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Rodeos began as informal gatherings of cattle ranchers in the early 1800s in Spain, Mexico, parts of South America, the U.S., and Canada. Eventually, professional rodeo competitions flourished in the U.S. — particularly in the West — becoming public entertainment by the turn of the century and a full-fledged sports industry by the 1970s.
A recent Smithsonian Magazine article describes the intrinsic link that emerged between rodeo and the ethos of the American West:
An affiliation with rodeo is an affiliation with the spirit of the American Western ideal — a largely white, rural and Christian vision of a world where people are homogenous, neighborly and don’t overshare. They’re tied to the land. Treat animals as a valuable commodity that requires care but not equality. Plan to meet again in the afterlife. Use liberally the affirmatives ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘Yes, sir,’ having grown up under threat of a stiff switch.
Today, there are around 650 professional rodeos held each year. It’s even the official state sport of Wyoming, South Dakota, and Texas.
But the West is changing. Urbanization, drought, and public land growth threaten the livelihoods of the past, forcing many residents to seek work elsewhere.
So what does this mean for the future of rodeo and its participants?
According to the Wright family — a cross-generational rodeo powerhouse from Utah — rodeo is not an anachronism. It’s the future of the West.
Text by Kathryn Fink
This show was produced in partnership with Smithsonian Magazine.
- John Branch New York Times sports writer; author, "The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West;" @JohnBranchNYT
- Fred Wilcox Former president, National High School Rodeo Association; former National High School and JR High School Finals Rodeo Coordinator; former rider
- Amberleigh Moore National rodeo rider; 2016 Reserve World Champion in barrel racing
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