Full Title Name:  Detailed Discussion of Rodeos

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Madison Steffey Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2018 Last updated:  2018 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center 1 Country of Origin:  United States
Summary: This paper discusses rodeos in its most narrow form, ignoring similar events such as livestock shows or fairs and rodeos in other countries. The paper begins by examining the origins of modern rodeos. It then discusses the format of most rodeos and how each animal is used. Relevant federal and state laws are discussed. The minimal protections of rodeo animals through federal and state laws leads to an examination of local city ordinances that offer more specific protections. Rodeo associations’ sway in regulation is also explored. The paper concludes with a determination that rodeo associations’ influence may finally be giving way to changes by animal advocates that are beneficial to the various people and animals involved in the rodeo industry, at least at the local level.

I. Introduction

Rodeos have become a symbol of the Wild West, which in turn has become a symbol of American history. Rodeo is not just a sport, but a pertinent component of cowboy, rancher, and Westerner culture. The sport itself is not only a celebration of techniques and ways of life for ranchers in the 1800s but is considered by most participants to be an exhibition of their lives today. Even though the sport is a competition, the sport is equally a festival of Western culture and tradition and competition. It is such a prominent piece of American history and culture that welfare of the animals that make up the rodeo has never been questioned to the extent of other forms of animal abuse such as puppy mills, dog fighting, and cetacean captivity. While critics including authors, lawyers, and a few animal welfare organizations have begun speaking out against rodeos, participants and associations of rodeos push back passionately against any slight interference into their culture.

The animals traditionally used in rodeos include bulls, steers, calves, broncs, and cowboys’ horses. These animals, depending on the event, are chased, roped, tied down, or forced to buck a rider off by wearing different devices like flank straps. The events of rodeos—bull riding, bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, steer wrestling, calf roping, and team roping—were mostly born from traditional cowboy activities. In rodeo, they are exaggerated and done for recognition and prizes, not to tame wild cattle or restrain animals to treat them. These rodeo animals have largely been left out of welfare statutes designed to protect similar warm-blooded animals. They may be exempted by definition in an anti-cruelty law or the activity itself (when performed under commonly accepted standards) is removed from the purview of the law. Livestock, as they are collectively called, are immune from protections because they are commonly used for food; so long as these animals are used as such, their individual worth and suffering will be irrelevant. The Animal Welfare Act and numerous state laws exempt livestock from protection and hardly any others differentiate between livestock used for food and livestock used for entertainment and exhibition. Therefore, rodeo animals are usually merged under livestock and are afforded little protection. Even when rodeo animals are not defined as livestock, many states specifically exempt rodeos from their cruelty statutes.

As people begin to recognize that rodeo animals are subject to treatment that could otherwise seem cruel, states have started implementing particular rules to protect them from the less traditional, exaggerated activities. The balance between protecting culture and protecting the animals entrenched in that culture is only just being formed, but advocates on both sides are resolute in advancing their position. This paper discusses rodeos in its most narrow form, ignoring similar events such as livestock shows or fairs and rodeos in other countries. The paper begins by examining the origins of modern rodeos. It then discusses the format of most rodeos and how each animal is used. Relevant federal and state laws are discussed. The minimal protections of rodeo animals through federal and state laws leads to an examination of local city ordinances that offer more specific protections. Rodeo associations’ sway in regulation is also explored. The paper concludes with a determination that rodeo associations’ influence may finally be giving way to changes by animal advocates that are beneficial to the various people and animals involved in the rodeo industry, at least at the local level.

II. Origin of Rodeos

The American cowboy is an ingrained archetype of the Wild West and of the beginnings of modern civilized American towns. Before American cowboys, cattle ranches, and horses existed as many Americans visualize them to have been in the old West, there were the Spanish conquistadors and the Spanish-Mexican settlers. Horses and cattle arrived in Mexico around 1520 and moved north to the Southwest. The original cowboy, the vaquero, wrangled the animals and developed skills and activities that are used in rodeo today. He coined ‘rodeo’, meaning ‘roundup’ or ‘surround’, roped and branded cattle, and rode horses, all with the now prescribed get up of spurs, chaps, and saddles. By the 1700s ranches were establish in the Southwest, particularly in Texas. By the 1800s, the formation of the American cowboy began. Anglo-American settlers blended in with the Spanish settlers and the cattle industry was born. Roundups of abundant wild horses and cattle, ranches, and drives laid the foundation for eventual shows and exhibitions of the cowboy’s work: the Wild West show. Sylvia Gann Mahoney, Rodeos, Texas State Historical Association (Jun. 2010), available at https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/llr01.

Working cowboys would race and compete with other cowboys at their ranches. The gatherings to play roping and riding sports became customary. With historical and social changes, these customs became rituals. Families and friends would gather at the ranches and watch their cowboys compete. Although there is quite a bit of debate around it, the first rodeos are thought to have occurred in the 1880s in Pecos, Texas and Prescott, Arizona.  The movement from isolated competitions to community wide events helped push rodeos into a new category of sport and exhibition. Shows involving cowboys and sports started traveling around these communities, with the most well-known one being Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Acting for years before this in other vaudeville shows, William Frederick Cody designed a show reflecting on the woes of the frontier. Rodeos were a new element added to the show. These rodeos confirmed the sporting activity of cowboy competitions and allowed the sport to grow into its own event. Beverly J. Stoeltje, Rodeo: From Custom to Ritual, 48 Western Folklore 245, 244–55 (1989), JSTOR, available at www.jstor.org/stable/1499741.

A. Formal Organization

The first stand-alone rodeos began organizing their own events. Some citizens of Pecos, Texas claim the city is home to the first rodeo because it held a competition with a monetary prize in 1883. However, in 1888, Arizona was home to the Prescott Rodeo Committee. They organized cowboys to compete in bronc riding, steer roping, and pony races, created rules for the competitions, gathered prize money, and charged admission. Some claim this was the first event to turn rodeo into the kind of spectator sport it is known as today. This was the beginning of a formalized event, and many began their own versions throughout the early 20th century. Peter Applebome, Wrangling Over Where Rodeo Began, N.Y. Times, 1989, available at https://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/18/travel/wrangling-over-where-rodeo-began.html.

The Rodeo Association of America was formed in 1929 by several rodeo committees like the one in Prescott. The committee was the first to form standardized rules, create a point system for competitions, regulate judges, and organize prize payouts. Rodeos were functioning, organized events, much like the ones thrown today. Cowboys were sportsmen competing for prizes, not just ranch cowboys competing in one-off shows and events. Yet, this organization of rodeos led cowboys to the realization that they were being stripped of the benefits falling onto the association by their newfound power. The cowboys wanted their own body of regulation to ensure and improve prize payouts, to better regulate judges, and to create their own brand and image. The Cowboys Turtle Association formed ten years later on November 6, 1939. This group reorganized and became the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1945. Sylvia Gann Mahoney, Rodeos, Texas State Historical Association (Jun. 2010), available at https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/llr01. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) is now the largest American rodeo organization, sanctioning over 650 rodeos annually. The PRCA ensures that these rodeos follow its standards for competition and animal welfare. The organization holds the National Finals Rodeo, the ultimate championship amongst all of its sanctioned rodeos. It has become the national leader in standards and expectations set for almost all rodeos.

III. The Modern Rodeo

The standards set by the PRCA are highly respected due to how eminent the organization is in the world of rodeo. Due to this, most rodeos, including those not sanctioned by the PRCA, follow the organization’s scheduling and handling of events and animals. The PRCA sanctions six events. These events will be referred to as the staples of all-American rodeos for purposes of this paper in analyzing the protections of the animals involved. These events are: bull riding, team roping, tie-down roping, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, and bareback riding. The roughstock events, comprised of the riding competitions, go on for eight seconds. The cowboy and animal are judged; he for his ability to stay on the animal with one hand without touching the animal, and the animal for its ability to buck. The timed events, comprised of steer wrestling and roping, involve working with the horse or a team to rope or wrestle the animal and secure it for six seconds. Rodeo 101, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, available at http://www.prorodeo.com/prorodeo/rodeo/rodeo101. Today, the animals involved in rodeos are provided by stock contractors. Rodeos, especially those affiliated with the PRCA, contract with these breeders and owners to provide the roughstock for the exhibitions.

A. The Arena

Regardless of the size, organization, or location, most rodeos look the same. They are oval shaped arenas surrounded by stadium seating. There are eight to twelve chutes along the long side of the arena. Chutes are the holding pens for the animals right before they are released into the arena. The metal framed cages are built strong to contain the bucking animal so that the cowboy can mount it properly. There is also usually a specific spot for the judges built into the grandstand. Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence, Rodeo: An Anthropologist Looks at the Wild and the Tame 28–30 (1984). Outside of the arena, there is usually a staging facility. The animals are held here while they are not being used. Usually this includes outdoor space and pastures for the animals to eat, rest, and hydrate. When the animals are not being used, but are being prepared before an event, they are in the vicinity, usually in smaller temporary pens.  Alyson Ward, Where does the rodeo keep its livestock? Take a peek at the staging facility, Chron (Mar. 15, 2018), available at https://www.chron.com/entertainment/rodeo/article/Where-does-the-rodeo-keep-its-livestock-Take-a-12755303.php.

B. The Events

Bull riding is one of the most popular events of rodeos, and also one of the most dangerous. At one point, deaths from bull riding outnumbered deaths and injuries from bronc riding. With extensive selective breeding, the bulls have only become more muscular and powerful. Professional Bull Riders, Inc. formed as a bull riding only organization to focus on the event, having the best in the business participate and put on their own shows and competitions. In this eight second event, cowboys must hold onto the rope tied around the bull with one hand without touching the animal. A flank strap, a rope that goes around the animal’s hump, is used to encourage bucking. Sometimes the animals are further encouraged to buck by being prodded with an electric shock from a device called a ‘hot shot’. Rodeo clowns aid the cowboy by distracting the bull if the rider falls off. They can also prevent extensive injuries by releasing cowboys from the rope if their hand gets stuck when they fall off the bull. Lawrence at 28–30; Michael De Yoanna, Bull Riding Increasingly Dangerous, Says World Champ Bull Rider Kody Lostroh, Colorado Public Radio News (Jan. 16, 2015), available at http://www.cpr.org/news/story/bull-riding-increasingly-dangerous-says-world-champ-bull-rider-kody-lostroh.

Saddle bronc riding is similar to bull riding in its iconic representation of the Wild West. In fact, it is considered the classic rodeo event that portrays the actions of Old West cowboys who tamed and broke wild horses used in cattle management. Like bull riding, the cowboy must hold onto a strap attached to the horse’s harness with one hand and remain on his saddle. If he touches the horse with his free hand in any way, he is disqualified. The cowboy is awarded points based on his management of the horse, his ability to keep his feet up and pointed out over the horse’s shoulders, and on the horse’s bucking ability. Lawrence at 25–26; Rodeo 101: Saddle Bronc Riding, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, available at http://www.prorodeo.com/prorodeo/rodeo/rodeo101/saddle-bronc-riding.

In contrast, bareback bronc riding has little to no relation to traditional ranch work. The horse is suited with a ‘circingle’ that is wrapped around the horse’s body and topped with a handle for the cowboy to hold onto with only one hand. He cannot touch the horse with his freehand and must stay on the horse for eight seconds. He moves his spurs along the horse’s shoulders with each jump. Bareback riders endure more abuse, suffer more injuries and carry away more long-term damage than all other rodeo cowboys. Lawrence at 28; Rodeo 101: Bareback Riding, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, available at http://www.prorodeo.com/prorodeo/rodeo/rodeo101/bareback-riding.

One of the more popular timed events is team roping. Contestants work in pairs to rope a steer like they would on the ranch. The first cowboy ropes the steer by his head or horns and jerks him so that the second cowboy can have access to his legs. The second cowboy ropes the legs to secure the steer. The cowboys must face each other and ensure there is no slack, making the steer stretch out in between them for the clock to stop. This event can last a mere two seconds if the cowboys hit their targets immediately. Rodeo 101: Team Roping, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, available at http://www.prorodeo.com/prorodeo/rodeo/rodeo101/team-roping. This event is listed on PRCA’s website, but the controversial single contestant version is not. Steer roping, or more accurately, steer tripping, is an event that is not as popular today due to animal welfare concerns. Even though the PRCA does not list it on the events page, it still holds a separate championship event just for steer roping. 2018 RAM World Standings, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, available at http://www.prorodeo.com/prorodeo/standings/prca-world-standings/world-standings?eventType=SR&year=2018. In steer tripping, the cowboy ropes the steer by the horns and jerks the animal back so hard that it flips backwards and onto its back. It is often dragged across the arena, as the horse must keep the rope taught so the cowboy can reach the steer before it gets up. Many steers have died from this treatment. It is reflective of traditional ranching skills when cowboys had to capture steers that needed doctoring when they were alone on the range. Lawrence at 36–37. However, the unnecessary and exaggerated version in rodeos is controversial. The sport is only performed in a limited number of rodeos, it is usually done as a separate event in the PRCA finals, and its individual finals competition is not televised. Rhode Island is one of the only states that has limited rodeos from exhibiting this event, which is curious considering more and more states have banned horse tripping, an equally harmful and controversial event. Gen. Laws, 1956 § 4-20-4.

Another controversial timed event is tie-down roping, or calf roping. This is another event with direct a relationship to the Old West and traditional ranching. The cowboy’s team effort with his horse accounts for a large portion of the success in capturing the calf. The calf is roped from the cowboy on horseback, often jerked backwards. When the cowboy reaches the calf, he throws it down onto the ground, an action called flanking, and ties the baby cow by the legs. Lawrence at 31; Rodeo 101: Tie-down Roping, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, available at http://www.prorodeo.com/prorodeo/rodeo/rodeo101/tie-down-roping. Many claims of animal abuse are not only about the direct actions visually witnessed by audiences, such as the jerking, flanking, electrical prodding, broken legs and necks, but that the entire scenario for the animals is stressful and traumatizing. Researchers found that calves do experience stress during roping events, even when they have been used in them before. Calves without any experience also had increased concentrations of stress hormones in their blood. Michelle Sinclair et al., Behavioral and Physiological Responses of Calves to Marshalling and Roping in a Simulated Rodeo Event, 6 Animals 1–12 (2016), available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4880847/.

Steer wrestling is the last timed event sanctioned by the PRCA. Steer wrestling was invented specifically for the rodeo, it has almost nothing to do with traditional ranching. It was inspired by Bill Pickett, who witnessed dogs herding cattle by biting them on the lips. He tried this for himself and it became very popular. Cowboys no longer bite the steers on the lips, but they ride their horses up to the running steer, jump off, grab the steer by the horn and use all of their strength to flip the steer flat on its back. Lawrence at 34.

IV. Animal Welfare

A. Devices and Tools

Most of the controversy and concern over animal welfare has to do with the devices and techniques used to get the animals to behave as the rodeos need to put on a good show. The PRCA, cowboys, and other rodeo and Western comrades insist that animals that do not buck are not used, that animals are chosen to participate because they naturally behave this way. Rodeo stock contractors also go out of their way to breed animals with these tendencies. The PRCA contracts with seventy-seven stock contractors and about half of them participate in breeding programs. Rodeo Roughstock, Black Hills Pioneer Rodeo (Jul. 26, 2011), available at http://www.bhpioneer.com/black_hills_fun/deadwood/rodeo-roughstock/article_fbc686f6-b7c6-11e0-9be1-001cc4c03286.html

Advocates also claim that non-bred animals, especially horses, come from owners in various industries who could not break the animals. Advocates claim that the horses are wild-like and already have the ‘buck’ in them and, when the owners cannot break them, they are bought by stock contractors for rodeos. They also claim that scared or injured horses do not buck; they run or turn away. The idea that they naturally buck, but must be bred to accentuate the bucking, adds to animal advocates’ reasoning that the horses and bulls do not naturally buck to the extent that they do in rodeos. Several rodeo proponents openly state that the flank straps encourage or help that bucking tendency to come out. Why Rodeo Bull Breeding is Bringing in the Big Bucks, The Beef Site (Jul. 28, 2016), available at http://www.thebeefsite.com/articles/4350/why-rodeo-bull-breeding-is-bringing-in-the-big-bucks/.

Many take issue with the flank straps and, for a long time, the notion that they were tightened around the animal’s genitals fueled animal welfare activists’ passion to implement change. It is now clear that, at least in PRCA and other professional rodeos, flank straps do not constrict the animals’ genitals. They do sit right behind the hump and around their hips, tightening around a similarly sensitive area. Still, proponents are hesitant to say exactly what kind of reaction a flank strap is having on the animal to cause it to buck. Some suggest it is merely a “tickle” or a slight irritation. They claim that it is only used on new horses to get them to buck and once the horses are practiced it is only a conditioning tool to let them know they are going to be performing. It also, allegedly, ensures that the horse kicks out properly. Keith Marrington, The Facts About Flank Straps, Calgary Stampede Blog (Jul. 8, 2011), available at http://www.thebeefsite.com/articles/4350/why-rodeo-bull-breeding-is-bringing-in-the-big-bucks/. Regardless, some cities have banned flank straps or made them illegal if they are not lined. San Juan Capistrano, Cal.Code of Ordinances Sec. 6-1.12 (2014); Southampton Code Sec. 150-8; Pittsburgh, Pa. Code of Ordinances Sec. 635.04. One state, Ohio, has banned unpadded flank straps. R.C. § 959.20(C).

Electric prods and spurs are other controversial tools used on rodeo animals. The PRCA and multiple city ordinances require that spurs be dulled when being used on the animal. PCRA Rules Governing the Care and Treatment of Livestock at PRCA Sanctioned Rodeos, Rule 9.2; San Juan Capistrano, Cal. Code of Ordinances §6-1.10 (2014); Collier County, Fla. Code of Ordinances § 14-80(D)(2)(g) (2018); Montgomery Rev. Gen. Ordinance §5-6.1(b) (amended 2017). Even though horses and bulls have tougher hides, the organization does take care to make sure the animals are not pierced or cut by the spurs.  The electric prod, however, has been banned by several states and cities:

  • Six cities in Texas: Bastrop, Tex. Code of Ordinances Sec. 2.06.006; Marble Falls, Tex. Code of Ordinances Sec. 6.06.006; Decatur, Tex. Code of Ordinances Sec. 3-137; Georgetown, Tex. Code of Ordinances Sec. 7.03.050; Haltom City, Tex. Code of Ordinances Sec. 10.86; North Richland Hills, Tex. Code of Ordinances Sec. 14-167.
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, Pa. Code of Ordinances §635.04 (2018))
  • Montgomery, New Jersey (Montgomery Rev. Gen. Ordinance §5-6.1(a) (amended 2017))
  • Southampton, New York (Southampton Code §150-8(B) (amended 2005))
  • and two states,California (Cal. Pen. Code §596.7(e) (amended 2007)) and Ohio (Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §959.20(C)), have banned use of electric prods.

The PRCA has also implemented some restrictions with exceptions. Under their welfare rules electric prods can only be used on the hip or shoulder area. They are prohibited in riding events, except in saddle bronc riding and bareback riding. However, they can be used in any case when the animal is stalling in the chute. PCRA Rules Governing the Care and Treatment of Livestock at PRCA Sanctioned Rodeos, Rules 9.4 and 10.1.5. The PRCA and proponents state that the prods are only powered by “flashlight batteries,” producing only 5,000–6,000 volts of electricity, but without amperage so there is no burn or other physical mark of pain. The jolt of electricity is passing and so they do not consider this cruel. PRCA Rodeo Equipment, PRCA, available at http://www.prorodeo.com/prorodeo/livestock/rodeo-equipment. To appease public concerns, these popular rodeos have banned the electric prod as well: The National Western Stock Show, Cheyenne Frontier Days, and the Greely Stampede. Rodeo Ditches Electric Prods!, PETA (Jan. 13, 2009), available at https://www.peta.org/blog/rodeo-ditches-electric-prods/.

B. Physical and Mental Injury

Beyond the issue of devices and their debatable extent of injury to the animals, the concern over rodeo animal welfare largely extends further to the nature of the events and the physical challenges the animals are put through. Many proponents like to point out how little rodeo animals work. If a horse is used as a bronc it might work an average of twelve times a year. If the horses begin when they are six years old and ‘retire’ at age twenty then the amount of work they have done in their eight-second events would only be twenty-two minutes for an entire career. National Western Stock Show, The Life of Our Bucking Stock (Jan. 19, 2017), available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOFnlC0eVaM. However, that does not account for the animals’ time spent in travel to and from rodeos, the health effects of event participation, and their time spent in staging. These situations have been determined to be stressful for the animals as well. Some doctors and behaviorists claim that fear and stress can be equal to the pain from physical ailments. Fear can incapacitate an animal, similar to suffering different kinds of physical cruelty for long periods of time. Unfamiliar surroundings, being transported long distances, and being chased, prodded, lassoed, and flanked to the ground are considered serious stress inducing actions for animals. Jared Kaplan, Toros, Steers, Ropes, Capes, and Cowboy Boots: The Inhumane Nature of Bullfighting and Rodeos, 1 Mid-Atlantic J. on L. & Pub. Pol’y 52, 76–77 (2012). There has been documentation of animals dying in the rodeo from running into the wall and breaking their necks, from exhaustion and aneurisms, and from other broken bones or wearing down of tendons forcing the animal to be euthanized. Kaplan at 78–79.

The stress and injuries are further induced by being surrounded by other anxious animals in close quarters. Animals bite and kick each other and suffer scratches and wounds from the chutes and trailers that contain them. When rodeo animals are seriously injured or killed, they are commonly shipped off to slaughter houses. Dr. C.G. Haber, a veterinarian and experienced USDA meat inspector, saw cows come in from the rodeo that were so “extensively bruised that the only areas in which the skin was attached was the head, neck, legs, and belly.” He witnessed animals with “two to three gallons of free blood accumulated under the detached skin.” He also witnessed animals with “six to eight ribs broken from the spine that at times puncture[d] the lungs.” Another doctor stated that a bucking horse broke its front leg so badly that it was shipped to slaughter. The horse stood in a trailer with its dangling foot and other horses for two days without any veterinary care before it succumbed to its injuries and exhaustion. Other animals are harmed before even making it to the rodeo. Calves must be a certain size for calf roping, so the same calf cannot be used for long. Multiple calves are used by cowboys for their practice sessions. Sometimes the calves are used until they are injured so extensively that they have to be replaced. Peggy W. Larson, Rodeo Is Cruel Entertainment, 16 Pace Envtl. L. Rev. 115, 117–18 (1998), available at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/46711278.pdf

V. Federal Regulation

There are only a few animal protection laws relevant to rodeos at the federal level. The federalist system of the United States government gives power to states to enact laws that deal with the day-to-day functions of their citizens, such as enacting specific animal protection laws. As a result, the Animal Welfare Act (7 USC §§ 2131 – 2159) and Twenty-Eight Hour law (49 USC § 80502) are two federal laws protecting specific animals in a narrow set of situations. The Animal Welfare Act more so applies to rodeo animals because it handles the regulation of treatment of animals used in exhibition and entertainment.

The Animal Welfare Act defines animal as “any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal, as the Secretary may determine is being used, or is intended for use, for research, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes, or as a pet. 7 U.S.C. § 2132(g). Notably, horses used for exhibition purpose are excluded because they are not used for research purposes. 7 U.S.C. § 2132(g)(2).

It almost seems as if it could be argued that other livestock used for exhibition in rodeo can be considered “animals” because they are not included in the exemption of livestock used for food and fiber. 7 U.S.C. § 2132(g)(3). However, all rodeo animals become exempt under the definition for exhibitor. An exhibitor is “any person (public or private) exhibiting any animals, which were purchased in commerce or the intended distribution of which affects commerce, or will affect commerce, to the public for compensation, as determined by the Secretary, and such term includes carnivals, circuses, and zoos exhibiting such animals whether operated for profit or not; but such term excludes . . . organizations sponsoring and all persons participating in State and country fairs, livestock shows [and] rodeos . . . .” 7 U.S.C. § 2132(h).

Due to this exemption, rodeo organizations and participants cannot register as exhibitors and cannot apply for a license from the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This license would have required the rodeo to adhere to the standards set forth by the secretary and be subject to inspection. 7 U.S.C. § 2143(a)(1).

One federal regulation that applies to rodeo livestock is the Twenty-Eight Hour Law. Livestock used in exhibition are not exempt from the statute. 49 U.S.C § 80502. However, “This section does not apply when animals are transported in a vehicle or vessel in which the animals have food, water, space, and an opportunity for rest.” 49 U.S.C § 80502(c). Most stock contractors have their own trucks or contracts with trucking companies to transport their animals. These trailers are usually ample enough for the animals to be able to rest, have space, and eat and drink. Proponents suggest that because the animals are so valuable, the stock contractors want their cowboys and cattle handlers to learn how to drive a truck rather than have a truck driver learn how to handle cattle. Some stock contractors invest in large 18-wheeler trucks for more comfortable transportation for the animals. See http://theharryrowellfamily.org/rodeolivestockwelfare.htm and https://www.thetruckersreport.com/truckingindustryforum/threads/anyone-know-who-trucks-rodeo-bulls-for-pbr.156401/. This would make the Twenty-Eight Hour Law irrelevant, but it still applies when stock contractors use means of transportation in line with the statute.

VI. State Laws

Every state has cruelty statutes to protect animals. Every state cruelty statute, at the minimum, protects dogs and cats. If dogs or cats replaced the equine and bovine in rodeos, it would undoubtedly be considered cruelty. The disconnect can be attributed to a tradition and endless history of eating these animals and using them for work. The disconnect can also be attributed to the tradition and culture of rodeo itself. Rodeos are the quintessential symbol of the Old West and the American Frontier. Americans see these animals as completely at home in rodeos, as the ranching similarities, the wardrobe, and the symbolic events all evoke a natural setting for the animals. These factors make it so protections against what one views as tradition and another views as cruelty a difficult thing to pass. These reasons may begin to explain why rodeo animals and rodeos are not only not protected by the one federal animal welfare statute but are only relatively recently being considered for protection by states.

A. States with Blanket Exemption for Rodeo Activities from Anti-Cruelty Laws

Fourteen states exempt rodeos from either their entire animal welfare chapter or their most pertinent cruelty statutes: Alaska (§ 11.61.140), Arizona (§ 13-2910.06), Arkansas (§ 5-62-105), Colorado (§ 18-9-202), Illinois (§ 70/3.03-1), Kansas (§ 21-6412), Missouri (§ 578.007), Montana (§ 45-8-211), Nevada (§ 574.100 ), New Mexico (§ 30-18-1), North Dakota (§ 36-21.2-01), Oregon (§ 167.335), Washington (§ 16.52.185), and Wyoming (§ 6-3-203). The language varies from extreme exemptions to milder exemptions that allow PRCA accepted practices. There are other states that exempt rodeos by their definition of “animal” or “cruel,” or by categorizing the exemption under “sport” or “exhibition,” but these are the states that explicitly ban rodeos from their cruelty laws.

Language used includes “shall not apply,” “does not prohibit,” and “it is a defense to a prosecution.” A couple states are explicit in their rodeo bans, despite the variance in the forbidding language. Illinois (70/3.03-1(b)) and Wyoming (§ 6-3-203(m)(iii)) are the only states in this group to exempt rodeos without any other specific language. They exempt rodeos in their entirety without limiting the exemption to events that do not seriously harm the animals, those that follow PRCA practices, or similar caveats.

The remaining states with blanket exemptions exclude rodeos that follow generally accepted practices and other qualifying terms. These exemptions go beyond the blanket term of ‘rodeo’ and specify that the practices, training, and use of the animals in rodeos are all exempt from cruelty statutes. For example, Arizona exempts “[a]ctivity involving the possession, training, exhibition or use of an animal in the otherwise lawful pursuits of . . . rodeos . . .” § 13-2910.06. Arkansas does not prohibit generally accepted training or participation in rodeos. § 5-62-105(a)(7). Colorado exempts the treatment of animals in rodeo. § 18-9-202(2)(a.5)(VII). Illinois exempts livestock from its definition of animal, but exempts rodeos from the “Depiction of Animal Cruelty” statute. § 70/3.03-1(b). Then there are states like Nevada and Oregon that exempt injuries or deaths of animals that accidentally occurred in rodeos or happened without evidence of gross negligence. Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 574.100(10(a); Or. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 167.335(2).

Some states are more specific, while some have less clear language in their exemptions. Alaska might be the least coherent of the exempting statutes. It says its cruelty law “does not apply to generally accepted dog mushing or pulling contests or practices or rodeos or stock contests.” § 11.61.140(e). Rodeos are eliminated from the entire statute, but it is unclear if it includes “generally accepted” or practices. It can be argued that it simply exempts rodeos on the same level as Illinois and Wyoming. New Mexico is an example of specificity used in the statutes. New Mexico exempts common practices of Mexican and American rodeos. Regardless of the language and specifics, almost a third of the states have enacted blanket exemptions of rodeos from their cruelty statutes.

B. States that Exclude Rodeo Animals from Definition of Protected Animals or Animal Abuse

Seven states exclude rodeos from their definition of “animal,” the practices from the definition of “cruelty,” or both. For example, in Alabama, any accepted training practices or use of animals in rodeos do not meet the definition of torture or cruelty based on whatever is accepted in the “customs” of the state or the United States. § 13A-11-14.1(c)(1)(3). Idaho also declares that normal and legal exhibitions, competitions, or practices “shall [not] be defined as cruelty to animals . . . .” § 25-3514(9). Tennessee does not allow its aggravated cruelty statute to apply to “equine animals or animals defined as livestock . . . .” § 39-14-212(c)(3). Illinois does not exclude livestock by name, but its aggravated cruelty statute only targets “companion animals” for protection and companion animals are defined as cats, dogs, and horses. § 70/2.01a. Iowa, Nebraska, and Utah also exclude rodeos from their definition of animal. Utah specifically mentions rodeos, declaring that “animal” does not include “a live, nonhuman vertebrate creature that is owned, kept, or used for rodeo purposes, if the conduct toward the creature, and the care provided to the creature, is in accordance with accepted rodeo practices.” § 76-9-301(1)(b)(ii)(B).

Nebraska does not include rodeo animals in its definition of animals. It separately provides for livestock under its own Livestock Animal Welfare Act, Neb. Rev. St. § 54-901–913. However, even rodeo livestock are exempt from the livestock act: “Commonly accepted practices occurring in conjunction with sanctioned rodeos, animal racing, and pulling contests” do not fall under the application of the Livestock Animal Welfare Act. § 54-907(7). Iowa also has a separate protection statute for livestock animals, but exempts those used in rodeos. Iowa Code Ann. § 717D.3(1)(c). Tennessee has a separate statute to protect livestock as well. This statute continues to protect rodeo animals by not exempting them, but it does not consider “methods and equipment used to train livestock” as aggravated cruelty. § 39-14-217(e)(7). It is also worth noting that Wyoming has a blanket exemption for rodeos and a separate livestock protection statute like Nebraska and Iowa. Like the other two states, even though Wyoming provides for livestock protections, it still exempt rodeos. § 11-29-115(a)(iii).

C. States that Exempt Rodeos Implicitly and Other Exemptions

Seven states exempt rodeos impliedly by the language of their animal protection laws and through other abuse statutes. This is seen in the use of terms that would include rodeos such as sport, exhibition, and competition. For example, North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky do not say “rodeos,” but instead exempt “sporting activities” that are otherwise lawful. N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 19A-1.1(6); Ga. Code Ann. § 16-12-4(g); Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 525.130(2)(e). Indiana exempts “conduct not resulting in serious injury or illness to an animal that is incidental to exhibiting an animal for show [or] competition . . .” § 35-46-3-5(13). Maryland does not explicitly exempt rodeos from any of its animal protection statutes, but it does not apply any of its protections to “animal training” that “may cause unavoidable physical pain to an animal.” § 10-603(3). South Dakota does not explicitly exempt rodeos either. Instead, it exempts usual or customary practices in competition, exhibition, training, and use of animals. § 40-1-17(1)(b). Idaho uses similar language to South Dakota. § 25-3514(9). Kentucky is the most limited, only exempting the killing of animals “for purposes relating to sporting activities . . . or other animal shows.” § 525.130.

These states and others include other exemptions to rodeos beyond their main anti-cruelty laws. South Dakota limits “the activities of humane societ[ies]” that handle animals under the cruelty statutes to animals “other than cattle, horses, [and] other livestock. § 40-2-4. Arizona exempts rodeos from its animal fighting statutes. § 13-2910.05. Arizona also exempts pigs and calves in rodeos from its cruelty statute protecting these animals from inhumane confinement. § 13-2910.07. Similarly, fighting, baiting, and bear wrestling are not prohibited in rodeo practices and skill events in Missouri. § 578.182. Missouri, Montana, New York, and Wisconsin also exempt rodeos from their animal fighting statutes. Mo. Ann. Stat. § 578.182, Mont. Code Ann. § 45-8-210(3)(b); N.Y. Agric. & Mkts. Law § 351; Wis. Stat. § 951.08. The various ways of exempting rodeos or rodeo animals across all animal protections show the states’ lack of concern or need for protection of rodeo animals beyond their primary cruelty statutes.

D. State Laws that Exempt Rodeos that Meet PRCA Standards or Practices

Four states exempting rodeos do so as long as the rodeo is following generally accepted practices of the PRCA. Arkansas defines rodeo as “an event involving a practice accepted by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.” § 5-62-102(20). Its cruelty statute then exempts training for or participation in a rodeo. § 5-62-105(a)(7). Kansas and Missouri each exempts “rodeo practices accepted by the [PRCA]” and Montana exempts “rodeo activities that meet [the] humane standards of the [PRCA].” Kan. Stat. Ann. § 21-6412(c)(4); Mo. Ann. Stat. § 578.007(5); Mont. Code Ann. § 45-8-211(4)(c). Nebraska may also fall into this category, as it exempts “commonly accepted practices occurring in conjunction with sanctioned rodeos . . . .” § 54-907(7). The PRCA is the “largest and oldest rodeo-sanctioning body in the world”, but other rodeos have the ability to sanction rodeos too. About the PRCA, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, available at https://www.prorodeo.com/prorodeo/rodeo/about-the-prca. These statutes may be a step in the right direction because rodeos following PRCA standards should be engaging in traditional events and should not be using electrical prods or unlined flank straps. Even though some would argue that the PRCA should have stricter protections for their animals, they are the leading force in rodeo and they do treat their animals with care because the sport is incredibly valuable and is not entirely commercialized. States that incorporate PRCA standards offer some protection versus a complete exemption.

E. Laws Banning Specific Practices

There are a few states that have implemented protections specifically for rodeos. Many of these protections involve the prohibition on horse tripping. Steer tripping, as discussed earlier, is an extremely cruel practice that flips the animal on its back, jerking its neck and dragging it along the arena. This is the same practice done on horses, however more outrage has been expressed for horses and now the practice is rarely done. Even Mexican Charreria, famous for horse tripping, have banned the practice. Arizona (§ 13-2910.09), California (§ 597g), Florida (§ 828.12), Illinois (70/5.01), Kansas (§ 21-6412), Maine (§ 3972), Nebraska (§ 54-911), Nevada (§ 574.100), New Mexico (§ 30-18-11), Oklahoma (§ 1700), Oregon (§167.383), Texas (§ 42.09), and Virginia (§ 3.2-6570) have all outlawed horse tripping in one way or another.

F. Rodeo Animal Protection Laws

Rhode Island has strong protections for rodeo animals, including an entire chapter devoted to rodeo animal welfare: Title 4. Animals and Animal Husbandry, Chapter 20. Rodeo Animals and Livestock. Rhode Island is the only state to ban calf roping (done without breakaway roping to avoid injury) and the only state to ban steer roping. A veterinarian with experience in large animal care must be present at all times. The veterinarian has sole authority over injured animals and the decisions made after an injury. It is also the only state to ban steer roping. Also, anyone convicted of animal cruelty during a rodeo is no longer allowed to participate in rodeos. California and Virginia are the only other states that require an experienced veterinarian to not only be present at the rodeo, but to have full authority too. Cal. Penal Code § 596.7; Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6502.

Animal welfare advocates have pushed for regulations on horse tripping and other practices. Some of these passed complete bans, but others have been altered to appease different interest groups. Utah House Bill 261 was passed in 2015, but the original intent of the bill was to ban horse tripping entirely. The representative backed off before a hearing with Natural Resources Agricultural and Environmental Quality Committee and the version that passed allowed horse tripping with certain reporting requirements. Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Lawmakers back off Horse-Tripping Ban, KSL.com (Feb. 25, 2015), available at https://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=33592112. This trend may demonstrate the powerful lobby for rodeo and the concern by “big ag” that any bill stressing welfare standards would pose threat to their industry and way of life.

G. States that Do Not Exempt or Mention Rodeos in Laws

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C. do not mention or exempt rodeos: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia.

These states may not deal with rodeos to the extent that the states exempting rodeos do. They may also exempt such practices under “accepted animal husbandry” instead of creating rodeo-specific exemptions. When there is not a culture surrounding the state with rodeos, it may be likely that the events and treatment of the livestock involved would be categorized as animal husbandry over any other definition. Animal husbandry is generally defined as the production and care of livestock. Depending on the statutory or common law definition, rodeos, especially the livestock contractors, could be considered exempt under animal husbandry exclusions. Since the contractors breed and care for the majority of the animals in rodeos, it could be argued that their role is strictly animal husbandry. Even though there is no law to exempt rodeos in these states, it is likely that rodeos would not face prosecution because of prior caselaw exemptions, the trend of governments not interfering with the culture of rodeos, and generally not regulating them beyond PRCA guidelines.

VII. Local Laws

Local units of government have attempted to fill cracks left by state laws. While many are similar to state laws in exempting rodeo practices and events, several cities and counties have implemented bans and prohibitions on cruel devices and treatment of rodeo animals. This includes the electrical prods, unlined flank straps, and sharp spurs as discussed earlier. So although Pagosa Springs, Steamboat Springs, and Sterling, Colorado; Beatrice, Nebraska; Ray, North Dakota; Columbus, Ohio; Hines, Oregon; and Surprise, Arizona all exempt rodeos from their statutes, the animals may still be protected from harmful devices.

Beyond protection from harmful devices, some cities look at the specific practices involved in a rodeo. These range from banning dangerous and loud props that can scare the animals to steer tailing to more specific regulations of veterinary care and roping techniques. Here are some of the specific local laws:

  • Tuscon, Arizona  forbids horns, inflated balloons, illegal fireworks and the like from being near the Tucson Rodeo parade in order to protect the animals from being harassed or frightened. Tucson, Arizona Code of Ordinances §11-69.
  • Alameda County, California; Contra Costa County, California; Sedgwick County, Kansas; and Omaha, Nebraska all ban steer tailing or tripping.
  • San Juan Capistrano, California requires stock contractors to provide a conveyance for humane removal of injured rodeo animals. San Juan Capistrano, California Code of Ordinances §6-1.09. Calf roping is further restricted in San Juan Capistrano by the weight of the calf. All neck ropes must be removed as soon as possible, and absolutely no ‘jerk downs’ are allowed.  §6-1.20.
  • Scotts Valley, California requires an animal control officer to be present and have access, similar to what other states require of veterinarians. Scotts Valley, California Code of Ordinances Sec. 6.16.170.

Still, other cities have even gone further to address the animal welfare concerns by rodeo events. These cities and counties completely ban rodeos on their grounds. Chino Hills, Irvine, Laguna Woods, and Pasadena, California all ban rodeos. Chipley, Destin, Mary Esther, Shalimar, and Okaloosa County, Florida and Concordia Parish Police Jury, Louisiana ban rodeos when they use techniques or tools to encourage performance that harm the animals.

VIII. PRCA Rules and Influence in Legislation

As seen in the state laws, the lack of legislation protecting rodeo animals can be largely attributed to the assumption that the majority of rodeos will follow PRCA guidelines. The respect and recognition given to the PRCA has allowed states to direct their power of rulemaking to the organization. Due to this, PRCA rodeos and the many that follow their rules have immense power in organizing, regulating, and setting standards for the sport.  

A. Rules and Self-Governance

The PRCA claims that it has “more than 60 rules” that govern the animal welfare of their livestock. Interestingly, the only way to see a copy of these rules is through postal mail to their headquarters in Colorado. See http://www.prorodeo.com/prorodeo/livestock/livestock-welfare-rules. An animal welfare organization, SHARK, or, Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, has posted these rules along with their commentary. This is a group that is seeking to end rodeos, so the discussion must be viewed under that lens and cannot be confirmed without viewing actual hard copy. It is apparent that their commentary is correct in that many of the rules do not directly apply to animal welfare. There are also several rules that overlap, repeat previous rules, or contradict each other. For example, rule 9.4 says prods can only be used as specified in the Official Rodeo Rules. Rule 10.1.5 prohibits electric prods in riding events, except for when the animal is a “known chute-stalling animal.” However, it also makes an exception for saddle bronc and bareback bronc riding–two of the three riding events. There are clear protections in place, though. Rule 10.4.2 only allows neoprene or mohair cinches for bareback riding to make it safer and more comfortable for the animal. Several rules clarify that spurs must be dull and rowels cannot be locked and must roll. Also, rule 9.3 prohibits any sharp or dangerous objects being used on flank straps. See http://www.sharkonline.org/index.php/prca-humane-rules. If any cowboy violates these rules, he or she will usually be fined.

The PRCA claims to have its own welfare committee that meets regularly to keep their rules up to date and consider any recommendations. This committee is made up of stock contractors, veterinarians, rodeo contestants, and other industry representatives. Some are concerned that the situation is akin to a fox guarding a henhouse. For example, a veterinarian must be present, but the judges are actually the ones that report violations and enforce the rules. See https://www.rodeoanimals.com/frequently-asked-questions/. The PRCA has such a strong influence on all rodeo practices, it is beneficial that they outline their own standards and hold their members to these standards. Many non-PRCA rodeos follow suit, some are even encouraged to by law. See San Juan Capistrano, California Code of Ordinances §6-1.28. The industry representative saturation of their welfare board and their active participation in lobbying does leave room for other perspectives on animal welfare.

B. Lobbying and Legislation Efforts

The PRCA tries to protect itself from legislation that would interfere with its rules and ability to perform rodeo as it sees fit. It states that one of the goals of its Livestock Welfare Program is to “intervene in legislative issues that directly affect our members.” A Guide to Veterinary Service at PRCA Rodeos, PRCA, available at  https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.movma.org/resource/resmgr/docs/PRCA_Veterinary_Guide_2015.pdf.  In fact, the association clearly states “[t]he PRCA continuously monitors legislation and works to oppose legislation that would negatively affect rodeo.” This guide also includes tips on how to talk to the media in order to steer the conversation into a positive one. Although this is found in a guide for veterinary care and animal welfare, it contains pertinent information on the true goals of the organization. While the PRCA likely considers the animals used in events as valuable commodities deserving of economic protection, the organization appears to actively oppose legislation that would encourage further animal welfare protections. The PRCA may see these protections as a threat or a slippery slope against the entire industry of rodeo–that they would take away its ability to perform any of its events.

The PRCA contracts with Cornerstone Government Affairs, LLC. Its lobbyist is James Richards and he actively works on bills for the PRCA that deal with agriculture, animals, transportation, and trucking or shipping. Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn, OpenSecrets.org, available at https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientlbs.php?id=F217333&year=2018 and https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientissues.php?id=F217333&year=2018. There are no current bills listed that he has worked on specifically for the PRCA and he has not replied to inquiries for further information. The lobbying group has been paid around $360,000 since 2014 for their services. Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn, OpenSecrets.org, available at https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=F217333&year=2018. One bill he worked on in 2016, related to agriculture and animals, is H.R.3049. Section 712 would limit funds available for the USDA advisory committees, panels, commissions, and task forces. See https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/3049/all-info. Although the USDA would not have regulation over the PRCA because it is not an exhibitor, it is a relevant section considering the USDA oversees other areas of animal welfare.

PRCA’s influence can also be seen looking at a bill that addressed a controversial rodeo practice. In 2011, the Humane Society of the United States introduced OR S.B. 613, a bill that would prohibit horse tripping. Although horse roping is sometimes used interchangeably with horse tripping, as is the same for steer roping and steer tripping, when someone uses ‘horse tripping’ it is generally understood that it only applies to the tying of legs to trip the horse. The bill specifically says “equine tripping,” but proponents of rodeo feared it would bring a halt to steer, team, and calf roping, even though none of these events involve equines and none of them involve tripping by lassoing the feet. See http://protecttheharvest.com/who-is-under-attack/animal-rights-vs-entertainment/. This bill died in the senate. Legislators were told it no longer occurred in the state, influencing the Senate not to pass the bill. Russ Mead, professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, advocated for the ban and later stated that “he heard people dismiss the need for the ban because they did not believe horse tripping was common.” See https://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/03/horse_tripping_ban_being_consi.html.

In 2013, the bill, turned S.B. 835, finally passed and was signed into law.

IX. Conclusion

The fear of protective legislation is clear in the criticisms of cowboys and rodeo proponents to a routine horse tripping bill. The culture of rodeos and the Old West is so strong and engrained in this country that those involved in rodeo hold it sacred. While it can be argued that traditionalists fear that any rodeo legislation might infringe on a cultural tradition and way of life, the view of animal welfare in this country has radically changed.

The few state protections and local ordinances subtly adding regulations to rodeo events is the result of these new ideas of animal welfare. Balanced statutes like that of Oregon and Indiana would be great places to start in applying changes to laws dealing with rodeos. In Oregon, animals involved in rodeos are exempt, but only if there was no gross negligence. § 167.335. In Indiana, rodeo animals are exempt, but only if the conduct did not result in serious injury or illness and was only incidental to the competition. § 35-46-3-5(13). These laws allow for rodeos to continue but would not allow for animals to be seriously injured. The definition of ‘non-serious injury’ would have to be determined by unbiased veterinarians and scientists, but the regular course of events will be largely unaffected because most injuries born from it will be incidental. Some advocates recognize that such legislation is a start in the largely unregulated field of rodeos.

Despite attempts by animal advocates, it is unlikely that there will be a total eradication of live animals from rodeos in the near future. The tradition of the rodeo is a culturally ingrained part of the American persona. Although the view that rodeos are “cruelty packaged as Americana” is a developing perspective among the public, abolishment of that tradition is not imminent. Kristine Fredriksson, American Rodeo: From Buffalo Bill to Big Business 160 (1985). It is, after all, considered “America's final weakening grasp to the roots that helped build the U.S.”Jared Kaplan, Toros, Steers, Ropes, Capes, and Cowboy Boots: The Inhumane Nature of Bullfighting and Rodeos, 1 Mid-Atlantic J. on L. & Pub. Pol'y 52, 89 (2012). Legislation might be successful in achieving changes with respect to certain rodeo activities (like horse and steer roping) but more small prohibitions can protect the animals from cruelty–even from things that the industry and cowboys do not consider cruel. Calf roping, flanking, and steer roping are dangerous activities that need to be phased out with new revelations in our treatment of animals. There may be room for a balanced approach combining self-regulation by the powerful PRCA and state legislation. 

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