A working cowboy’s event, the modern-day version of a rodeo is vastly different from its predecessor, the traditional ranch rodeo. Instead of the glamorous and sometime theatrical performances of today’s professional rodeos, ranch rodeos remain dedicated to the skill and determination necessary to work a ranch. From their grass-roots evolution in the 19th century to the thousands of annual events today, ranch rodeos connect generations of cowboys and cowgirls across the country.
Although community brandings and roundups were commonplace for ranches across North America, formal organization of ranch rodeos grew slowly and organically. The first organized ranch rodeo events in the United States—complete with betting and prizes—occurred in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. In the springtime, when cattle were gathered and branded, large ranches put on “cowboy contests.” Contestants from other local ranches would compete in roping, riding and horse-breaking. Wagers would be made on which cowboy would be the fastest roper or the best horse-breaker and over time the sport of ranch rodeo evolved.
Preceding even the grassroots rodeos of the United States, Mexican charreria and charro contests had the same foundation as America’s ranch rodeos. Local vaqueros (cowboys) and rancheros (ranchers) would assemble for roundups and to show off their skills. These contests, called charrerias, were included in major Mexican fiestas and are considered the origin of bull riding. These charrerias are where Anglo-Texans first encountered and participated in these events. Although the traditional Mexican charreria and the American ranch rodeos have taken separate forks over the past century, the fundamental skills and passion for the tradition of ranching remain the same.
By the turn of the century, American “round-ups” and “cowpuncher reunions” were more formalized in small communities. These ranch rodeo-type events were well documented in Oklahoma’s Indian-Pioneer Papers and were eventually promoted with the well-known monikers of “Frontier Days” and “Pioneer Days.”
Unlike their restrained urban counterparts, Western women allowed to actively compete in these ranch rodeos. Cowgirls such as Bertha Blancett, Mabel Strickland, and Bonnie Carroll competed in bronc riding, steer roping, and other events at Cheyenne Frontier Days and the Pendleton Round-Up.
By the 1940s, professional rodeo was established. Professional rodeos moved further away from traditional ranch rodeos, leading to today’s professional rodeos with rodeo circuits, more prize money, entry fees and stock contractors. Cowboys who worked the ranges with cattle operations to preserve were excluded due to travel necessary to compete in professional rodeo circuits. In 1936, the establishment of the Cowboy Turtle Association formally excluded women from participating with the cowboys in rodeos,
In lieu of competing with “professional” cowboys, working cowboys and cowgirls participate in the ranch rodeo tradition. Events in ranch rodeos may differ from each other, but throughout every frontier day, pioneer day, cowpunchers gather to compete in events that reflect the skills necessary on a cattle or horse ranch. Traditional events such as steer mugging, wild cow milking, team penning, horse racing, and rough stock events continue to be commonplace in ranch rodeos. Many events are team-oriented and reflect the cooperative effort needed to perform ranch duties.
The nearly 200-year evolution of ranch rodeos has seen the sport evolve from localized roundups to formal associations and events. One thing remains unchanged: Ranch rodeos are integral in keeping the Western culture alive for generations to come.