RODEO BASICS - BECOME A RODEO EXPERT
Professional rodeo action consists of two types of competitions - roughstock events and timed events - and an all-around cowboy crown. Scroll below to learn more about each event you'll see at this year's rodeo.
A contestant's score is equally dependent upon his performance and the animal's performance. To earn a qualifying score, the cowboy, while using only one hand, must stay aboard a bucking horse or bull for eight seconds. If the rider touches the animal, himself or any of his equipment with his free hand, he is disqualified.
In saddle bronc and bareback riding, a cowboy must "mark out" his horse; that is, he must exit the chute with his spurs set above the horse's shoulders and hold them there until the horse's front feet hit the ground after the initial jump out of the chute. Failing to do so results in disqualification.
During the regular season, two judges each score a cowboy's qualified ride by awarding 0 to 25 points for the rider's performance and 0 to 25 points for the animal's effort. The judges' scores are then combined to determine the contestant's score. A perfect score is 100 points.
Cowboys and cowgirls at "the other end of the arena" compete against the clock, as well as against each other. A contestant's goal is to post the fastest time in his or her event. In steer wrestling and the roping events, calves and steers are allowed a head start. The competitor, on horseback, starts in a three-sided fenced area called a box. The fourth side opens into the arena.
A rope barrier is stretched across that opening and is tied to the calf or steer with a breakaway loop. Once the calf or steer reaches the head-start point - predetermined by the size of the arena - the barrier is automatically released. If a cowboy breaks that barrier, a 10-second penalty is added.
Bareback riders endure more abuse, suffer more injuries and carry away more long-term damage than all other rodeo cowboys.
To stay aboard the horse, a bareback rider uses a rigging made of leather and constructed to meet PRCA safety specifications. The rigging, which resembles a suitcase handle on a strap, is placed atop the horse's withers and secured with a cinch.
Bareback riding has been compared to riding a jackhammer with one hand. Jason Jeter can probably attest to that definition. As the bronc and rider burst from the chute, the rider must have both spurs touching the horse's shoulders until the horse's feet hit the ground after the initial move from the chute. This is called "marking out." If the cowboy fails to do this, he is disqualified.
As the bronc bucks, the rider pulls his knees up, rolling his spurs up the horse's shoulders. As the horse descends, the cowboy straightens his legs, returning his spurs over the point of the horse's shoulders in anticipation of the next jump.
Making a qualified ride and earning a money-winning score requires more than just strength. A bareback rider is judged on his spurring technique, the degree to which his toes remain turned out while he is spurring and his willingness to take whatever might come during his ride.
It's a tough way to make a living, all right. But, according to bareback riders, it's the cowboy way.
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Saddle bronc riding is rodeo's classic event, both a compliment and contrast to the wilder spectacles of bareback riding and bull riding. This event requires strength to be sure, but the event also demands style, grace and precise timing.
Saddle bronc riding evolved from the task of breaking and training horses to work the cattle ranches of the Old West. Many cowboys claim riding saddle broncs is the toughest rodeo event to master because of the technical skills necessary for success.
Every move the bronc rider makes must be synchronized with the movement of the horse. The cowboy's objective is a fluid ride, somewhat in contrast to the wilder and less-controlled rides of bareback riders.
Dan Erickson shows the form and technique that have made him a Wrangler NFR qualifying saddle bronc rider. One of the similarities shared by saddle bronc and bareback riding is the rule that riders in both events must mark out their horses on the first jump from the chute. To properly mark out his horse, the saddle bronc rider must have both heels touching the animal above the point of its shoulders when it makes its first jump from the chute. If the rider misses his mark, he receives no score.
While a bareback rider has a rigging to hold onto, the saddle bronc rider has only a thick rein attached to his horse's halter. Using one hand, the cowboy tries to stay securely seated in his saddle. If he touches any part of the horse or his own body with his free hand, he is disqualified.
Judges score the horse's bucking action, the cowboy's control of the horse and the cowboy's spurring action. While striving to keep his toes turned outward, the rider spurs from the points of the horse's shoulders to the back of the saddle. To score well, the rider must maintain that action throughout the eight-second ride. While the bucking ability of the horse is quite naturally built into the scoring system, a smooth, rhythmic ride is sure to score better than a wild, uncontrolled effort.
Rodeo competition, in the beginning, was a natural extension of the daily challenges cowboys confronted on the ranch - roping calves and breaking broncs into saddle horses.
Bull riding, which is intentionally climbing on the back of a 2,000-pound bull, emerged from the fearless and possibly fool-hardy nature of the cowboy. The risks are obvious. Serious injury is always a possibility for those fearless enough to sit astride an animal that literally weighs a ton and is usually equipped with dangerous horns.
Regardless, cowboys do it, fans love it and bull riding ranks as one of rodeo's most popular events.
Bull riding is dangerous and predictably exciting, demanding intense physical prowess, supreme mental toughness and courage. Like bareback and saddle bronc riders, the bull rider may use only one hand to stay aboard during the eight-second ride. If he touches the bull or himself with his free hand, he receives no score. But unlike the other roughstock contestants, bull riders are not required to mark out their animals. While spurring a bull can add to the cowboy's score, riders are commonly judged solely on their ability to stay aboard the twisting, bucking mass of muscle.
Size, agility and power create a danger that makes bull riding a crowd favorite everywhere. Balance, flexibility, coordination, quick reflexes and, perhaps above all, a strong mental attitude are the stuff of which good bull riders are made.
To stay aboard the bull, a rider grasps a flat braided rope, which is wrapped around the bull's chest just behind the front legs and over its withers. One end of the bull rope, called the tail, is threaded through a loop on the other end and tightened around the bull. The rider then wraps the tail around his hand, sometimes weaving it through his fingers to further secure his grip.
Then he nods his head, the chute gate swings open, and he and the bull explode into the arena.
Every bull is unique in its bucking habits. A bull may dart to the left, then to the right, then rear back. Some spin or continuously circle in one spot in the arena. Others add jumps or kicks to their spins, while others might jump and kick in a straight line or move side to side while bucking.
Speed and strength are the name of the game in steer wrestling. In fact, with a world record sitting at 2.4 seconds, steer wrestling is the quickest event in rodeo.
The objective of the steer wrestler, who is also known as a "bulldogger," is to use strength and technique to wrestle a steer to the ground as quickly as possible.
That sounds simple enough.
Here's the catch: the steer generally weighs more than twice as much as the cowboy and, at the time the two come together, they're both often traveling at 30 miles per hour. Speed and precision, the two most important ingredients in steer wrestling, make bulldogging one of rodeo's most challenging events.
As with tie-down and team ropers, the bulldogger starts on horseback in a box. A breakaway rope barrier is attached to the steer and stretched across the open end of the box. The steer gets a head start that is determined by the size of the arena. When the steer reaches the advantage point, the barrier is released and the bulldogger takes off in pursuit. If the bulldogger breaks the barrier before the steer reaches his head start, a 10-second penalty is assessed.
A perfect combination of strength, timing and technique are necessary for success in the lightning-quick event of steer wrestling. In addition to strength, two other skills critical to success in steer wrestling are timing and balance.
When the cowboy reaches the steer, he slides down and off the right side of his galloping horse, hooks his right arm around the steer's right horn, grasps the left horn with his left hand and, using strength and leverage, slows the animal and wrestles it to the ground. His work isn't complete until the steer is on its side with all four feet pointing the same direction. That's still not all there is to it.
To catch the sprinting steer, the cowboy uses a "hazer," who is another mounted cowboy who gallops his horse along the right side of the steer and keeps it from veering away from the bulldogger.
The efforts of the hazer can be nearly as important as those of the steer wrestler. For that reason, and the fact that he sometimes supplies the bulldogger with a horse, the hazer often receives a fourth of the payoff.
Team roping, the only true team event in ProRodeo, requires close cooperation and timing between two highly skilled ropers - a header and a heeler - and their horses. The event originated on ranches when cowboys needed to treat or brand large steers and the task proved too difficult for one man.
The key to success? Hard work and endless practice. Team roping partners must perfect their timing, both as a team and with their respective horses.
Similar to tie-down ropers and steer wrestlers, team ropers start from the boxes on each side of the chute from which the steer enters the arena. The steer gets a head start determined by the length of the arena.
Team ropers such as Joe Beaver and Travis Tryan spend long hours perfecting their timing with each other and their horses. One end of a breakaway barrier is attached to the steer and stretched across the open end of the header's box. When the steer reaches his advantage point, the barrier is released, and the header takes off in pursuit, with the heeler trailing slightly further behind. The ropers are assessed a 10-second penalty if the header breaks the barrier before the steer completes his head start. Some rodeos use heeler barriers too.
The header ropes first and must make one of three legal catches on the steer — around both horns, around one horn and the head or around the neck. Any other catch by the header is considered illegal and the team is disqualified. After the header makes his catch, he turns the steer to the left and exposes the steer's hind legs to the heeler. The heeler then attempts to rope both hind legs. If he catches only one foot, the team is assessed a five-second penalty. After the cowboys catch the steer, the clock is stopped when there is no slack in their ropes and their horses face one another.
Another important aspect to the event is the type of horses used by the ropers. The American quarter horse is the most popular among all timed-event competitors, particularly team ropers. Heading horses generally are taller and heavier because they need the power to turn the steer after it is roped. Heeling horses are quick and agile, enabling them to better follow the steer and react to it moves.
This event is a horse race with turns. The cowgirl’s time begins as she rides her horse across the starting line in the arena. She makes a run around three upright barrels, which are in a cloverleaf pattern, and back to the starting line where the clock stops. Tipping a barrel is permitted, but if it is knocked to the ground, a five-second penalty is added to her time.
Barrel racing has no judges, which means the event has no subjective points of view. Time is the determining factor.
Barrel racing is graceful and simplistic — one woman, three barrels, a horse and the ever-present stopwatch. The horse is ridden as quickly as possible around a cloverleaf course of three barrels. At the end of the performance, after all of the racers have finished their runs, the clock is the one and only judge.
Ride quickly and win. Hesitate and lose.
Not only have the best of the sport spent countless hours practicing and honing their skill, but they also have invested many dollars in the purchase and maintenance of the talented horses they ride. A proven barrel racing horse can cost $50,000. For the professional barrel racer, this is indeed a small price to pay.
Not only must the horse be swift, but it also must be intelligent enough to avoid tipping the barrels, an infraction that adds five penalty seconds to the time and kills any chance for victory.
The horse also must be able to withstand the long roads a cowgirl must travel to reach the next rodeo. If a horse is fast, competitive and reacts calmly to the demands of travel, chances are good that horse can stop the clock as quickly or quicker than the animal in the next trailer.
Because so many barrel racers have finely tuned their skill, the sport is timed to the hundredth of a second. When the racer enters the arena, an electronic eye starts the clock. The clock is stopped the instant the horse completes the pattern.
Barrel racing at its core has changed little from the days when cowgirls raced for minimal, if any, prize money and support. And though the prizes and exposure are greater now than ever, the ultimate goal remains essentially the same as in the past: stop the clock as quickly as possible.
TIE DOWN ROPING
As with saddle bronc riding and team roping, the roots of tie-down roping can be traced back to the working ranches of the Old West. When calves were sick or injured, cowboys had to rope and immobilize them quickly for veterinary treatment. Ranch hands prided themselves on the speed with which they could rope and tie calves, and they soon turned their work into informal contests.
As the event matured, being a good horseman and a fast sprinter became as important to the competitive tie-down roper as being quick and accurate with a rope.
Today, the mounted cowboy starts from a box, a three-sided fenced area adjacent to the chute holding the calf. The fourth side of the box opens into the arena.
A cowboy's success in tie-down roping depends in large part on the precise teamwork between him and his horse. The calf receives a head start that is determined by the length of the arena. One end of a breakaway rope barrier is looped around the calf's neck and stretched across the open end of the box. When the calf reaches its advantage point, the barrier is released. If the roper breaks the barrier before the calf reaches its head start, the cowboy is assessed a 10-second penalty.
The horse is trained to come to a stop as soon as the cowboy throws his loop and catches the calf. The cowboy then dismounts, sprints to the calf and throws it by hand, a maneuver called flanking. If the calf is not standing when the cowboy reaches it, he must allow the calf to get back on its feet before flanking it. After the calf is flanked, the roper ties any three legs together with a pigging string - a short, looped rope he clenches in his teeth during the run.
While the contestant is accomplishing all of that, his horse must pull back hard enough to eliminate any slack in the rope, but not so hard as to drag the calf.
When the roper finishes tying the calf, he throws his hands in the air as a signal that the run is completed. The roper then remounts his horse, rides forward to create slack in the rope and waits six seconds to see if the calf remains tied. If the calf kicks free, the roper receives no time.
Breakaway roping, a popular rodeo event for women, is similar to tie-down roping for men, except for the fact that the cowgirls are not required to dismount and tie the calf. Instead, the cowgirl has a flag attached near the end of her rope, and a nylon string is tied from the rope to the saddle horn.
After roping the calf, as the rope becomes taut, the string breaks away from the saddle horn, causing the flag to fly and signal the timer to stop the clock. This event requires precision, speed, and skill and is a thrilling spectacle to watch in rodeo competitions.
The animals that participate in rodeo events are considered to be athletes and are cared for and trained to compete at the highest level. Salt River Rodeo, a company based in Arizona, provides the bucking horses, bulls, steers, and calves for these events. Many of these animals have competed at the prestigious Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas and have earned awards and accolades. The performance of these animals is a crucial factor in determining the cowboy's score, as they earn half the score recorded by the rider.
In events such as steer wrestling, tie-down roping, team roping, and barrel racing, the horses are owned by the competitors themselves. These quarter horses are highly prized by cowboys and cowgirls as their trusted partners in winning competitions and as constant traveling companions. These horses undergo years of training and receive the best possible care, allowing them to compete well into their teens and even into their 20s.
If you wish to learn more about the animals in rodeo and their welfare, you can read about the PRCA's animal welfare program.