The rodeo has experienced decades of protection from claims of cruelty due to its influence in American history and Western culture. Those involved with rodeo grew up with the sense that the kind of treatment of animals in rodeo was normal and okay. Spectators and citizens know rodeo as a symbol of the Old West and similarly observed rodeos as nothing more than a celebration of that culture. As people begin to learn more about animals there have been shifts in what society deems acceptable treatment. This shift is apparent in the rodeo world, even though tradition still has a strong influence on the welfare of rodeo animals.
Federal government regulation of rodeo animal welfare is almost nonexistent. The Animal Welfare Act covers livestock in their definition of “animal,” but immediately makes an exception for horses not used for research purposes. 7 U.S.C. § 2132(g)(2). Any rodeo livestock that would be covered are exempt because the term “exhibitor” does not apply to organizations or participants in rodeos. 7 U.S.C. § 2132(h). Rodeo exhibitors cannot apply for a license and therefore they cannot be regulated by the Act. The Twenty-Eight Hour Law protects livestock being transported by giving time limits on how long they can be held in trucks without rest or food and water. There is no exemption for rodeos, but most rodeo animals are not transported in the trucks covered by the law. Stock contractors like to handle their animals on their own and use well equipped and more comfortable trailers, making the law slightly irrelevant. However, if a stock contractor were to contract with a trucking company that uses trucks that do not provide these elements for the animals, then the animals would at least be protected by the law.
States have been slow to implement provisions to protect rodeo animals. One of the most controversial events is called horse tripping–when a horse is chased and has its feet lassoed, jerking it to a stop, usually making it crash or flip onto the ground. Today, thirteen states have banned horse tripping. Horse tripping bans are being signed into law at a faster rate than other forms of protection. Still, a few other measures exist at the state level. California and Rhode Island have increased the PRCA standard of having a veterinarian on site by requiring a veterinarian to not only be present, but to have full authority when it comes to handling an injured animal. The general standard, created by the PRCA, is to have the judges document if an animal is being abused and to enforce the PRCA’s rules. These state laws give the veterinarian more power and take away power from those who have interest in keeping the show going, rather than focusing on what is best for the animals. These states also require for the veterinarian to have an experienced background in large animals and for a minimum amount of time.
More states exempt rodeos from anti-cruelty laws than provide protection for the animals. Seventeen states exempt rodeos entirely from their cruelty statutes. These states provide no alternative coverage for the animals and, instead, provide zero protection for the livestock, just like the Animal Welfare Act. Other states exempt only “rodeo practices currently acceptable by the Professional Rodeo Association.” Mo. Ann. Stat. § 578.007(5). In this case, horse tripping, use of sharp spurs and electric prods, cruel treatment outside of what is done to get the animal to perform, and unnecessary harm to the animal may still be recognized as cruelty because such activities are not in compliance with PRCA rules. The PRCA rules do not protect livestock nearly as well as cruelty statutes protect animals like cats and dogs, but an exemption like this is better than a complete exemption.
Oregon and Indiana go further by only exempting rodeos that do not cause serious injury or use gross negligence in their practices. Of course, these are vague terms that could easily be limited by court interpretation, but they provide more protections than other states. A rodeo animal that breaks its neck or back, has extensive bruising or internal bleeding, or has broken ankles or tendons should be protected under these statutes.
The most protection afforded to rodeo animals can be found in several city and county ordinances. For example, electric prod bans are found throughout Texas, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, and Ohio. The rule that spurs must be dulled and able to rotate can be found in California, New Jersey, and Florida. Some cities have the PRCA veterinarian present and require an animal control officer to be present and have authority to enter all areas of the arena. Most importantly, it is at the local level where rodeos have been completely banned. Louisiana and Florida have several counties and cities that ban rodeos that use practices harmful to the animals. Chino Hills, Irvine, Laguna Woods, and Pasadena, California ban rodeos entirely.
The lack of federal or state oversight may be due in part to the traditional self-regulating nature of rodeo. The PRCA exists as a self-governing body with rules designed to protect its livestock. Due to the association’s popularity and power, many non-PRCA sanctioned rodeos follow its standards too. However, many of its rules are not that extensive. Some overlap or repeat other rules and a few do not have anything to do with animal welfare. For instance, the PRCA bans electrical prods but allows them on chute-stalling animals and on saddle bronc and bareback bronc riding, even though one rule specifically states they are prohibited in riding events. The rules also require spurs to be dull and rowels to actually rotate in order to protect the animal’s hide. These type of welfare provisions do not rule out the majority of actions that lead to animal injuries. The fear and stress of being chased and lassoed, tight confinement with other stressed animals, and the physical trauma caused by flanking, being thrown onto their backs, and having their necks jerked back are all serious actions without any industry rules in place to limit or prohibit them.
The PRCA actively works to ensure legislation does not progress far enough to interfere or stop its practices. The organization pays a lobbying firm to seek out and work against legislation that would prohibit certain devices or events. Proponents of the organization and rodeos fear that any restriction placed on them would spiral into restrictions on all of their events and practices, leaving them without the ability to celebrate and perform the traditions of their culture. Along with the lobbying, the PRCA advises its members on how to conduct interviews with the media to spin its message in a positive way. This kind of activity led to the death of an Oregon horse tripping ban. Legislators heard from lobbyists that it was not a serious or common issue and failed to pass the bill, believing it to be unnecessary. Bill opponents stated that this equine tripping bill would mean the rodeo could not perform steer, team, or calf roping. However, none of those events involve tripping the animal and none of them use horses. The fear of legislation and the aggressive pushback is seen in this misunderstanding of the bill.
Ultimately, rodeo animals are protected on a small scale, but lack federal and substantial state regulation. Complete exemptions of rodeos from cruelty statutes may need re-examination by state legislatures. Any changes could be narrow in scope to not upset the commercial farming industry and limited enough to allow the nature and traditions of rodeo to continue. There is compelling evidence that rodeo animals do experience stress and pain directly caused by humans and may need more protection beyond non-binding rules from rodeo organizations themselves or bans by individual cities. This may achieve a balance that recognizes the cultural heritage of rodeos and the need to ensure the health and safety of these sentient animals used for entertainment.