are also used in the event to aggravate the animal.

Rodeos as a cruelty issue

Charges of animal cruelty in rodeos are not new, and some practices justly warrant scrutiny. Animal cruelty issues were raised as far back as 1886 in the United States.

There are a number of welfare concerns with rodeos:

  1. The use of spurs and bucking straps, also known as the flank strap:
    Spurs are used to aggravate the animal’s sides, as well as to get better hold on the animal when riding.he APRA website claims that spurs “usually only ruffle the animal’s hair and most contact with the animals in the bucking horse events is forward of the girth in the shoulder region. Nerve endings are much less dense in the shoulder and it is unlikely spur contact is painful to the horse.”
    However, observations have shown that the skin of horses and cattle is sensitive enough to detect a fly alighting.
    The flank strap is tightened around the sensitive groin area to induce bucking. Bucking events cannot be held without this strap. Due to the tightness and the resulting reaction from the animal, bloody and painful wounds can be caused.
  2. Use of metal or electric prods: These are used in rodeos to encourage the bucking animal to clear the chute area and as quickly and aggressively as possible. An electric shock is discharged into the animal’s muscle causing discomfort and excitement. An electric prod can release up to 5000 volts.
  3. Psychological trauma: Animals can become very distressed in the chute and they have been known to scramble over the top or fall down. The APRA Code of Practice acknowledges this problem, and states that animals must be released if they repeatedly go down, repeatedly try to jump off the chute, become excessively excited, or are in danger of injuring themselves. Dr. Temple Grandin, an animal behaviourist, studied animal movement and designed handling facilities for ranchers. She stated that animals that are handled roughly and become excited or frightened will remember their experience and become more difficult to handle the longer they are experienced. (Craig Richardson - Animal Care Specialist, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Ontario)
  4. Physical trauma to the animal, such as neck, back, head or leg injuries, and sometimes even death. Injuries include ligament tearing, disc rupture, damage to the thymus gland, trachea and subcutaneous tissue, and hemorrhaging.

As admitted by a rodeo stock contractor:

“….horses can pull muscles and suffer skin abrasions and minor leg injuries. Occasionally a bucking horse may break a leg” (Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare, Equine Welfare in Competitive Events Other Than Racing, Senate Printing Unit, Canberra, 1991)

In Victoria it was also found that in a four year period, 29 injuries, including death were reported. At least 3 horses had broken necks or backs, 2 bulls with broken backs and 1 with a broken leg, and 6 steers with broken legs. (Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare, Equine Welfare in Competitive Events Other Than Racing, Senate Printing Unit, Canberra, 1991)

Apart from broken bones, massive bruising and sometimes fatal injuries, animals can suffer visible cuts and bruises, as well as horses suffering from wounds caused by the horns of cattle. Internal injuries such as hemorrhaging in the thymus gland and the trachea have been found in calves used in roping events.

The NSW Code of Practice for Rodeo.

What Can You Do?

If a rodeo is visiting your area, do not attend the event. By purchasing tickets and showing your attendance means that you support this cruel sporting fa├žade.

Tell others about rodeos, especially those that support it as entertainment, but do not know what really happens.