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History of the Rodeo

Posted by Brit Ellerman on

It’s pretty hard to beat the good fried food and action-packed entertainment of a rodeo. Even for those who haven’t experienced a rodeo yet, you’ve probably heard of the iconic “Daddy of Them All,” Cheyenne Frontier Days. Rodeo is considered the state sport of Texas, Wyoming and South Dakota! But where did this favorite Western pastime of America begin?

Contrary to popular belief, the rodeo’s beginning was likely not in the United States but rather rooted in Spanish and Mexican tradition. The history of the cowboy, discussed in a previous blog, also began outside of the U.S. and now we find that the rodeo did as well. Along with the rodeo’s origin, let’s explore where the first rodeo in America occurred: a heated topic that is surrounded by debate. Once we’ve learned the details of how and when it all started, we’ll cover what these rodeo events used to look like in comparison to today’s rodeos. 

The Origin

The earliest days of rodeo can likely be traced back to the 16th-century conquistadors, with activities such as bullfighting and cattle wrangling. The origins of bull riding and steer wrestling in particular can largely be accredited to the Spanish. In order to wrestle a steer the participant has to grab the steer by the tail and throw it to the ground by twisting. The practice of steer wrestling may even date all the way back to ancient Grecian times!


Eventually, these practices found their way into the U.S. One way these activities were introduced was through notable wars like the Texas Revolution that brought many of the skills and practices of the vaqueros to the Anglo cowboys. The practice of steer wrestling in America is thanks to a Texan named Bill Pickett. He created a new way to wrestle steers involving the unique practice of biting the steer’s lip before throwing it to the ground by the horns. While the first part of Pickett’s practice was (understandably) done away with, many carried on in his footsteps competing at various rodeos and other events, eventually leading to enough participants to hold contests.

The Debate

While some of the influences that brought the rodeo to America are known, the exact dates of the first organized practice of rodeo in America are hard to determine. According to Clifford P. Westermeier, in his book “Man, Beast, Dust: The Story of the Rodeo '' he explains that we cannot give an exact date for the start of the rodeo. However, he goes on to share that this is likely a good thing as having a definitive date would mean much heated debate in the West. This is due to the fact that from Prescott to Pecos, many rodeos have boldly claimed to be the first or oldest rodeo over the years. Ultimately, there is a cloak of mystery surrounding the exact details of the rodeo’s beginnings. However, that might just be to the benefit of the rodeo. The New York Times shares, “...for most people rodeo is more an evocation of history and the mythology of the West than an athletic competition. If the Great Rodeo Controversy keeps people looking back, it may be the best thing rodeo could have going for it.” 


A discussion of the American rodeo’s history cannot be complete without mentioning the iconic figure closely attached to the historic Western rodeo. This is none other than Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show. He is credited with starting the first significant rodeo in North Platte, Nebraska in 1882. After the success of this rodeo, Bill ended up going on to create his well-known traveling Wild West show that shared many of the same figures as were starring in the rodeo world.      

The Events 

So, how did a typical rodeo look back in the day? First, let’s think of today’s rodeos. They are structured, with designated, qualified individuals and organizations in charge of planning and hosting the events, each of which include specific rules and regulations, such as time limits. Additionally, professional rodeos held in America are under the regulations of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) as well as the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA). Some of the typical events that can be found in today’s rodeos include steer wrestling, team and tie-down roping, barrel racing, bull riding and bronc riding. Compare this to what a rodeo used to look like.

The organization of an old-time rodeo could be described as much more relaxed, at best. Prior to 1912, they were generally put together by local community members who basically ran the whole shebang. These community committees determined everything from the rules to the events. In some instances, the specific events and rules were not even made known to the contestants until they arrived and paid their fees. Additionally, events had no time limits or other structures like gates and chutes. Some of the activities that could be found at the rodeos included drunken rides, nightshirt races, trick and fancy roping and riding and Pony Express races. In trick and fancy riding events, the participants were essentially daring gymnasts on horses. This gives a very different picture of the rodeo than today’s modern counterpart, doesn’t it? Clearly, things have evolved in the rodeo world a little since then!


So, next time you attend a rodeo, consider its long and somewhat mysterious history--one that was inspired by cultures miles away from our shores, with no one really knowing when and where the first “real” rodeo occurred in the U.S. Beyond this, consider the vast contrast of today’s rodeo festivities with the much more wild and rugged versions held in the past. Ultimately, know that the rodeo has had a long and exciting existence years before you or I ever sat in those dusty bleachers to watch the PBR!

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