The Culture of The American West

The Legacy of Rodeo


It is believed that today’s rodeo was born in Deer Trail, Colorado in 1896, when two neighboring groups of cowboys met to settle a disagreement about who was better at cowboy tasks, such as taming wild horses for use in work on the ranch. That common task has developed into saddle bronc riding, one of rodeo’s distinctive events.

Many consider that casual meeting to be the beginning of a new American sport, rodeo. It was built on the tasks and traditions of the American West. Eventually, new cowboys arrived from eastern United States and vaqueros arrived from Mexico, each bringing their own unique talents to the sport of rodeo. Though cowboys have changed over the years, the qualities of showmanship, sportsmanship and mentorship have remained the same.

Cowboys did more on a ranch than tame wild horses. They were also required to capture and brand calves and full-grown cattle. Their jobs required that they exhibit highly refined riding and roping skills, and that they were able to work effectively in a hostile terrain that was common on ranches.

In order to maintain a good standing in rodeo, today’s cowboy still has to demonstrate how well he handles a rope or his mastery of riding a bucking horse or bull; he is also judged on how he reacts to setbacks or disappointments and his humbleness towards any success he may earn. He must also stick closely to the code of the cowboy, which says that he must help even his closest competitor. Most cowboys loan equipment or animals to competitors and pass along their wisdom and skills to younger generations. Rodeo has roots as a family-oriented sport, and today’s rodeo is no different. Whether a cowboy is a professional rodeo member or if he is a casual competitor on weekends, he more than likely takes his wife and children along as much as he can.

Some parts of rodeo have changed over the years. Today’s cowboy might travel from one rodeo to the next in airplanes, either commercial or chartered; or he may ride in customized rigs or trucks. Business and marketing knowledge have also become an important attribute; perhaps as important as a cowboy’s roping or riding skills. Professional cowboys compete for large amounts of money; Trevor Brazile, who has earned nine world championships, became the first $3 million cowboy in 2008.


Through the early 1900s, rodeo was an informal sport, where cowboys met to showcase their skills. Nothing but pride and small bets were wagered. As the popularity of rodeo grew and more people were interested in watching and participating, promoters saw an opportunity. They began to organize regular contests and traveling shows.

In Madison Square Garden in 1936, a group of cowboys and cowgirls staged a boycott of their promoter’s next show, which was to be held in Boston Garden. They demanded judges who understood rodeo and more prize money. Colonel W. T. Johnson, one of the largest producers of rodeo at the time, was forced to give in to their demands under duress. These events birthed the “Cowboy’s Turtle Association,” a group of cowboys and cowgirls who had been slow to act, but eventually stuck out their necks and stood up for themselves.

The Cowboy’s Turtle Association evolved into the Rodeo Cowboy’s Association (RCA) in 1945. Thirty years later, RCA became the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA). Professional rodeo has grown tremendously; today it has near 8,000 members with over 7,000 contestants, and roughly 600 rodeos are held each year with the PRCA’s authorization. In 1979, the Professional Rodeo Hall of Fame and the Museum of the American Cowboy opened in Colorado Springs, CO. The prize purse in rodeo has grown exponentially since rodeo’s inception, with more than $38 million given in prize money in 2009.

Rodeo, the culture of the American West, continues to flourish in the 21st century.