The rodeo emphasizes his image as a folk hero and is a genuinely American creation. But in fact, it emerged from the practices of Spanish farmers and their cowherds, a mixture of disputes and cattle bullfighting that dates back to the 16th century conquerors.
The bullfight originated in Mexican equestrian competitions known as charreadas. Dropping the ox to the ground, riding behind it, grabbing its tail and twisting it on the ground. The bullfighting was part of an ancient tradition throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, including Spain. The ancient Minoans of Crete practiced jumping, bullfighting and fighting bulls. The bullfighting may have been one of the Olympic sporting events of the ancient Greeks.
Events spread throughout New Spain’s viceroyalty and were found at fairs, race tracks, parties and festivals in the southwestern areas of the 19th century that now comprise the United States. However, unlike loops, horseback riding and racing, this contest never attracted followers among cowboys or the Anglo-Saxon public. However, it is a favorite event included in the charreada, the rodeo style that originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
American Rodeo History
There would probably be no bullfighting at the American rodeo, were it not for a black Texas cowboy named Bill Pickett. He invented his own unique method of bulldogging. Bill jumped from the horse to the back of the calf, bit his upper lip and threw it on the ground, grabbing the horns. Pickett performed at local fairs and rodeos in Texas and was discovered by an agent. He received sensational national publicity with his bulldog exhibition in 1904 at the Cheyenne Frontier Days. This led to a contract with the famous 101 Ranch in Oklahoma. His traveling exhibitions in the Wild West, where he spent many years performing in the United States and abroad.
Pickett attracted many imitators who appeared at rodeos and shows in the Wild West, and soon enough practitioners were there for promoters to organize contests. Photographers like Walter S. Bowman and Ralph R. Doubleday captured images of rodeos and published postcards of the events.
The first female bulldogger appeared in 1913, when the great riding champion Tillie Baldwin exhibited the feat. However, bulldog contests for women never took place. But the cowboys embraced the sport with enthusiasm, but without the bite of their lips, and when the rodeo rules were codified, the fight with oxen was among the standard competitions. Two halls of fame recognize Bill Pickett as the sole inventor of the bulldog, the only rodeo event that can be attributed to a single individual.
The rodeo itself evolved after the Texas Revolution and the US-Mexico War, when Anglo cowboys learned the skills, clothing, vocabulary and sports of cowboys. Ranch versus ranch contests began to emerge gradually, as riding, horseback and bull competitions appeared on race tracks, fairs 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. After this successful venture, Cody organized his Wild West tour show, letting other entrepreneurs create what became professional rodeo.
Rodeo and West shows enjoyed a parallel existence, employing many of the same stars, while capitalizing on the continuing fascination of the mythical West. Women entered the West and disputed rodeo circuits in the 1890s and their participation increased as activities spread geographically. Animal welfare groups have started attacking rodeos since the early days, and have continued their efforts with varying degrees of success since then.
The word rodeo was used only occasionally in American cowboy sports until the 1920s, and professional cowboys themselves did not officially adopt the term until 1945. Likewise, there was no attempt to standardize the events necessary to compose such sports competitions until 1929. From the 1880s to the 1920s, border days, stampedes and cowboy contests were the most popular names. The Cheyenne Frontier Days, which began in 1897, remain the most significant annual community celebration to date. Until 1922, the cowboys and cowgirls who won in Cheyenne were considered the champions of the world.
Until 1912, the organization of these community celebrations was held by the committees of local citizens who selected the events, made the rules, chose employees, organized the stock and took care of all other aspects of the festival. Many of these early competitions were more similar to Buffalo Bill’s West than to contemporary rodeo. Although today’s PRCA-sanctioned rodeos should include five events: calf lasso, bareback riding and American saddle riding, bullfighting and bulldogging, with the option of single or double lasso.
The full-day programs included several activities, including Pony Express races, pajama races and drunk rides. One even played a football game. Almost all competitions were announced as world championships, causing confusion that continues today. Cowboys and cowgirls generally did not know exactly the events offered until they arrived at the venue and did not learn the rules of the competition until they paid registration fees.
Before World War II, the most popular rodeo events included sophisticated performances and racing. The participants of the presentations had to make figures and shapes with their ties before releasing them to capture one or more people or animals. These skills had to be displayed on foot and on horseback. In presentations, athletes performed gymnastics and equestrian feats while circulating the arena at high speed. The athletes in these events were judged, as well as those of contemporary gymnastics. The most popular races included Roman standing races, in which runners stood with one foot on the back of each of a pair of horses on which they ran after each round of the arena. Both were extremely dangerous, and at times fatal.
Another major difference between these contests and their modern equivalents was that there were no ramps or gates, nor time limits. The black animal was blindfolded and snubbed in the center of the arenas where the knights rode. The animals were then released. In the vast arenas, which usually included a racetrack, the rides lasted more than 10 minutes and, sometimes, the competitors disappeared from the audience’s view.
During that time, women used tied broncos, bulls and steers. They also competed in a variety of races, as well as in performances. In all of these contests, they used to compete against men and win. In some places, Native Americans were invited to set up camp on site, perform dances and other activities for the public, and participate in contests designed exclusively for them. Some rodeos discriminated against one or more of these groups, but most were open to anyone who can pay the registration fee.
New Stage Start
All of that started to change in 1912, when a group of businessmen from Calgary hired the American Guy Weadick to manage, promote and produce their first Stampede. Weadick selected the events, determined rules and eligibility, chose the employees and invited cowboys and well-known cowgirls to participate. He hoped to pit the best Canadians against Americans and Mexicans, but Mexican participation was severely limited by civil unrest in that country. However, the Stampede was a huge success, and Weadick followed with the 1913 Winnipeg Stampede, and much less successful New York’s Stampede of 1916. Although Weadick’s last production, the 1919 Calgary Stampede, was only a small success , he led the way into a new era in which powerful producers, not local committees, would dominate the rodeo and expand their audience a lot.
The rodeo had enormous popularity in New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, as well as London, Europe, Cuba, South America and the Far East in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, none of these locations are viable. Despite numerous overseas tours before World War II, the rodeo was really significant only in North America. Although they existed in Australia and New Zealand, the top athletes from those countries went to America in search of fortune. Some Latin American countries had contests called rodeos, but these did not have any of the events found in the North American version.
The rodeo was not originally a sporting event, but an integral part of cattle raising in areas of Spanish influence. The work rodeo was maintained in parts of the southwestern US, even after the US-Mexico War. In fact, it was important enough to deserve legal status in California:
“A law to regulate rodeos (April 3, 1851) … Every owner of a farm must be obliged to give a general rodeo annually, within the limits of his farm, from the first day of April to the thirty-first day of July , in the counties of San Luis Obispo, Santa Bárbara and San Diego; and in the other municipalities, from the first day of March until the thirty-first day of August… so that interested parties can meet, with the objective of separating their respective cattle ” .