Tuesday, April 25, 2023

A Brief History of the Rodeo

 by Jennifer Uhlarik

I have loved the Old West since I was a young girl, and I’ve written stories set in the Old West since I was high school. But I’ve been a dweller of the suburbs all my life. I’ve never owned a horse, have ridden horseback only infrequently, and until this past weekend, I’d never gone to the rodeo. That all changed on Saturday when the hubs and I went to a small rodeo at the local county fairgrounds.


The rodeo was a fairly small one, in my estimation. The pre-show was fun, with two handfuls of young children doing some mutton busting. I gotta say, those kids were spunky, and some of them were durn tough! Then, as the sun set, the real show began. It started with five or six brave young men competing in bronc riding, followed by ten or so bull riders. A totally silly intermission of “bull soccer” broke up the events. What is bull soccer, you ask? The asked for four athletic audience members to don those giant bubble suits and get into the arena with a bull and let the 2000 pound beast knock them around for entertainment. Once that was done, another round of bronc riders vied for top spots, then another set of bull riders. The final event of the night was the women competing in barrel racing. Overall, I had fun, despite the fact that only about half the bronc riders made qualifying 8-second rides and none of the bull riders did on this particular night.


In spite of the fact I’d never been to a rodeo until now, I have long known the origin of our modern-day rodeo. Do you? In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s a brief rundown.


A Mexican vaquero

The term “rodeo” comes from the Spanish word rodear, which means roundup. From that, you might guess that rodeo’s roots come out of the Mexican ranch workers known as vaqueros. If you did make such a guess, you’d be right. Throughout the early 1800s, these vaqueros made sport of doing their ranch chores, competing with other ranch workers to see who was better able to ride a wild horse and who could rope the best. Soon, the competitions grew so that one ranch was vying against another in crazy festivals of sport.


After the Texas Revolution (1835-36), and particularly after the United States annexed Texas in 1845, the vaqueros intermingled with American cowboys, and these competitions grew even more. Another big boost to the growing competitions came after the end of the Civil War, when former slaves traveled West and became cowboys. All of these men became the early fabric of our modern-day rodeos.

Jesse Stahl, one of the best bronc riders in history,
circa 1928


The next big boost for modern rodeo came in 1883, when one William F. Cody—better known as Buffalo Bill—began his traveling Wild West Show. Despite the fact that the “wild” west was quickly taming into a more populated and genteel place than in previous decades, Buffalo Bill Cody’s show cemented the romantic notion of its wildness. Among the many facets of his exhibition, sharp-shooting, roping, trick riding, bronc busting and the like were on display for all to see.


Only a handful of years after Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show got its illustrious start, one of the earliest official rodeos was held in Prescott, Arizona, on July 4, 1888. Others, like the Cheyenne Frontier Days, were held in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1897, and even more in the first decade of the 1900s. The sports that comprise rodeo were gaining traction, and by the 1930s, the competitors founded the first cowboy union after having to fight for fair compensation for their work. 


Today, that same union—the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association—still exists, albeit after at least two name changes. It lists over 5000 competitive members and several thousand more in non-competitive roles, and it hosts hundreds of events each year, culminating in the finals, where millions of dollars in prize money is given away.


It’s Your Turn: Have you ever been to a rodeo? If yes, what was your favorite event? If no, do you desire to see one? Why or why not?


Award-winning, best-selling novelist Jennifer Uhlarik has loved the western genre since she read her first Louis L’Amour novel. She penned her first western while earning a writing degree from University of Tampa. Jennifer lives near Tampa with her husband, son, and furbabies. www.jenniferuhlarik.com





Love’s Fortress by Jennifer Uhlarik


A Friendship From the Past Brings Closure to Dani’s Fractured Family


When Dani Sango’s art forger father passes away, Dani inherits his home. There, she finds a book of Native American drawings, which leads her to seek museum curator Brad Osgood’s help to decipher the ledger art. Why would her father have this book? Is it another forgery?


Brad Osgood longs to provide his four-year-old niece, Brynn, the safe home she desperately deserves. The last thing he needs is more drama, especially from a forger’s daughter. But when the two meet “accidentally” at St. Augustine’s 350-year-old Spanish fort, he can’t refuse the intriguing woman.


Broken Bow is among seventy-three Plains Indians transported to Florida in 1875 for incarceration at ancient Fort Marion. Sally Jo Harris and Luke Worthing dream of serving on a foreign mission field, but when the Indians reach St. Augustine, God changes their plans. However, when Sally Jo’s friendship with Broken Bow leads to false accusations, it could cost them their lives.


Can Dani discover how Broken Bow and Sally Jo’s story ends and how it impacted her father’s life?





  1. I have attended a large number of rodeos and even wrote a novel set at a rodeo that happens every Labor Day weekend in southern Illinois. I really enjoyed the rodeos for a long while, but stopped attending several years ago. Normally bull riding only happens as the last event of the rodeo and it was always fun to wait for it as it is a crowd favorite. A friend and I always attended a Professional Bull Riders event (PBR) that comes to our area once a year and there you will see a lot of riders not get bucked off. But I think my favorite event is the barrel racing. I love watching the gals guide their horses around the three barrels set up in a triangular pattern and then make the horse go for broke and race to the finish line. The one with the lowest time is the winner. I doubt I'll ever attend another rodeo, but you know the old saying, "Never say never." LOL

  2. I have attended small rodeos at agricultural and state fairs. I love all of the events! My husband and I enjoyed following televised PBR events for a few years, but don't anymore. Thank you for posting today!

  3. I love watching the on TV in my youth. My sister was a calf roper and then a barrel racer for years. Northern Illinois has amateur events among local ranches. She worked in a larger town and lived in a apartment on a horse ranch. She enjoyed competing and working with horses. I however have ridden a horse only a few times and lacked the desire to do such a thing competitively. The local rodeos are rather boring like a marshal arts tournament. Lots of down time between competitors and events. There isn't the staff to entertain between events. Now that we live in Oklahoma in the midst of ranchers I imagine I'll get to see a large rodeo in the future. The Cowboy and Western Museum is only 45 minutes away. I've been there twice.

  4. Here in the SW Missouri Ozarks, most small towns boast a rodeo arena. It's also used for other community events, sometimes, too. I've been to many rodeos. I never thought about the history of rodeos, so this is interesting, Jennifer. My favorite is the barrel racing.