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The Side Of American Rodeos That People Rarely See

Pounding hoofbeats, hollering cowboys, and raging bulls: no, we’re not talking about the old West, though you’re not far off. There are few things that are as integrated into the fabric of the nation as American rodeos, transporting participants and roaring crowds alike back to the exciting times of the old frontier days. But now details about the shows are taking center stage, and if anything, they’re just as wild.

Rodeo roots

You know rodeos as the huge, rhinestone-studded events on TV, but they actually date back to the 1800s and have their roots firmly in Latin America: in Mexico, to be exact. The nomadic ranch hands called vaqueros, who also counted black and Native American cowboys among their ranks, didn’t just invent rodeo fashion. They also practiced the competitive skills that wow crowds in rodeos today. 

Vaquero legacy

In fact, even the name “rodeo” comes from the Spanish word rodear, which roughly translates as to surround something, or round it up. When vaqueros weren’t working farms, they pitted their wrangling and riding skills against each other in dangerous competitions. These eventually integrated into larger U.S. culture to become a sport acknowledged nationwide. Rodeos kept the most romanticized parts of the brief Wild West period alive, merging with circus culture in the process. 

Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association

The sport was organized under the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, or PRCA, in 1975; according to Smithsonian magazine, in 2022 it had 5,000 active members. The rodeo you know is a display of skill where athletes compete for multi-million dollar prizes, aired not once but hundreds of times each year. Not bad from such comparatively humble beginnings! Of course, there’s much more to American rodeos than meets the eye. 

Turning turtle

If you know your rodeo history, you’ll know that way back in 1936 the PRCA formed after a rodeo strike when the participants demanded proper payment. But did you know they were originally called the Cowboy’s Turtle Association? They named themselves after the stalwart turtle who always comes through in a pinch. It’s the PRCA’s job to regulate rodeo performances.