The modern gold-and-rhinestone, big-money televised sport of rodeo owes just about everything—its traditions, its attitudes, its fashions—to rough-and-tumble Mexican cowboys of the early 1800s. These ranch hands, known as vaqueros, perfected the roping and riding skills we see in today’s competitions. They also innovated rodeo fashion: leather boots, chaps, big hats and the rest. And it was in Mexico that the sport got its name, derived from the Spanish verb rodear: to encircle or round up.
These vaqueros were itinerant freelancers, owning only what they could carry on horseback and working on large ranches in the regions now known as Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua—and well into what is now the United States. Among them you would largely find mestizo people (of mixed Native American and Spanish ancestry), Black people, Indigenous people and criollos (Spaniards born in North America). What they shared was the lifestyle and the sporting desire to determine who was best.
During downtime between drives or ranching gigs, vaqueros gathered to see who could ride the most fractious horse, or who was the surest hand with a rope. These informal gatherings evolved into competitions between different ranches that drew ever-larger crowds and increasingly took on a carnival atmosphere—the sounds of animals, the roars of the crowd, the odor of sweat and horseflesh. With no official rules, the entire enterprise was a free-for-all, establishing rodeo as the province of bold, individualistic outsiders. As Jerald Underwood, a historian of the American West, wrote in the 2001 book Vaqueros, Cowboys, and Buckaroos: “This space and the horse culture allowed men the opportunity to achieve the ‘Centaur Wish,’ to be one with the horse, to live the life of the gods.”
By the time the U.S. annexed Texas in 1845 and claimed a large chunk of Mexico along with it, the vaqueros were seeing their culture absorbed into the cowboy lifestyle of the American West. “It is a beautiful sight,” U.S. Army Capt. George W. Hughes, stationed in San Antonio in 1846, said after watching a vaquero perform. “He rides well and fearlessly, and throws the lasso with unerring aim...chasing down some refractory animal that he seldom fails to catch.” Freedmen also took up the sport, and in the decades after the Civil War, it's estimated that as many as one in four American cowboys was Black. Perhaps the most prominent was Nat Love, born into slavery in Tennessee in 1854; freed at the end of the Civil War, Love moved west and grew into an impressive cattle-driver. His rodeo career began when he happened upon a competition in Deadwood, in what is now South Dakota, on July 4, 1876. Love entered the fray and took first place in six events, kicking off a 15-year career that made him a legend across the country.
The more organized competition that would become American rodeo gained popularity at events such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which began in 1883 as a massive spectacle with hundreds of performers; in 1893, Buffalo Bill's shows drew three million attendees outside Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition. Such shows established rodeo as an American fixture by romanticizing a West that was already rapidly changing. Despite the racism and misogyny of the era, competitions still reflected their multicultural roots with mestizo and Black competitors, while women continued to make their mark: Annie Oakley, the famed sharpshooter, was a regular with Buffalo Bill’s traveling extravaganza. And after a group of performers walked out of a 1936 show at Boston Garden to protest insufficient pay, players organized the first cowboy union, the Cowboys’ Turtle Association (so named because, though organizing was a slow process, the association finally “stuck their neck out”), to guarantee fair compensation. In 1945, the group renamed itself the Rodeo Cowboys Association, bringing the sport’s true name into common usage.
By 1975, the organization had become the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the world’s largest, which today boasts more than 5,000 active competing members and several thousand more in noncompetitive roles. The group hosts hundreds of events throughout the year; each season culminates at the finals, where millions of dollars in prize money is up for grabs. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, riders’ groups and national news outlets reported that bull riding had become the fastest-growing sport in the United States.
However antiquated its trappings, and despite protests from animal-rights activists, rodeo continues to grow—bolstered by groups working to make the sport, whose stars are predominantly white and male, more welcoming to women and non-Americans. Among the Professional Bull Riders Association, many top cowboys hail from South America. In the recent PBR World Championships, three of the top five finishers—Kaique Pacheco, Luciano De Castro and Jose Vitor Leme—were all from Brazil.
Other groups are pushing the sport forward: The Women’s Rodeo World Championship, founded in 2020, guarantees a $750,000 payout at its end-of-season event and is ushering a new generation of women into rodeo. The World Champions Rodeo Alliance, launched in 2018, has provided millions of dollars to poorer athletes so they can ride at the highest levels.
The American tradition of horsemanship includes the centuries-old horse cultures of Indigenous peoples. That legacy lives on in the Indian National Finals Rodeo, founded in 1976. At events year-round, members from nearly 100 tribes compete for more than $1 million in prize money. The INFR is also dedicated to showcasing Indigenous culture and sport. Indian Relay, though not technically a rodeo event, is among the most thrilling spectacles in the world; a single rider must change unsaddled horses for each of three laps, leaping from one galloping horse onto another—a glimpse of a traditional Plains Indian sport that goes back centuries. “Working together, we will continue on as leaders of the horse culture,” says Donna Hoyt, INFR’s general manager and a member of the Blackfeet Nation. As the sport continues to grow, its success will require a continual return to its roots.
Ropers, wranglers and riders who helped make the sport a sensation
By Lila Thulin
BILL PICKETT 1870-1932
Born to formerly enslaved parents in Texas, Pickett originated steer wrestling, a high-octane event still popular today. On horseback, Pickett would chase a steer, leap onto it and wrangle it to the ground—sometimes biting the animal’s lip and nose to subdue it. In 1972, Pickett was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame, the first Black athlete to be so honored.
IKUA PURDY 1873-1945
In 1908, a decade after the U.S. annexed Hawaii, this descendant of island royalty (seated on the right) took the world title for best steer-roper at the championship in Cheyenne, Wyoming, ensnaring his quarry in under a minute. “I could not hear myself tie the steer up,” Purdy said of the roars from the crowd of 12,000. Paniolos—Hawaiian cowboys—such as Purdy learned many of their tricks from the Mexican vaqueros whom King Kamehameha III brought to the islands in the 1830s.
TAD LUCAS 1902-1990
Born Barbara Inez Barnes and raised with 23 siblings in Cody, Nebraska, this trick-riding cowgirl joined a rodeo at 16 and found international fame in the 1920s and ’30s, winning the title for all-around cowgirl at Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1933. “Rodeo’s First Lady,” known for her toughness and signature red boots, was particularly adept at the “Hippodrome Stand”—riding while standing on the saddle. Her daughter, Mitzi Lucas Riley, performed as a trick rider for two decades.
MARY BURGER b. 1948
Indiana-born and Oklahoma-raised, she began riding when a childhood hip disorder made it difficult to walk. Going professional in 1985, she enjoyed a long career, taking the world title for barrel racing at the National Finals Rodeo in 2006. Ten years later, at the age of 68, Burger set a record as the oldest woman world champion barrel racer, coaxing her beloved steed, Mo, in a cloverleaf pattern around a trio of barrels and consistently finishing the loop in less than 18 seconds. (Barrel racing is currently the only exclusively female event in professional rodeo.) In 2016, Burger’s granddaughter Kaden began her own barrel-racing career at 9 years old.