In the 1700s, horses were often as wild as the West itself. Early cowboys mounted mustangs (descended from stock introduced by the Spanish) and had to “break” them of bucking off riders. Sometimes a horse was too wild for the average cowboy to train; so, a bronc buster would come in and take on the challenge. With time, this developed into friendly competitions between neighbors.
As Westward expansion boomed in the 1800s, so too did the cattle industry. This was the golden age of the cowboy, as many a cowhand was needed to drive cattle to the nearest eastbound train. (The first rails did not reach Texas until 1853 and Montana until 1880.) At the trail’s end, cowboys would often celebrate with informal tournaments between outfits, each competing for the honor of their brand in contests of riding and roping.
As the century progressed, riding and roping competitions caught on more broadly, gradually appearing at race tracks, fairgrounds, and festivals across the country.
In 1882, William Frederick Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, organized the first major rodeo and Wild West show in North Platte, Nebraska. This phenomenon exploded in popularity as the century— and the Open Range Era—came to a close. With the invention of barbed wire in 1873, expansion of the railroads, and the blow dealt to the cattle industry
following the harsh winter of ’86-’87, a demand for cowhands dwindled. Those unable to find work in agriculture often put their skills to use as entertainers in a traveling “Western” show.
Even those who did find work riding for a brand were often in need of supplemental income, which could be earned through “cowboy competitions.” Unlike earlier contests, these competitions took place at annual stock shows, in front of paying spectators. The prize pool generated at these events attracted talent far and wide, which, in turn, enticed more visitors to attend. Ultimately, communities hosting these competitions benefitted financially from the influx of both participants and viewers. This economic boost made it in everyone’s best interest to promote the local “rodeo,” as the gatherings came to be called. For many towns (as is true today), the rodeo was the biggest event of the year.
In the 1900s, Wild West shows faded into obscurity, becoming too cost-prohibitive to produce; however, the appeal of the West was as strong as ever, evidenced by the growing popularity of rodeos across the United States. In 1929, representatives from some of the nation’s largest rodeos founded the Rodeo Association of America, creating a standard set of rules for determining champions.
Though the wild frontier is no longer, its spirit remains in the rodeo arena, where determination, grit, and a little luck still make or break a cowboy.