I’ve never been to a rodeo before but, new to Payson, I had to share the world’s longest running rodeo with my daughter. But when I asked her to come along, her answer threw me for a loop: “No. I don’t want to go because there’s animal cruelty.”
What perplexed me is that she’s not the only person I’ve heard this from. But I decided to drag her along to see if she could open her mind to learn about one of the oldest American events.
Rodeos have played a role in western history for more than 100 years. While no one can exactly pinpoint the very first rodeo, the origins came from the Spanish vaqueros and early North American cowboys’ work festivals. In fact, the word rodeo comes from the Spanish verb rodear, meaning, “to encircle” or “round up.”
In the early spring, cowhands would meet up to sort, brand and “doctor” sick calves for the upcoming year. They also caught up on the news, gambled, drank and showed off their talents in roping, bronco riding, foot racing and wrestling.
In 1888, Prescott hosted the first rodeo on record to charge admission and award trophies, according to Michael Allen’s book, “Rodeo Cowboys in the North American Imagination.”
I learned that Dr. Drew Justice, a local veterinarian, has overseen rodeos for years. I contacted him and set up a time for him to meet and show us the animals behind the scenes.
According to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association animal welfare rules, a veterinarian must be on site at all PRCA-sanctioned rodeos.
“If these horses are not taken care of, they cannot perform,” said Justice. He went on to explain that rodeo horses only really work for two to three minutes per year, if you add up all of the seconds of performance time. What takes up most of their time is being hauled around the country, said Justice.
“Are they groomed?” asked my daughter, Crystal.
“Yes. The saddle horses are fed first thing in the morning and then groomed around 9 or 10 a.m.,” said Justice.
He then showed us the holding pastures where the bulls and broncos wait to be assigned to cowboys via “cut-cards.” The animals for the Payson rodeo come from a stock contractor named Skip Beeler who has pastures in Prescott and other locations in Arizona. Beeler provides enough bulls and broncos to stock a whole rodeo.
“They look so content,” said Crystal.
“You know, if I was to come back as an animal, I’d rather be a rodeo animal than one living at a food producing facility,” said Justice.
We moved onto the yards surrounding the event arena. Justice explained that the gates and chutes the Payson arena uses originally came from the NFR (National Finals Rodeo).
“A professional rodeo needs great facilities,” said Justice.
The vet showed us where he stands during the rodeo. He oversees the animals coming out of the chute and keeps stats.
“I have to sign a report at the rodeo so the PRCA knows every 100 runs how many calves, bulls and horses have participated and if they got injured,” said Justice.
The PRCA keeps records on how many runs happen per year and how many and what sort of injuries occur.
“What makes the horses buck?” asked Crystal.
“It’s in their genes,” said the vet.
Justice explained that the bulls and broncs are bred to love the rodeo. “When they get moved to the holding pens and start hearing the music and the crowd, you can see how excited and pumped they get,” said Justice.
Next he showed us some of the equipment used on the animals. For the bucking broncs, he showed us the flank strap. It goes around the horses’ back end between their back legs and stomach. “See how there is sheep skin on the part that rubs against the belly?” said Justice.
On top of the flank strap, a quick-release knot sits to make removal of the strap fast. The men who release this strap are called pickup men.
“The pick-up men first grab the cowboy, then take care of the horse by removing the flank strap and herding the horse back to the exit chute,” said Justice.
For the bulls, Justice had us feel the cotton rope tied onto the bull in the same place it’s tied onto horses. It was soft to the touch.
Looking at the knot on top of the rope, Crystal asked, “That’s a slip knot, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that knot makes it easy for the pick-up men to remove the rope from the bull,” said Justice.
Most of the injuries the vet sees come from a perfect storm of circumstances: an animal coming down on a leg in just the right angle with just the right amount of force causing a breakage. He had us think of the baseball player who uses their bat to hit hundreds of balls and then one day the right pitch, at the right angle hitting the grain of the wood shatters it seemingly for no reason.
“In the 16 years I’ve overseen rodeos, I’ve only had to put down two horses, and cast up one bull,” said Justice.
As Justice walked us toward the stands to watch the rodeo start, I asked Crystal why she felt rodeos were cruel to the animals.
“I’ve just heard that they use steroids and inhumane treatment,” said Crystal.
Justice explained that many of these claims come from amateur rodeos, but the PRCA heard these complaints and that’s when they started to keep the stats and make rules about how animals should be treated.
Still, some people oppose using animals for a show of any sort. “I’m not trying to make a moral judgment and change anyone’s mind,” said Justice.
So we grabbed a snack and headed for the stands. The first event: bareback bronco riding.
We watched as the horse threw up its heels and the rider held on for dear life. The pick-up men did as Justice explained, getting the rider out of there and then immediately turning their focus onto the horse to relieve it of the flank strap. As soon as the strap was released, the horse moved off calmly. The show proceeded with professionalism and fun — even for the animals.
As we left the rodeo grounds Crystal said to me, “That was fun. I should try and not have opinions before I know what’s going on.”