My younger sister married a cowboy so you might think I’d have been to a rodeo by now. I’ve spent my whole career in animal welfare, much of it as a cruelty investigator, so you might think I’d boycott the rodeo. Turns out, neither thing is completely true. I attended my first rodeo last year in Houston and have followed up with some research on things I was told by people I trust which it turns out are not true.
I was told that rodeos were cruel, specifically:
• That horses and bulls buck because of items tied onto, around or through body parts in order to make the animals frantic.
• The rodeo care of animals is questionable.
• Humans have a choice to participate and the animals don’t so it’s morally questionable to participate or support.
Since these three things were not in evidence at the rodeo, I asked for some expert advice.
· Bucking horses are not exactly bred to buck but there are family lines of rodeo horses who are better at bucking repeatedly when asked.
· A “bucking strap” is soft and lined with sheep skin, placed around a horse that already bucks so that he will kick back instead of just rounding his back, making it harder for a rider to stay on. It’s released by the rider so that the horse will know when he or she should stop bucking.
· Many rodeo champion horses are geldings or mares so the rumor that anything is tied to their testicles is simply not true.
· The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association monitors rodeos and has strict guidelines for animal care and treatment. You can be banned from rodeo for hurting an animal.
· Rodeo horses earn larger sums of money than you might think so they are pampered to keep them in working shape. Even though they only have to work a few minutes per night for the rodeos they attend. The more famous horses work a few minutes per week because they are saved for the championship rounds.
· I watched several bull rides on that night and filmed them. Without reading into the bull’s intention, I observed the bulls buck for 3-5 seconds, then trot toward the center of the ring where they were approached by riders on horseback. Each bull turned and without further signal or encouragement, returned to the barn at a trot. The bulls appeared to be choosing their actions rather than respond to cues.
I had a debate with a friend after the rodeo about animal choices. We do not know what the bull wants. We do not know if the bull understands that he could be used as a stud or for bull riding or eaten. Since most animals react to the world as if they’d like to continue living, I suspect that if we could ask the bull what he wanted to do, he might choose to work 8 seconds per week during rodeo season and stud in the fall. If a bull has to work at other rodeos, he’ll have to spend some time in a trailer and perhaps work up to a couple of hours every year. Maybe he would rather be eaten. I just don’t know. I do know that some cowboys subsist on seasonal work; round up, itinerant ranch work, and rodeo in the off season. You might ask the cowboy if he has a choice about putting his life at risk to get his rodeo paycheck. And there are many who simply don’t care about the man while they do care about the horse or bull. To each his own.
Other interesting rodeo facts:
• The rodeo in Houston is staffed by volunteers; 22,000 of them.
• Money raised at the rodeo goes to scholarships for the kids who have raised competition animals and placed art in the auction.
• A great deal of money is raised by the student art in the auctions; hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of the few places young artists can sell their wares.
• There are as many veterinarians on site as physicians, in case anyone gets hurt; cowboys, non human participants and spectators.
• One horse (her name was Trigger) was seriously injured at the Houston Rodeo between the 1990’s and 2011. Several cowboys (including Trigger’s rider who broke a femur) had broken ribs, ankles and back injuries. We don’t know how many because they only keep records for the animals.
Do you know the cowboy and the horse or bull get the same points? If the horse or bull works very hard at dismounting his rider he gets up to 50 points. If the cowboy works very hard at staying on the horse or bull, he can also get 50 points. A perfect score of 100 would be rare but the contest is not about subduing the animal, as I had been told. In fact, one of the bulls performing at the rodeo I attended has never allowed a rider to make it a full 8 seconds. If the cowboy cannot stay aboard for the 8 second minimum, he gets zero points.
I also discovered that kind training of horses is not new. Records as far back as 1345 BC, yes that far back, show instructions for getting a horse to comply with a request through pressure and release rather than force. See my list of trainers at the bottom of this page for more evidence of this shocking information. Seriously, I have been told since the 1980’s that the “new” way of horse training is in response to the harsh ways of the past. Turns out, that is also not the truth.
The calf roping was shocking. An average sized man (albeit a Texas grown average size) leaps from a galloping horse onto a moving steer and ties it up, in just a few seconds while his horse keeps his rope taught. The steer is immediately untied and he trots back to his stall for a rest. Some of them were escorted by a man on horseback rather than allowed to trot around the arena more than once. This event is certainly a way to measure a horse’s ability to partner with a cowboy and a rider’s ability to capture a wayward animal. This is the skill needed on a ranch to rescue, brand and neuter, as well as medicate cattle.
Competition to show your skill is also a way to practice and perfect. But here my debate partner gained points. Do we need to have a spectator event that tosses cows around for a game? I have some questions about how the rodeo can prolong a steer’s life.
My first rodeo left my ideas about animals as companions unchanged. Horses and dogs have co-evolved in a partnership with humans wherever our ancestors were found together. Domesticated animals are the social, easy breeders and keepers, who don’t compete with us for food or think of humans as food. The domestics we keep don’t appear in nature except for horses, whom don’t seem to have changed much despite our epochs together.
The bottom line is that what I was told about rodeos is incomplete at best. I certainly don’t consider myself an animal communicator but as an experienced animal caretaker I can say the animals at the rodeo were in peak condition; any dog show competitor knows that takes a lifetime of constant attention to perform. Some of the rodeo animals are quite young, making this lifetime commitment arguably less significant, and those produced for food and fiber, have other end purposes to the humans who helped them come into the world. All in all, there was no sign of disrespect for their lives or actions that could in any way be considered cruel or even insensitive.