Rodeos: Inherent Cruelty to Animals
During the course of my lifetime, I have been a farmer, a bareback rodeo bronc rider, a large animal veterinarian, a medical researcher, a meat inspector, a state veterinarian, and a prosecutor. I have also worked as a media consultant on animal welfare issues including rodeo and PMU (pregnant mare’s urine) horses. Based upon my extensive large animal experience, I have concluded that rodeo events are inherently cruel.
Calf Roping
The cruelest rodeo events are the roping events. In calf roping, baby calves are used. If they were not in the rodeo, these calves would still be with their mothers on pasture. Weighing less than 300 pounds, they are forced to run at speeds in excess of 25 miles per hour when roped. The reason they run at such high speeds is that they are tormented in the holding chute: their tails are twisted, their tails are rubbed back and forth over the steel chute bars, and they are shocked with 5000-volt electric prods until the gate opens. They burst out of the chute at top speed only to be stopped short – or “clotheslined” – with a choking rope around the neck. They are often injured, and some are killed.
It is also the case that rodeo calf ropers must spend a great deal of time practicing in order to become proficient. Calves sold to practice pens are roped over and over until they are injured or killed. Dr. T. K. Hardy, a veterinarian who was also a calf roper, was quoted in Newsweek, stating that calf roping is an expensive sport, and that two or three calves are injured per practice session and must be replaced.
Many rodeo insiders also believe that calf roping is cruel. These include such notables as Dr. Robert Miller (rodeo veterinarian), Chuck King (Editor of Western Horseman), John Growney (stock contractor), Keith Martin (San Antonio Livestock Exposition Director), Cotton Rosser (stock contractor) and Monty Roberts (horse trainer).
Steer Tripping
As with calf roping, steer tripping—commonly called “steer busting”—puts a rodeo animal at extreme risk of injury or death. Steers weighing approximately 700 pounds are forced to run at top speed while the roper throws the rope around the steer's horns. The roper then flips the rope over the right side of the steer, while turning his galloping horse to the left. Within a split second, the steer's head and neck are jerked 180 degrees or more, causing the animal to be violently tripped, rolled and dragged for approximately 30 feet. That's a 700-pound body being dragged by the neck, with the horns digging into the dirt. Sometimes the horns fracture. The stress to the neck is enormous. The roper's intent is to make the steer sustain a violent fall and subsequent dragging sufficient to stun the steer. The purpose of the stunning is to enable the roper to tie the steer's legs for a score. If the steer is not sufficiently stunned in the first attempt, he may be tripped and dragged repeatedly in the same run until he remains down.
These steers are usually very thin, often with sores on their backs and hips. They appear to be depressed, not lively. They are used so often that their injuries do not have enough time to heal. As with roping calves, tripping steers may be used over and over again in practice sessions. When they are crippled from repeated abuse and injury, they are sent to slaughter.
Steer Wrestling
Steer wrestling also causes injuries and deaths to the animals. In this event a steer is forced to run at top speed while a contestant leaps from his horse, grabs the horns of the steer and twists his neck until he falls to the ground. In one case involving a rodeo steer in Connecticut, the steer did not fall when the rider jumped on his head. The competitor then violently twisted the steer's head, again. When he fell, the steer suffered a broken neck.
Bull Riding
Bull riding may appear less harmful, as the bulls are so large. However, in order to enhance the bull's performance, cattle prods are often used repeatedly to shock the bulls as they stand trapped in the bucking chute. Bucking straps and spurs can cause the bull to buck beyond his normal capacity and his legs or back may thus be broken. Eventually, when bulls cease to provide a wild ride, they too are sent to slaughter.
Rodeo-Related Injuries Evident at Slaughter
As a pathologist and former meat inspector, I believe my colleagues when they report horrendous injuries to rodeo cattle. Dr. C. G. Haber--a veterinarian with thirty years of experience as a USDA meat inspector--says, "The rodeo folks send their animals to the packing houses where...I have seen cattle so extensively bruised that the only areas in which the skin was attached was the head, neck, legs, and belly. I have seen animals with six to eight ribs broken from the spine and at times puncturing the lungs. I have seen as much as two and three gallons of free blood accumulated under the detached skin."1
A career USDA meat inspection veterinarian, Dr. Robert Fetzner, Director of Slaughter Operations for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, stated in our phone conversation on September 9, 1998, "Lots of rodeo animals went to slaughter. I found broken ribs, punctured lungs, hematomas, broken legs, severed tracheas and the ligamenta nuchae were torn loose." Torn nuchal ligaments are essentially broken necks and this is the sad fate of many roping calves.
Bronc Riding
Bronc riding, both saddle and bareback, causes rodeo horse deaths. It is not uncommon for horses in these events to crash blindly into fence posts around the arena or into the holding fencing and chutes. Bucking horses must be spurred over the shoulders on each jump or buck in order for the rider to qualify. The spurs cause blunt trauma to the shoulders which don’t have time to heal properly before the horse is ridden and spurred in another rodeo. The bucking strap can also cause chafing to the flank area which increases the discomfort to the horse. The irritation of the spurs and the bucking strap often cause the horse to "run blind" and fail to see fencing, posts or chutes.
Rodeo Transport
Rodeo animals are constantly in transit. Horses and cattle are shipped from one rodeo to the next, often in double-decker trailers. These trailers are very dangerous because the horses often fight during transport and fighting may also occur when bulls are shipped.
Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University works with the cattle industry on humane handling of its animals. In several phone conversations, she referenced a case in which a bucking horse suffered a badly broken front leg. Instead of humanely euthanizing the suffering animal, the rodeo chose to ship the horse, her leg dangling, across two states in a transport truck along with other horses. She died before she could be killed at the slaughterhouse. Dr. Grandin also stated that transport injuries and fighting are major causes of injuries in shipped horses.
The Effects of Normalized Rodeo Violence on Children
Rodeo not only injures and kills many animals, but it exposes children to sanctioned animal abuse. As a former prosecutor, I saw many criminals that had a history of animal abuse. Children who attend rodeos witness riders and ropers dominate and injure animals. They see the spurs, the cattle prods and the ropes. They see brutal riders winning prizes. Animal abuse can become acceptable to them. Acknowledging this link, Planned Parenthood has stopped using rodeo in its national fundraising efforts because of their concern for children and for the animals.
Mutton Busting for Kids
Rodeo now also promotes small children riding sheep—this event is called “mutton busting.” Four- to six-year olds are sometimes forced by their parents to ride sheep at rodeos. Some kids are crying from fear. Some kids are injured and suffer broken bones, head injuries and abrasions. The potential for injuries is so great that parents are required to sign a waiver absolving the rodeo from legal action in the event of injury.
Children and Rodeo Tobacco Marketing
Rodeo promoters have used children to distribute free samples of tobacco products—mainly chewing tobacco¬—to rodeo attendees. When Bozeman, MT was selected to hold the National Collegiate Rodeo finals, the tobacco industry wanted to use children to pass out tobacco samples at the event. However, when Bozeman city officials denied permission, rodeo promoters went elsewhere.
Anti-Rodeo Legislation
A number of cities across the country have passed ordinances eliminating rodeo's most common devices--the electric prod, spurs and the flank strap--all of which use pain to force the animals to "perform." These include Pasadena (CA), Fort Wayne (IN), Pittsburgh (PA), Leestown (VA), and the state of Rhode Island. It is no accident that where these devices are eliminated, rodeos disappear. Internationally, both the UK and the Netherlands have banned rodeos outright.
Numerous animals – including calves, steers and horses – are routinely injured and killed in rodeo events. If desired, many rodeo videos can be viewed publicly via YouTube.
Countless animals have paid with their lives to satisfy humans’ desire to play cowboy in events such as calf roping, bull riding, steer wrestling, and bronc riding.
Cattle and horses may be zapped with electric “hot shots” so that they’ll charge out of the chute, calves’ necks are twisted as they’re violently slammed onto the ground, and horses are viciously spurred into bucking. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rules allow the shocking of horses who are slow to come out of the chute—participants call them “stallers.”
QUOTE -- “I could hit them with a stick or poke them—I could poke holes in ’em, but that would hurt ’em. Or, I could just touch ’em with the Hot-Shot.” —Rodeo participant on how to “encourage” horses to leave the chute
To make bulls stronger and more aggressive, they may be injected with anabolic steroids. Some riders give them anti-inflammatories as well.
QUOTE: “Oh, I think damn near everybody’s doing it.” —Rodeo participant on the use of steroids in bull riding
A rider at the 2013 Calgary Stampede was suspended after two steers were found to have two different drugs in their system. Tellingly, it’s not the animals’ welfare that officials were concerned about. The rules state that animals are to be free of drug residue because the competition is designated as “terminal,” meaning that the champion steer will be killed for food.
The End of the Trail
Animals used in rodeos have suffered fatal injuries, including broken backs and necks, heart attacks, and aneurysms. Those who manage to make it through unscathed are given little time to rest or recuperate. They are loaded into trucks, hauled to the next event, and forced to participate over and over again. When they become too old or worn out to continue, “retirement” is often a one-way trip to the slaughterhouse.
The late Dr. C.G. Haber, a veterinarian who spent 30 years as a federal meat inspector, saw many animals from rodeos sold to the slaughterhouses he inspected. He described seeing animals “with six to eight ribs broken from the spine and, at times, puncturing the lungs,” in addition to “as much as two to three gallons of free blood accumulated under the detached skin.
Mexican rodeos, called charreadas, are particularly egregious. Two of the events involve deliberately tripping horses, including the manganas a pie, in which three mounted charros (riders) chase a wild mare while one tries to rope her by the front legs and cause her to trip and fall, and the piales en lienzo, in which a rider on horseback ropes and trips a wild mare by the hind legs.
In el paso de la muerte, charros attempt to leap from their own horses onto the bare back of a wild mare then ride her until she becomes exhausted and stops bucking. This is done while three other mounted charros chase her around the arena.
During the terna en el ruedo, which is similar to team roping in a typical American rodeo, three riders must rope a bull as quickly as possible—one ropes him by the neck and one by the hind legs, while the third ties his legs together.
In coleadero, or steer tailing, riders grab a steer by the tail, wrap his tail around their boot and stirrup and attempt to force him to the ground. The flesh on the tail may be torn off the underlying bone an excruciating injury called “degloving.”
Unsanctioned charreadas, also called coleaderos (because steer tailing is the most common event), take place in rural areas all over the Southwest. If there’s some open land and no authorities are around, coleaderos are often set up. Word spreads through social media, and there are no rules.
Rodeos may be popular, but more and more Americans are becoming aware of just how cruel these events are for the animals forced to participate. The horses, bulls, steer, and calves suffer broken ribs, backs, and legs, torn tails, punctured lungs, internal organ damage, ripped tendons, torn ligaments, snapped necks, and agonizing deaths.
The injuries are not confined to the rodeos themselves. For instance, during practice sessions, a calf may be roped repeatedly, until the calf suffers injuries that require her replacement.
Cruel tools like the “hotshot” are used to make the animals perform. This is an electric prod that scares an animal into displaying abnormally dramatic reactions through intense pain. Other tools include metal spurs and “bucking straps” that burn the animal’s abdomen and groin area and cause him to “buck” and can lead to back and leg injuries.
Travel between events is punishing, as well. Animals are often transported over long distances in hot and overcrowded trucks and trailers. The official rules of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association permit them to be confined during transport for as long as 24 hours without being fed or watered. The penalties for violating regulations are not severe enough to deter abuse and are minuscule in comparison with the large rodeo cash prizes at stake.
How To Help
There are few laws protecting animals forced to perform in rodeos. The federal Animal Welfare Act exempts rodeos from the protections it provides to animals. Some states exempt rodeos from their anti-cruelty statutes, while other states defer to clearly inadequate Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association regulations to judge whether animal cruelty has occurred in rodeos.
One promising development: A handful of states like California, Rhode Island, and Nevada, have passed laws that ban or tightly regulate rodeo events, and some cities are beginning to pass ordinances as well that ban or restrict the rodeo’s cruelest practices.
Let your state and local lawmakers know that you want to see similar legislation passed in your community.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund is fighting for better protection of animals forced to participate in rodeos.
Sometimes that’s through lawsuits. For example, we sued California Rodeo Salinas, the state’s largest rodeo, on behalf of the nonprofit Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), after SHARK documented a pattern of consistent and repeated underreporting of animal injuries.
We are also pushing for stronger laws to protect rodeo animals, and better enforcement of existing laws. Together, we can end the rodeo’s abusive and cruel practices.

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