By: Sylvia Gann Mahoney

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: January 23, 2019

Rodeo is a sport that grew out of the cattle industry in the American West. Its roots reach back to the sixteenth century. The Spanish conquistadors and Spanish-Mexican settlers played a key role in the origin of rodeo with the introduction and propagation of horses and cattle in the Southwest. After the Civil War, with the abundance of wild cattle in the Southwest and a market in the East, the era of the cattle drives, large ranches, and range cowboys began. Skills of the range cowboy led to competitive contests that eventually resulted in standard events for rodeo. With its roots deep in Southwest history, rodeo continued to evolve until it has become a professional sport for men and women that is being perpetuated by youth rodeo organizations. The Spanish conquistadors and the Mexican vaqueros contributed major components to rodeo. Horses arrived in 1519 in Mexico with Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes, and cattle soon followed in 1521 with Gregorio de Villalobos. As expeditions moved north transplanting the cattle and horses to the Southwest, the man working the cattle, or the vaquero, became the man on horseback who contributed many of the skills and much of the equipment and rodeo terminology used by the American cowboy. Riding, roping, and branding, along with the rope, saddle, spurs, chaps, and even the word rodeo ("roundup") are some of the contributions. Some areas, particularly in deep South Texas, had the environment conducive to the proliferation of stray cattle and horses. By the 1600s and 1700s Spanish-Mexican settlements and ranches were started in areas such as the lower Rio Grande. Some of these settlers became vaqueros for Capt. Richard King, who established the King Ranch in 1853 near Kingsville, Texas.

The 1800s was a landmark period for rodeo; the era of the American cowboy began. In the early 1820s the first Anglo-American settlers moved into Texas. As these settlers moved from East Texas to Central Texas to West Texas and other settlers moved to these areas from South Texas, a blending of the Anglo and Spanish-Mexican cultures occurred. With the Spanish-Mexican knowledge of riding, roping, herding, and branding available, events occurred that culminated in the Southwest cattle industry. The abundance of wild cattle and horses and an Eastern market for beef after the Civil War led to cattle drives to the railheads, which made ranching a profitable business for people such as John S. Chisum, Oliver Loving, and Charles Goodnight. The adventure and independence of herding cattle to market or working on the open range caught the imagination of many young men seeking jobs. They bought saddles and signed on with an outfit. The range cowboy and the cattle industry flourished in the Southwest, especially in West Texas and the Panhandle of Texas, with the establishment of large ranches such as the JA, XIT, Waggoner, Four Sixes, and Pitchfork, along with many smaller ranches. However, with the fencing of the open range in the late 1880s, the cattle industry changed to a more confining job for the range cowboy. When communities sprang up, social occasions, especially Fourth of July celebrations, gave cowboys a chance to challenge the bronc riding and roping skills of cowboys from other ranches. Soon, local contests became annual events. Since the cowboy's work was often seasonal, some cowboys also signed up to exhibit their skills with wild-west shows such as the first one William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) staged in his home town of North Platte, Nebraska, on the Fourth of July, 1882. Wild-west shows led exhibitions of rodeo skills in the East and eventually in Europe. By the 1890s rodeo had become a spectator event in the West. Rodeo became an annual event in many places. One of the earliest "bronco-busting contests" on record was held on July 4, 1869, in Deer Trail, Colorado Territory. Two of the earliest rodeos on record were held in Pecos, Texas, in 1883, the first to give prizes, and in Prescott, Arizona, in 1888, the first to charge admission. The first indoor rodeo took place at Fort Worth in 1917. By the late 1920s rodeo had become an annual event in some places in the East. In New York City, the Madison Square Garden Rodeo often lasted for thirty days. It was followed by a two-week rodeo in Boston. This gave rodeo national publicity.

As rodeo grew, some problems evolved. Many early day rodeos were billed as World Championship Rodeos; as a result, many early world champion titles represented winning one rodeo. More than one cowboy often claimed the title of world champion for the same year. Also, the tarnished image that early day rodeo contestants caused by using rodeo as entertainment rather than as a business had to change before rodeo would be considered a sport and a legitimate business by the public. With early rodeo and wild-west shows overlapping, the public also viewed rodeo as a show, not a sport. Most shows in this era were dominated by independent producers such as Col. William T. Johnson and Gene Autrey. An attempt to organize rodeo began in the late 1920s. In 1929 the Rodeo Association of America was organized by several rodeo committees (the people who put the rodeos on, not the cowboys) to standardize rules, establish a point system to determine world champions, monitor judges, and establish a fair practice in advertising and awarding prize money. Although the RAA helped correct some of the problems in rodeo, the idea of the cowboys' having their own organization surfaced at different times, but no permanent organization occurred until October 30, 1936, when sixty-one cowboys voted to strike in protest of the prize money offered at Boston. As a result, the cowboys were given their "fair share of the prize money." Recognizing the power in being united, the cowboys organized the Cowboys Turtle Association on November 6, 1939. The origin of the name is disputed; however, some say it was because they were slow in uniting. The main purposes of the CTA were to improve the cowboys' earnings, improve the equality in the judging, and improve the cowboys' image. In Houston in 1945 the CTA was reorganized, and the name changed to the Rodeo Cowboys Association. A national office was set up in Fort Worth with Bandera, Texas, calf roper Toots Mansfield as the RCA's first president. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association standardized the events and the rules. Sanctioned events are saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, team roping, and single steer roping. Barrel racing, sanctioned by the Women's Professional Rodeo Association, is the only women's event which is standard at PRCA rodeos. The events are either timed or judged. The contestants compete for prize money, which includes the entry fees and added money. Each dollar won represents one point to the contestant; accumulated points determine the world champions at the end of the year.

Other rodeo organizations were started. The Southwest Rodeo Association was organized in 1938 primarily for the weekend cowboy who was limited in travel time because of another job. In 1942 the SRA changed its name to the National Rodeo Association, then in 1946, the NRA and the RAA merged into the International Rodeo Association. Later, the name became International Professional Rodeo Association. In 1975 the PRCA organized a circuit system composed of twelve geographical regions to meet the need of the weekend cowboy. In 1986 a circuit national finals rodeo for the season champions and the circuit finals champions was started. A new trend in rodeo is the formation of old-timers rodeo associations. The method of naming world champions was finally settled. The RAA named world champion cowboys from 1929 through 1944. On January 1, 1945, the RCA, using the RAA point system of a point for each dollar won, started naming world champions. Two sets of world champions were named until July 1, 1955, when the IRA announced that it would not longer continue naming world champions. Rodeo publications became a necessity. In 1933 Mrs. Ethel A. Hopkins bought Hoofs and Horns and began publishing it as a monthly magazine. The RAA, NRA, and the CTA used it as their official publication. In 1945 the new RCA started its own bulletin, The Buckboard. In 1952 the Rodeo Sports News became the official RCA publication. In 1975 the RCA added the word professional to its name, and the Rodeo Sports News became the Prorodeo Sports News.

For cowgirls the early years in rodeo were golden years because of the money and fame they earned. From the turn of the century through the 1930s, women competed in many roping and riding events. Popular events were the relay races, if a track was available, trick riding, and bronc riding. Occasionally, they even competed with men in events such as bronc riding. Sometimes they were contracted to appear at rodeos rather than compete. Noted for her bronc riding, Fort Worth's Barbara Inez (Tad) Lucas, born in Cody, Nebraska, earned $12,000 during 1935 in competition and exhibition. Noted roper Lucille Mulhall, born in Oklahoma Territory, once proved her expertise with a rope by roping a coyote to win a bet with Theodore Roosevelt. World War II marked a turning point for women in rodeo. In 1941 Madison Square Garden, because of dwindling numbers and scarce rodeo stock, dropped the cowgirl bronc-riding contest, and other rodeos followed this precedent. Eventually, the WPRA barrel race became the only event for women at PRCA rodeos, but they did not receive equal prize money. However, progress is being made. In 1990 only 29 of the 754 PRCA rodeos, did not have equal pay for the women. The WPRA barrel race is the only women's event that pays well enough to warrant being a full-time profession. The WPRA was started in San Angelo, Texas, on July 4, 1948, as the Girls Rodeo Association, to promote all-women rodeos and offer more events for women. In 1948 the GRA had seventy-four members; in 1990 the WPRA/PWRA (Professional Women's Rodeo Association, a separate division of the WPRA) had 1800 members. The PWRA sanctioned nine rodeos in 1990. The six standard events for the PWRA all-women rodeos include barrel racing, team roping, tie-down and breakaway calf roping, bareback bronc riding, and bull or steer riding. The fame and money of the early day cowgirls may again be achieved. In 1984 a fourteen-year-old barrel racer captured the attention of the media and the public. Charmayne James (later Rodman) of Clayton, New Mexico, won the world championship in barrel racing on her horse Scamper. By 1991 Charmayne and Scamper had won eight world titles in a row. In the spring of 1991 their accumulated earnings passed the million dollar mark, a first for women.

After World War II youth rodeo organizations sprang up because many people had more leisure time. Also, rodeo publicity "more than doubled during the fifties." The youth rodeo associations are contributing to the growth and professionalism of rodeo. In 1949 college students, many who were World War II veterans, started a college rodeo organization, which included women. The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association was chartered in Texas in 1949. Governed by the students, Texas A&M's Charlie Rankin was the first NIRA student president. In 1949 Sul Ross State University at Alpine, Texas, won the first NIRA national men's team championship, and Sul Ross's Harley May won the first NIRA all-around title. Women were not included in the first two finals rodeos, although they competed on the regional level. In 1951 Jo Gregory Knox of Midland won the first women's NIRA all-around championship. The standard PRCA events (except steer roping) are the approved men's events at college rodeos, and college women compete in barrel racing, breakaway roping, goat tying, and team roping with the men. College rodeo contestants can hold concurrent membership in the NIRA and the PRCA or WPRA/PWRA. The NIRA has "contributed enormously to the wider acceptance of the sport and its participants." By 1984 1,700 of the 5,000 members of PRCA had attended college, and only half of them had worked on a ranch. The National High School Rodeo Association was organized in Hallettsville, Texas, in 1949. The American Junior Rodeo Association is another Texas product. Private rodeo schools also expanded the field of contestants. The PRCA decided to add a national finals rodeo to complete the rodeo season. In 1959 the first professional National Finals Rodeo was held in the Dallas. The top fifteen contestants in each event were eligible to compete. From 1962–64 the NFR was held in Los Angeles, then in 1965 it was moved to Oklahoma City. In 1985 the NFR was lured to Las Vegas, Nevada, by increasing the prize money awarded at the NFR from $901,550 in 1984 to $1,790,000 in 1985. Many Texans have distinguished themselves in rodeo, including black cowboys. The black cowboy William (Bill) Pickett (1870–1932) from Travis County, Texas, started a method of bulldogging a steer by the lip, which led to the steer-wrestling event. Another black cowboy, Myrtis Dightman of Houston, qualified in bull riding six times for the NFR between 1966–72. However, the first black cowboy to win a world title was from Los Angeles; in 1982 Charlie Sampson won the world title in bull riding. A black calf roper, Fred Whitfield of Cypress, Texas, won the 1990 PRCA Rookie of the Year award, given "to the top money-earning rookie."

Texas cowboys began to dominate their events. Toots Mansfield won seven world calf roping titles: 1939–41, 1943, 1945, 1948, and 1950. Dick Griffith of Fort Worth won the world bull riding title four times: 1939–42. World champion bull rider Harry Tompkins of Dublin, Texas, born in upstate New York, won in 1948–50, 1952, and 1960. In 1952 Tompkins won three world titles: bareback riding, bull riding, and all-around, the first all-around to call Texas home. Don Gay of Mesquite, Texas, with eight world titles, holds the bull riding record. However, the record for most titles in a combination of events belongs to Oklahoman Jim Shoulders, with sixteen titles. The twenty-year-old 1989 world all-around champion Ty Murray of Llano, Texas, became the youngest cowboy to win the title. In 1990 he won the all-around title again and became the first cowboy to win over $200,000 in season earnings. Rarely do cowboys enter in both the timed events and the riding events. Phil Lyne of Cotulla, Texas, has the distinction of being the only cowboy to win the National Finals Rodeo average titles in three events: bull riding, calf roping, and steer roping. The prize money at rodeos has continued to grow. In 1990 Texas had three of the top seven rodeos in the United States as determined by total prize money given. The three were San Antonio Livestock Exposition Rodeo, Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and Fort Worth Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show and Rodeo. In 1990 forty-two states held a total of 754 PRCA approved rodeos with total prize money of $18,163,073. The PRCA has been strengthened in several areas. The PRCA has gained financial support from corporate sponsors and started the Wrangler Pro Officials System with full-time trained judges. It has implemented PROCOM, a computer-assisted central entry system. Rodeo spans American history from the Spanish era through the cattle drives and big ranch era to take its place in the twentieth century as a professional sport and a full-time business. With its multicultural heritage, rodeo characterizes the unique traits of the place of its birth: the American Southwest.

Kristine Fredriksson, American Rodeo: From Buffalo Bill to Big Business (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985). Teresa Jordan, Cowgirls: Women of the American West (Garden City, New York: Anchor, 1982). Official Professional Rodeo Media Guide (Colorado Springs: PRCA, 1990, 1991). Willard H. Porter, Who's Who in Rodeo (Oklahoma City: Powder River, 1982). Joyce Gibson Roach, The Cowgirls (Houston: Cordovan , 1977; 2d ed., Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1990). Clifford P. Westermeier, Man, Beast, Dust: The Story of Rodeo (Denver, 1947; rpt., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Sylvia Gann Mahoney, “Rodeos,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 23, 2019