Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

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Bull rider A rodeo is a competition displaying the skills of ranch hands (cowboys) of the American west for handling cattle and horses. The chief rodeo skills are riding, roping and catching the animals. Rodeo comes from a Spanish word meaning to surround.

Rodeos are under increasing pressure to justify what detractors see as animal abuse. An unbridgeable divide separates extreme parties, the outright rodeo supporters and the rodeo abolitionists. Both sides dig in and cannot engage in meaningful dialogue with the other side. A potential bridge would be a discussion of the enhancement of the welfare of rodeo animals. But it is not a path antagonists with all-or-none views are willing to tread (they may be candidate cases of Emotivism and Subjectivism). So just what are rodeos and what is wrong with them?

The Rodeo

The roots or the rodeo date to the 1860's when ranch hands met informally to show their horsemanship and roping skills. Audiences gathered around and the rodeo emerged about the turn of the century as public entertainment. The show developed into a competitive sport and most major rodeos today are under the jurisdiction of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Rodeos are popular in the United States and Canada, where about 2,000 rodeos are held annually. Professional rodeo cowboys travel from one show to another to earn a living and there are many part-time amateur weekenders. The top four rodeo cowboys in 2003 each earned over $2 million and the top 50 cowboys earned over $1 million dollars each. Rodeos are also organised in Australia and New Zealand.

The top 50 highest paying rodeos in North America in 2003 paid out over $20 million in prize money and the biggest are:

  • National Finals Rodeo, Nevada. $5 million in total prize money; attracts 170,000 followers annually.

  • Cheyenne Frontier Days, Wyoming. $500,000+ total prize money.

  • Reno Rodeo, Nevada. $500,000+ total prize money.

  • Rodeo Houston, Texas. $500,000+ total prize money.

  • San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, Texas. $500,000+ total prize money.

  • Calgary Stampede, Alberta. Nearly $500,000 total prize money.

  • Rodeo Events

    Rodeo contests fall into two categories: rough stock and rough riding. Referees judge competitors and award them points or penalties or disqualify them outright.

    Rough Stock
    Bronc (horse) riding and bull riding. Highest score wins. Half the points go to the rider and half go to the animal for vigorous bucking action, strength and degree of difficulty to ride. Riders thrown off within eight seconds are disqualified.

    Rough Riding
    Catching steers and calves with ropes and wrestling steers to the ground. Fastest time wins. Animals are released into the arena from a pen or 'chute', just big enough to hold them. They get a few seconds head start then cowboys on horses chase them. The riders set off from behind a rope barrier, automatically released when an animal from the chute reaches a certain point.

    Rodeo audiences are entertained between main events by trick riding teams, animal trainers, rope trick artists, clowns and other performers.

    Standard Rodeo Events

    1. Bronc Riding

    Riding a bucking horse is the classic event and epitome of the Rodeo. A rider must stay on a bronc for eight seconds without the bucking horse throwing him to the ground.

    A cowboy rides a bucking horse without a saddle and grips a leather handhold with one hand. He is disqualified if does not start the ride properly or if his free hand touches anything. A rider earns points for synchronising his action with the bronc. He has to stay on, control the ride and show good foot-work. Riding with a saddle has similar rules and is not much easier. Referees disqualify riders if bucked off within the time limit, in which case they award points only for the bronc's performance.

    2. Bull Riding

    Riding a bucking bull is not related to any task a cowboy does at a ranch but is a popular event. A bull may weigh a tonne or more and the rider must hang on for eight seconds.

    A bull rider clutches a 'bull rope' with one hand, tied right around the bull just behind the shoulders. The cowboy rider depends on his balance and strong legs to stop himself catapulting off and the referees will disqualify him if he touches anything with his free hand. The bull has a flank (or bucking) strap fixed around his girth. It increases the bull's natural bucking and encourages him to stretch out his rear legs when he tries to throw off his rider. Half the referees' score is decided on the bull's exertions: speed, power, change of direction, rearing of forelegs and kicking of hind legs.

    Bucking bulls may attack riders they manage to throw into the dirt. So a 'clown' accompanies each ride to distract the bull and save the cowboy from injury.

    3. Calf Roping

    Roping and tying a fast running, hard kicking calf. This event combines several separate skills and is a display of horse-rider teamwork.

    A mounted rider chases a calf and brings him to a halt by tossing a rope over him. The horse must judge the calf's speed, stop abruptly on command, and keep the rope taut when the cowboy jumps off and rushes to the calf. The cowboy throws the calf down, ropes together any three legs then leaps back onto his horse. Referees award points for speed and for the writhing calf staying bound for at least six seconds.

    4. Steer Wrestling

    Chasing, grappling and throwing a steer to the ground. Steer wrestling calls for intelligent application and good working knowledge of leverage but is also a big guy's event as a test of strength.

    A rider on horseback chases down a steer at full speed. When level with the steer, the rider eases off his horse, grabs the steer's horns, and by digging his heels into the ground brakes the steer to a halt. He levers and throws the fighting steer flat on one side and must end up with all four of the animal's legs aimed in the same direction.

    5. Steer Roping

    Roping and throwing a steer to the ground, then tying the animal's legs together.

    A cowboy on horseback runs down a lively steer by hurling a lasso around the galloping animal's horns. The cowboy loops his remaining length of slack rope in front of the steer's legs to trip him onto the ground. When the steer is flat on one side and rope pulled tight, the cowboy dismounts and lashes together any three of the steer's legs. The thrashing steer must stay tied up for six seconds after the lashing is completed.

    6. Bull Fighting

    Performing daring stunts with an aggressive bull bred for agility and speed. Rodeo bull fighting is unlike bull fighting in Spain. Rodeo bulls live to fight another day and may take part in bull fights for years.

    A bull fighter must stick his ground at least 40 seconds with a bull then quit or continue for 30 seconds more. Referees award points for how the bull fighter controls the bull and the number of risks he takes. They award the bull points the more aggressive he is. 'Clowns' in the arena protect the bull fighter from serious injury by distracting the bull when necessary.

    7. Team Roping

    A pair of horse riders team up to capture and control a fast running steer.

    A steer leaves the chute with a head start chased by the two riders. One rider, the 'header', attempts to lasso the steer around the horns or over the head. The other rider, the 'heeler', tries to fling a rope around both the steer's hind legs. Referees disqualify the header for an inept catch and the heeler gets a five second penalty if he ropes only one leg. The riders must end up facing each other with ropes pulled taut.

    8. Breakaway Calf Roping

    Riding down a calf.

    A horse rider gallops after a running dodging calf and hurls a lasso over him. The snared calf bolts away and makes the rope fly off the cowboy's saddle where it was lightly hitched. This is the signal for the clock to stop. Fastest time wins. More popular with youth rodeo riders than with professional cowboys.

    9. Goat Tying

    Racing to tie up a goat.

    A horse rider gallops as fast as he can across the arena to a tethered goat. To save time he leaps from his still galloping horse, then chases and seizes the goat and binds three of the animal's feet together. The struggling goat must stay secured for at least six seconds. Another popular youth event.

    Contractors & Stock Animals

    Stock contractors, some of them ex-cowboys, work behind the scenes. They provide livestock especially suitable for the rodeo, mainly horses, bulls, steers and calves. They also supply equipment, deal with cowboys, make sure the cowboys on their bucking horses or bulls leave the chutes properly, and generally ensure rodeos run smoothly.

    Many stock contractors breed bucking bulls and virtually all breed bucking horses. Ranches used to supply plentiful numbers of wild horses for rodeos until the 1940's. But the supply slowed to a trickle when many horses were sold for the European meat market after World War II. Then in the 1950's ranchers started fencing off more pasture and shot nuisance wild horses. Thus an opening appeared for breeding horses specially to buck. Good quality bucking horses and bulls cost thousands of dollars each.

    The easiest livestock to ride are used at beginners, junior and high school rodeos. Average stock animals go to college-level rodeos, military and police rodeos, and events of similar standing. But the really vigorous and erratic animals, the hardest to ride, perform at the rodeos which pay the highest winnings, and ultimately at the Nationals Final Rodeo. Robust animals take part in more rodeos and improve with experience. When not competing in rodeos the animals graze at ranches and have minimal human contact to keep them as wild and unbroken as possible.


  • Rodeos treat animals as objects of amusement, without respect. Apart from how to raise and ride them, rodeos know nothing about the animals they use, their evolution, intelligence, emotions, needs, personalities. Rodeos use animals merely as brute beasts to make sport and entertainment. Rodeos belittle human consideration, understanding, sympathy and compassion for animals.

  • Rodeos present themselves as displays of courage and skill of rugged cowboys. But they are really displays of human dominion and control over animals. Rodeos are bastions of Dominionism (see Anthropocentrism).

  • Rodeos coerce animals into situations where they may suffer harm. Cowboys willingly risk injury; animals are forced to perform.

  • For & Against: argue your case

  • Claim: Rodeos take fairly tame animals and provoke them into appearing fierce and aggressive.

  • Claim: The better livestock are treated, the better their performance. Rodeo animals are well fed and taken care of and there are rules and regulations to protect them.

  • Breeding
  • Claim: A bull likes bucking if he has an innate disposition to buck. Contractors breed bulls specially to buck. So rodeo bulls enjoy bucking and come to no harm.

  • Claim: It is not right to force animals to take part in rodeos just because they are bred for it.

  • Code of Conduct
  • Claim: Rodeo rules and voluntary codes of conduct lay down how contests are conducted and how animals are handled to ensure their welfare. Penalties for infringement include disqualification from an event, fines and suspension.

  • Claim: Rodeo rules and codes of practice do not prevent injuries. Discipline for infringement is weak. Fines for infringement are slight compared to the bigger winnings at stake.

  • Fright & Wear
  • Claim: There is no show unless rodeo livestock are made to squirm, twist and contort themselves or run away in fright from cowboys. Rodeo animals are worn out or fatally injured by rodeo performances.

  • Claim: Stock contractors (who supply the rodeo livestock) have a vested interest keeping animals fit and healthy. They give the stock proper care and keep them in good health for performances.

  • Poor Life
  • Claim: The public see only the few seconds that the animals perform in the arena. But there are countless hours of unseen practice sessions and endless hours travelling on the road, often in unsuitable vehicles, with bad handling, feeding and watering which contribute to a poor life for the animals.

  • Claim: Rodeo animals experience little or no stress. The rodeo life is so undemanding that horses and bulls stay healthy and perform well for many years. Some bucking horses are still active over the age of 25 and bucking bulls up to 15 years of age.

  • Injuries
  • Claim: Fatal and serious injuries are not uncommon at rodeos. Animals suffer bruising, twisted limbs, broken bones, injuries to internal organs and haemorrhaging. For example, six animals died at the Calgary Stampede in 2001 and the following year six more animals died.

  • Claim: Less than one in a hundred animals are injured and there is less than one injury per thousand events.

  • Poor Treatment
  • Claim: Injured animals are badly man-handled and are without calm and safe quarters. Vets are employed but are not around when needed.

  • Claim: Official rodeo rules direct that a vet must be on hand or on call to attend any hurt animal and that animals must be taken to a place where they can be attended away from any excitement or disturbance.

  • Electric Prods
  • Claim: Rodeo hands wield electric cattle prods, releasing 5,000 to 6,000 volts of electricity, to herd animals into pens and chutes. And they hold live electric prods continuously against animals.

  • Claim: Rules state that rodeo hands must keep prodding to a minimum and only on an animal's hips or shoulders. A prod transmits a slight shock with no ill effect and is only used for a second.

  • Flank Strap Irritation
  • Claim: Flank straps irritate animals and are painful. Horses and bulls jump and kick to try and throw them off, which is why they buck.

  • Claim: It is the nature of rodeo stock to buck when saddled or mounted by a rider. They do not buck only in response to a flank strap.

  • Flank Strap Tightening
  • Claim: Flank straps are fastened tight around the middle of animals. This causes them distress and makes them buck to alleviate their distress.

  • Claim: Over-tight flank straps restrict motion and inhibit bucking performance. Therefore straps are never over tightened.

  • Flank Strap Placement
  • Claim: Animals bucks because the flank strap is placed around the genital area and tightened to cause pain.

  • Claim: Rules stipulate that flank straps are placed over the flank and belly, never over the genitals.

  • Flank Strap Abrasion
  • Claim: Flank straps cause wounds and burns when hair is rubbed off and skin is chafed raw.

  • Claim: Flank straps do not cause injury. Rodeo rules demand they must be lined with sheepskin or other suitable material and incorporate a quick release buckle. Flank straps are taken off directly an animal leaves the arena.

  • Flank Strap Irritants
  • Claim: Sometimes rodeo hands put prickly plants or other irritants under flank straps to make animals buck harder.

  • Claim: Codes of conduct do not permit insertion of sharp or cutting objects in flank straps or other rigging.

  • Spurs
  • Claim: Cowboys agitate the animals they ride to make them buck more violently to win more points. Spurs are one means of doing this. They cut and bruise horses and bulls.

  • Claim: Rowels, the star-shaped wheel of a spur, are dull and do not revolve completely; therefore injury is unlikely. Horse and bull hides are much thicker than human skin and more resistant to wounding. Spurs only enable a rider to grip an animal better with his feet.

  • © 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved