10 terrific American rodeos
Tuesday, September 03, 2019
Country music legend Garth Brooks once observed, “It’s the ropes and reins, and the joy and pain. And they call the thing rodeo.”
Having grown out of the cattle industry in the American West, the thing they call rodeo is purely American — and it may just be the most action-packed, rough and tumble sport you’ll ever witness.
Hundreds of rodeos are staged across the country each year (mainly during summer and fall) from California to Florida. Most are professional events, governed and sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA).
A typical rodeo features seven standard events: tie-down roping, team roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, bull riding and barrel racing. Many of the major rodeos are staged in conjunction with livestock shows, fairs or festivals, some drawing more than a million hootin’ and hollerin’ fans.
There are so many great rodeos to choose from, but here are 10 rodeos we think are among the best of the best:
Pendleton Round-Up, Oregon
Going back to 1910, the second week in September has always been the biggest week of the year in Pendleton as this small cow town in northeastern Oregon hosts one of the nation’s largest rodeos. Main Street turns into a carnival midway as more than 50,000 visitors turn up to watch hundreds of top contestants compete for more than $600,000 in prize money.
Each evening, the Happy Canyon Night Show offers added entertainment as it depicts local history, beginning with a portrayal of early Native American culture, continuing with the arrival of Lewis & Clark, followed by the prairie schooners of the Oregon Trail pioneers. (2019 dates: Sept. 11-14)
Reno Rodeo, Nevada
Another rodeo with a long tradition, Reno celebrated its Centennial in June 2019. Billed as the “wildest, richest rodeo in the West,” it spans 10 days and draws nearly 150,000 visitors. Xtreme Bull Riding is the most popular rodeo event but there’s plenty else happening, including the Miss Reno Rodeo Queen pageant, a cattle drive and a golf tournament. (2020 dates: June 18-27)
Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo, California
Most folks associate the California beach community of San Juan Capistrano with the swallows that mysteriously migrate there in large numbers from Argentina every March.
Another migration takes place each August as rodeo pros descend on the town for a two-day series of riding and roping events with a purse of more than $250,000. Both riders and fans love it that they can head for the ocean once the action ends. All rodeo proceeds got to local charities. (2020 dates: Aug. 22-23)
Prescott Frontier Days, Arizona
Billed as the “World’s Oldest Rodeo,” it was here in this central Arizona mountain town that the first ever “cowboy tournament” was staged on July 4, 1888.
It has since grown into eight days of first-class rodeo competition, accompanied by a host of other events, including a parade, golf tournament, 10K run and a big Rodeo Dance. Rodeo action includes the seven standard events plus a Wild Horse Race. (2020 dates: June 29-July 5)
National Finals Rodeo, Nevada
When it comes to rodeo, this one, held each December in Las Vegas, is like the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the World Series all rolled up in one. The Wrangler-sponsored National Finals Rodeo (NFR) pits America’s top 15 cowboys and cowgirls competing for the PRCA and WPRA World Championships.
The best of the nation’s young riders and ropers join in the action, too, competing in the Junior World Finals. Add a long list of associated events, including a bucking horse and bull sale, the Miss Rodeo America pageant, the Cowboy Christmas exposition and marketplace — plus the glitzy Vegas nightlife — and you’ve got 10 action-packed days of rodeo-related fun and excitement. (2019 dates: Dec. 5-14)
Cheyenne Frontier Days, Wyoming
Known as the “Daddy of ‘Em All,” the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo has been celebrated in its namesake Wyoming city since 1897. The buckles awarded here — at the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and western celebration — are rivaled only by those handed out at the National Finals Rodeo.
As an indication of the respect this event has gained over the years, Cheyenne Frontier Days recently received the PRCA Large Outdoor Rodeo of the Year award for the 16th time overall and 11th consecutive time at the National Finals Rodeo awards banquet in Las Vegas. The 10-day event, which annually draws more than 200,000 fans, features a full slate of family-friendly activities, including a carnival, western art show and sale and a chuckwagon cook-off. (2020 dates: July 17-26)
National Western Stock Show & Rodeo, Colorado
Every January for 110 years, rodeo’s top athletes have rolled into Denver for the second largest rodeo in the United States. This massive 16-day event features 30 rodeos along with horse shows, agricultural trade shows as well as the “Super Bowl” of livestock shows.
The largely indoor event attracted more than 700,000 guests in 2019. In addition to a standard roster of rodeo events, the National Western includes the MLK Jr. African American Heritage Rodeo that celebrates the history and heritage of American Black cowboys and cowgirls, and the Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza, featuring Mexican-style riding and roping events and a cast of colorful mariachi bands.
As a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, the National Western’s underlying mission goes beyond entertainment — seeking to strengthen American agriculture through enrichment programs and youth education in livestock, equestrian, ranching, farming and animal awareness. (2020 dates: Jan. 11-26)
Opening in November, Dickies Arena will take over from the aging Will Rogers Coliseum as the marquee venue at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. Image: Dickies Arena
Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, Texas
Going all the way back to 1896, the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo has reigned as one of the most authentic western lifestyle experiences in America. The 23-day event lays claim to being the country’s oldest continuously running livestock show and rodeo —and there's no question that it's one of the most popular, expected to draw more than a million visitors this winter to its brand-new digs at Fort Worth's Dickies Arena.
It’s the pro rodeo action — led by Bulls Night Out Extreme Bull Riding — that packs ‘em in, but there also are livestock and horse shows, live music, a carnival midway and plenty of kid-friendly activities. (2020 dates: Jan. 17- Feb. 8)
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Texas
They do things BIG in Texas, and the annual three-week-long Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is no exception. The event, staged each March at NRG Park/Stadium, routinely posts attendance figures topping 2.5 million.
A seemingly endless list of rodeo events is complemented by a variety of activities including horse and livestock shows, trail rides, a parade, a carnival, cowboy cooking contests and live music concerts. Past performers range from legendary stars such as Gene Autry and Elvis Presley to contemporary headliners like Kid Rock and Florida-Georgia Line. (2020 dates: March 3-22)
Silver Spurs Rodeo, Florida
Rodeos are staged in all 50 states, so don’t be surprised to find them in Florida. The Sunshine State has always ranked among the nation’s top 10 states in cattle production — and where there are cattle — there are cowhands. The Silver Spurs Rodeo in February is just one of five annual rodeo events staged at Kissimmee’s Silver Spurs Arena adjacent to the Osceola County Fairgrounds.
It’s the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi and is ranked among the top 50 events sanctioned by the PRCA. Contestants come from all over the country to rope and ride for a share of a $100,000 purse. Rodeo ticket holders receive free admission to the Osceola County Fair staged simultaneously next door. (2020 dates: Feb. 21-23)
Just so you know — Humane societies and numerous animal welfare organizations oppose rodeos, citing animal cruelty.
The PRCA has regulations it says protects rodeo livestock, and the federal Animal Welfare Act exempts rodeos from the normal protections it provides. But the controversy continues. Whether or not to attend a rodeo is ultimately for you to decide.
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