The modern, gold-and-rhinestone televised sport of rodeo owes just about everything — its traditions, its attitudes, its fashions — to the brutal Mexican cowboys of the early 1800s. Those ranch hands, known as the vaqueros, honed the stringing and riding skills we see in today’s competitions. They also broke new ground in rodeo fashion: leather boots, chaps, big hats and the rest. And it is in Mexico that the sport takes its name, derived from the Spanish verb prowler: circle or round.
These vaqueros were itinerant freelancers, owning only what they could haul on horseback and working on large ranches in the areas now known as Durango, Coahuila, and Chihuahua, and into what is now the United States. -United. Among them, you will find largely mestizos (of mixed Native American and Spanish ancestry), blacks, aboriginals and hoops (Spaniards born in North America). What they shared was the lifestyle and the sporting desire to determine who was the best.
During downtime between rides or herding gigs, the vaqueros would gather to see who could ride the most restless horse or who was the safest hand with a rope. These informal gatherings turned into competitions between different ranches that drew ever larger crowds and increasingly took on a carnival atmosphere – the sounds of animals, the roars of the crowd, the smell of sweat and horse meat. With no official rules, the whole enterprise was a breeze, establishing rodeo as the province of bold, individualistic outsiders. As Jerald Underwood, a historian of the American West, wrote in the 2001 book Vaqueros, Cowboys and Buckaroos: “This space and the culture of the horse allowed men to realize the ‘Wish of the Centaur’, to become one with the horse, to live the life of the gods.”
By the time the United States annexed Texas in 1845 and claimed much of Mexico with it, the vaqueros were seeing their culture absorbed into the cowboy lifestyle of the American West. “It’s a beautiful sight,” said U.S. Army Captain George W. Hughes, stationed in San Antonio in 1846, after seeing a vaquero perform. “He rides well and fearlessly, and throws the lasso with unerring aim…chasing a refractory animal he rarely fails to catch.” Freedmen also took up the sport, and in the decades following the Civil War, an estimated one in four American cowboys was black. Perhaps the most important was Nat Love, born into slavery in Tennessee in 1854; Freed at the end of the Civil War, Love moved west and became an impressive cattle driver. His rodeo career began when he came across a competition in Deadwood, present-day South Dakota on July 4, 1876. Love entered the fray and took first place in six events, launching a career as 15 years that made him a legend. Across the country.
The more organized competition that would become the American Rodeo gained popularity at events such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which began in 1883 as a massive spectacle with hundreds of performers; in 1893, Buffalo Bill’s shows drew three million attendees outside of Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition. Such shows established the rodeo as an American staple by romanticizing an already rapidly changing West. Despite the racism and misogyny of the time, the competitions still reflected their multicultural roots with mixed-race and black competitors, while the women continued to make their mark: Annie Oakley, the famous sniper, was a regular at extravaganzas traveling Buffalo Bill. And after a group of performers quit a 1936 Boston Garden show to protest underpayment, players organized the first cowboy union, the Cowboys’ Turtle Association (so named because, although organizing was a slow process, the association eventually “stuck their necks out”), to ensure fair compensation. In 1945, the group renamed themselves the Rodeo Cowboys Association, introducing the sport’s real name into the common use.
By 1975, the organization had become the Professional Association of Rodeo Cowboys, the largest in the world, which today has more than 5,000 active members in competition and several thousand more in non-competitive roles. The group hosts hundreds of events throughout the year; each season culminates in the finale, where millions of dollars in prizes are up for grabs. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, equestrian groups and national media reported that bull riding had become the fastest growing sport in the United States.
Antiquated as it is, and despite protests from animal rights activists, rodeo continues to grow, backed by groups working to make the sport, whose stars are predominantly white and male, more welcoming to people. women and non-Americans. Within the Professional Bull Riders Association, many top cowboys hail from South America. At the recent PBR World Championships, three of the top five – Kaique Pacheco, Luciano De Castro and Jose Vitor Leme – were all from Brazil.
Other groups pushing the sport forward: Women’s Rodeo World Championship, founded in 2020, guarantees a $750,000 payout at its season-ending event and ushers in a new generation of women in rodeo. The Alliance of World Rodeo Championslaunched in 2018, has provided millions of dollars to the poorest athletes so they can ride at the highest level.
The American riding tradition includes the centuries-old equestrian cultures of Indigenous peoples. That legacy lives on in the Indian National Finals Rodeo, founded in 1976. At events throughout the year, members of nearly 100 tribes compete for over $1 million in prize money. The INFR is also dedicated to showcasing Aboriginal culture and sport. Indian Relay, while not technically a rodeo event, is one of the most exciting shows in the world; a single rider must change horses bareback for each of the three rounds, jumping from one galloping horse to another – a glimpse into a traditional Plains Indian sport that dates back centuries. “Working together, we will continue to be leaders in equestrian culture,” says Donna Hoyt, Executive Director of INFR and member of Blackfeet Nation. As the sport continues to grow, its success will require a continual return to its roots.