Oklahoma City, United States – It’s an American tradition that dates back hundreds of years to the time of cowboys herding hoards of cattle across the vast plains. But some today are raising concerns that rodeo competition with raging bulls and broncos inflicts cruelty upon the animals.
“Did you watch what I just watched? Because you’re not clapping enough… I can’t hear you,” the commentator at the 44th International Finals Rodeo hollered over the microphone.
Spectators at the stadium, dressed in their best cowboy and cowgirl attire, acknowledged his request and gave a generous round of applause.
At the centre of everyone’s attention, cowboys competed in the bareback bronco-riding event in the International Professional Rodeo Finals at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena.
A bucking horse with a cowboy atop was unleashed into the arena. Dramatic music filled the air, drowning out the commentators’ voices. The horse galloped and bucked, throwing up its hind legs – sometimes as high as two metres off the ground.
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A bucking strap strung tight around its belly agitated the horse. The cowboy, swaying wildly with the bronco, stayed put despite the jerky movements. He let go and hopped off once a buzzer went off, then walked out of the arena gracefully with a wave of his cowboy hat.
‘Part of my life’
Shawn Minor, 39, from Nebraska was one of the performers at the recent event. Minor told Al Jazeera he always wanted to be a cowboy.
“I was probably five or six years old and my father rodeoed and rode saddle broncs, and it’s just been a part of my life ever since … since I was born. I never thought that I would be anything else but a cowboy.”
Minor went on to win his ninth all-round title the following day, and took home prize money worth more than $15,000 from the weekend rodeo.
While he chewed tobacco that afternoon, Minor, who has won 21 world titles, said the fame, glory and money aren’t the only things that keep him on the professional rodeo circuit.
“It [being a cowboy] means being down-to-earth… It’s not the easiest way of life… It means everything to me. The tradition goes back 200 years, you know. I’m trying to keep the tradition alive,” he said, adding his two young sons want to grow up to be cowboys too.
Minor has been on the professional circuit for 12 years now and said he’s definitely seen the sport changing over time.
“Back in the 60s, 70s, 80s, there were a lot of great cowboys, but most of them would just go to town on the weekends, go to a rodeo and then they’d go back to the ranch. Nowadays with the sponsors and the TV and all that stuff, you can make a good living out of it.”
‘Rodeos terrorise animals’
According to sociologist Gene Theodori, who has conducted research on Western tradition and contemporary rodeos, there’s been a natural evolution from cattle ranches to the way the competitions are conducted today.
“After months of strenuous labour moving cattle through the country, cowboys would get together and celebrate. For amusement at the end of the trail, they would gather and compare their roping and riding skills,” he wrote about the origins of rodeo in the post-Civil War era in the US.
“Soon afterwards though, these exhibitions turned into competitive matches,” Theodori noted.
Organised rodeos, as they are today, started gaining popularity in the early 1920s. Today, they also play a symbolic role in contemporary society by trying to preserve America’s “Wild West” culture.
Back at the State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City, spectators and participants got ready for the tie-down roping competition.
A cowboy mounted his horse. Right next to him was a small caged enclosure.
As soon as the gate to the cage was opened, a timid-looking calf came sprinting out.
The cowboy riding his horse followed the running calf and lassoed it. In a second, the calf came crashing down to the ground with the lasso pulling it by the neck. Swiftly, the cowboy dismounted the horse, ran to the struggling steer, and in one quick movement tied its front legs and a hind leg together with his rope.
Proud of his achievement – having clocked less than nine seconds – the performer punched a celebratory fist into the air and walked out.
so extensively bruised that the only areas where skin was attached was the head, necks, legs and belly.”]
The breathless calf, with its tongue hanging out, lay on the ground waiting to be untied.
The treatment of broncos and steers at rodeos has attracted sharp criticism by animal rights groups.
“Rodeos terrorise animals and provoke them into behaving fiercely and aggressively. They use cruel electric prods, bucking straps, and all of these cause wounds or dig in to the animals’ sensitive tissues,” Emma Vaughan, a spokeswoman for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) told Al Jazeera.
Vaughan said injuries to animals such as deep internal organ bleeding, hemorrhaging, fractures, ripped tendons, and torn ligaments and muscles “are common occurrences in rodeos”.
“I have seen cattle [from rodeos] so extensively bruised that the only areas where skin was attached was the head, necks, legs and belly,” said CG Haber, a veterinarian who worked as a meat inspector in a slaughterhouse, where rodeo animals often end up.
Dale Yerigan – general manager of the International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA), one of the largest rodeo sanctioning bodies in the US – had a different take on the treatment of animals at rodeos.
“The horses that are used in the bucking events – the bareback horses and the saddle bronc horses – those horses can’t be rode. If they weren’t used in rodeos, they don’t have another purpose. So it actually extends their life and gives them a place to go and perform and live out a long, full life,” Yerigan said.
The IPRA is responsible for putting together a standardised set of rules for the events it sanctions. “In the current rule book, there are over 80 rules that pertain to the care and treatment of livestock and what the penalties are if somebody does something that they shouldn’t,” Yerigan told Al Jazeera.
Although there are penalties and fines in place, Yerigan admitted none of the participants had ever been charged with mistreatment of animals in any rodeos across the country in the history of IPRA.
Some states and municipalities within the US do impose legal restrictions on rodeos.
For instance, tie-down or calf roping is illegal in the state of Rhode Island. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has strict restrictions on the use of electric prods. Internationally, rodeos are banned in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
Spectators at the Oklahoma State Fair grounds watched with rapt attention at the last event – bull riding.
Cowboy after cowboy rode on big, ferocious bulls. The stadium came alive with hoots, cheers, jeers and chants.
Ray Quintanilla, 43, from Choctaw, Oklahoma seemed to be enjoying the action. Quintanilla had watched bull riding on TV many times and wanted to see the action live. He said it lived up to his expectations and doesn’t find much wrong or unethical about it.
“It’s very fun and family-oriented. We have two daughters, so we kind of wanted to check it out first and see if they would enjoy it – and we think they would,” Quintanilla said.
He told Al Jazeera the next time the rodeo came to Oklahoma City, he would bring his children along.