This Ain’t Your Grandfather’s Rodeo: Historical Perspectives on Writing about Rodeo

Guest contributor Frank Whitehead, a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Arizona history department, writes about the tension inherent in both participating in rodeo and researching it for his dissertation. Find him on Twitter @thatfrankfellow

This week my wife and I made our annual early-December drive from Tucson to Las Vegas for the National Finals Rodeo. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts for nearly 50,000 rodeo fans from every corner of the country since 1985, when the organizers moved the rodeo to Las Vegas from its former home in Oklahoma City. For ten days each winter, Sin City is overrun with blue jeans, boots, and cowboy hats. Many folks make the trek just for the extraneous activities: shopping at Western trade shows, dancing at country music concerts, and, of course, lots of gambling. Those with rodeo tickets pack into the Thomas & Mack Center with 17,000 other spectators to watch the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), which represents the end of the yearlong season for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). The NFR consists of competitions held over ten days, and the fifteen contestants who qualify for each of the seven distinct events at the NFR represent the best of the best in their fields. [1]

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Photo of author competing in calf roping event, Las Cruces, NM, in 2009. 

Rodeo is one of the oldest professional sports in the United States. But the highest levels of professional rodeo today differ significantly from their late-nineteenth-century roots. Before the 1930s, most contestants at even the largest rodeos worked primarily for local ranches. They journeyed short distances to nearby contests for the weekend and quickly returned to their day jobs, hopefully with bragging rights and a few extra dollars in their pocket. As rodeo grew in popularity and prize money increased, especially following World War II, many of the best contestants found they could afford to compete full-time. Today, those who qualify for the NFR regularly earn more than $100,000 per year through winnings and endorsement deals. By early December, these professional athletes and their animals have crisscrossed the country dozens of times, traveling to several rodeos each week to compete to earn their spot among the top fifteen who compete for a world title at the NFR.

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Photo of author competing in college rodeo in the calf roping event in Sierra Vista, AZ, in 2008.

Attending the NFR every year—for me and for thousands of other rodeo fans—is not just an entertaining spectacle, it’s a celebration of a lifelong passion. Although I don’t come from the typical rodeo background (I wasn’t born into a family of ropers or ranchers), I have been enthralled with rodeo for as long as I can remember. Growing up in southern Arizona, I learned to ride horses and rope calves and steers at about ten years old. I competed in junior rodeos every month through high school. I was on the college rodeo team as an undergrad. I still try to ride and rope as often as I can, either at home or at small local competitions. In short, rodeo is in my blood, and always will be.

I am also a historian. My lifelong personal connection with rodeo made it an obvious dissertation topic to pursue once I reached that point in my doctoral program. History graduate students obviously choose dissertation projects for a variety of reasons. Ease of access to archives, availability of funding, and relevance to current historiographical debates all can and should influence the decision.

Perhaps the most important factor, though, is a strong interest in a subject. Writing a dissertation is a long and arduous process, and only the most dedicated graduates would be able to spend the time and effort it takes to complete that process without an undying passion and curiosity in the topic. That passion and curiosity can be sparked a variety of ways, such as an encounter with a thought-provoking book, a conversation with someone who shares that interest, or, as in my case, growing up around and connecting with the topic. My love for rodeo, along with the accessibility of primary sources and the rise of animal history as a significant field of historical inquiry, made it an ideal choice when it came time to write my dissertation.

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Photo of author competing in College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) in 2008.

In the relatively short time that I’ve spent working on my dissertation, I’ve come to understand that there are several advantages—but also some problematic disadvantages—to researching and writing about a historical topic with which I have such a lifelong personal relationship. One obvious advantage is familiarity with the linguistic intricacies of the community being studied. For example, when I come across a letter in an archive from a roper asking about “a hole in your trailer,” I know he’s asking if there is space in the trailer for his horse, not about the structural integrity of the trailer itself. While knowledge of slang and other language quirks could obviously be acquired by anyone with enough time, starting off the research process with that knowledge already intact is an enormous benefit.

In addition to deciphering texts in the archive, growing up around rodeo has helped with conducting oral histories. First, finding and contacting crucial people to speak with is significantly easier if they are a friend of a friend. More importantly, though, any interview subject will be more comfortable when speaking with someone who has a similar background, knows the same people, and speaks the same language. That crusty old calf roper is more willing to open up about the depths of his relationships with his horses when I talk about how I cried the last time I spoke with my favorite horse before he was put down. That hobbled bronc rider is excited to tell the stories behind his countless lingering injuries when I share that I still can’t bend my big toe from the time a 2,000 bull stepped on it.

Yet, this deep background in rodeo also presents challenges. For example, personal familiarity with a topic can make it difficult to know exactly how many details to explain when writing. I’m sure there are several terms and phrases that I’ve used in this post with which several readers are unfamiliar. Imagine how often that could potentially happen in a full dissertation.

Additionally, like many other dissertation subjects, most people have at least a vague knowledge of rodeo. Unfortunately, this knowledge usually comes through popular culture, especially Western television and film, which regularly presents a simplified, hackneyed portrayal of rodeo. Trying to translate the complexities of a subject that I am so directly familiar with to someone who may approach it with misinformed perceptions is often difficult and frustrating.

Finally, perhaps the most problematic aspect of thinking about rodeo from a historian’s perspective is the clear moral complexities presented by rodeo. Normally these problems are present for anyone examining rodeo. They are doubly present for me. Issues such as racism, gender inequities, and animal abuse have plagued—and continue to plague—rodeo. Revealing the origins and consequences of these issues is one of the goals that drive my research, but there is an unavoidable bias in analyzing the history of a controversial rodeo event. Take steer wrestling, for instance. I’ve performed that particular event numerous times, which involves jumping from a galloping horse onto the back of a steer, grabbing its horns, and wrestling it to the ground using strength and leverage.[2]

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Photo of author competing in college rodeo in the steer wrestling event in Las Cruces, NM, in 2009.

The ASPCA in New York protested steer wrestling at the Madison Square Garden rodeo as early as 1922, decrying the “twisting” of a steer’s neck by its “tormentor…until it ceased to bellow and its eyes bulged from their sockets in the agony of suffocation.”[3] Similar protests with comparable language continued through the twentieth century and up to the present-day by groups such as PETA and SHARK.[4] Yet, I know from my personal experience that steers are never suffocated and their eyes do not bulge from their eye sockets. Herein lies my trickiest conundrum. The ways in which I as a historian can address the inaccuracies contained within the language of these protests while also fairly considering the morality of human treatment of animals at rodeos is something that I, frankly, have not figured out yet. I clearly have a biased perspective and a personal stake in the survival of rodeo. And yet, as a historian, I also feel strongly that I have a duty to expose the mistreatment of any living being. This, along with other known and potentially unknown difficulties, will be on my mind as I continue writing my dissertation. But I’m not writing tonight. Instead, I’m headed for the Thomas and Mack to watch the fifth round of the NFR. There’s a tight race for the world title in nearly every event, and I’m looking forward to watching the best rodeo athletes in the world, human and animal alike, compete on the brightest stage.

 


[1] The seven standard events of a present-day professional rodeo are bareback riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping (or calf roping), saddle bronc riding, team roping, barrel racing, and bull riding. For a breakdown of each event, see http://prorodeo.com/prorodeo/rodeo/rodeo101.

[2] A steer is a castrated male bull. While the bulls used for bull riding are generally 2,000 pounds or larger, the steers used for steer wrestling and team roping are required to be between 450 and 650 pounds, and the calves used for calf roping must be between 220 and 280 pounds.

[3] New York Times, November 12, 1922.

[4] See Clifford P. Westermeier, Man, Beast, Dust: The Story of Rodeo (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1947), 436, and W.K. Stratton, Chasing the Rodeo: On Wild Rides and Big Dreams, Broken Hearts and Broken Bones, and One Man’s Search for the West (Orlando: Harcourt, 2005), 300-302.

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