Rodeo without mayhem?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2009:
DENVER–If rodeo doesn’t kill, injure,
and torture animals, will people still pay to
watch it?
With rodeo attendance, TV audiences,
and sponsorship in freefall, and activist
opposition to violent events intensifying, major
rodeos throughout the west are making gestures
toward trying to reduce the mayhem.
For example, “New policies in place at
the 2009 National Western Rodeo will focus on
much restricted use of electric prods and
stronger fines for jerk downs in the tie down
roping,” announced National Western Stock Show
president Patrick A. Grant on the eve of the
stock show, held from January 7 to January 25,
The Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo and
Greeley Stampede announced similar policy changes
earlier. The Chicago-based animal rights group
Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK) has
repeatedly videotaped electroshocking and jerk
downs in roping competition at all three events
in recent years.

Long prohibited by Professional Rodeo
Cowboy Association rules, “jerk downs” occur
when a roped animal is pulled backward.
“This can result in broken necks, backs,
legs and other injuries,” and sometimes kills
the animal outright explains SHARK founder Steve
Hindi. More often, as Hindi has documented,
severely injured animals are dragged out of rodeo
arenas to die elsewhere. Some are euthanized;
others merely succomb to their injuries.
The SHARK exposés of the major Colorado
rodeos, posted on YouTube, influenced singer
Carrie Underwood and the band Matchbox 20 to
cancel scheduled performances at the Cheyenne
Frontier Days Rodeo in 2006 and 2008. Drummer
Rikki Rockett of the band Poison upstaged his own
appearance in July 2008 by apologizing for being
“I had no idea that this gig included a
rodeo,” Rockett told Alan Gathright of the Rocky
Mountain News. “I am blown away that I missed
the description of this show on our touring
schedule. I have a huge problem with animal
cruelty at rodeos.”
Hindi was pleased by the Denver,
Cheyenne, and Greeley rodeo announcements, but
with qualification, he told ANIMAL PEOPLE. Most
use of electroshock at rodeos already violates
PRCA rules and local anti-cruelty laws, Hindi
has contended in more than 15 years of anti-rodeo
campaigning–and the makers of electric cattle
prods do not recommend using them on horses at
The PRCA and local law enforcement have
rarely agreed, though some suppliers of bucking
stock to rodeos whose electroshocking Hindi has
documented have been fined.
“Finally they are going to abide by their
own rules, adhere to the city animal cruelty
ordinance, and follow the prod
manufacturer’s directive,” Hindi assessed.
The PRCA rules allow the use of electric
prods on horses in bucking events only if the
horses stall in the chute through which rodeo
contestants ride to start the eight seconds
during which they try to stay on the bucking
horse. But, as result of repeated
electroshocking when the gate opens, many horses
learn to associate the gate opening with pain,
and become habitual gate-stallers. Then their
gate-stalling becomes a pretext for continuing to
electroshock them.
Binion Cervi of Cervi Championship Rodeo,
who supplies the National Western Rodeo bucking
stock, “has been told not to bring horses to the
rodeo who have been known to stall in chutes,”
wrote Ann Schrader of the Denver Post.
“We have plenty of horses,” Cervi told
Shrader. “This should not have any impact.”
Hindi worried that rodeo promoters’ words
about curtailing the most abusive rodeo practices
might be encouraging some sponsors who had
withdrawn to put more money into rodeo,
regardless of whether the new rules are enforced.
“When horses were being abusively
shocked at the 2008 National Western Rodeo,”
Hindi recalled, “we took our evidence to
Marriott Hotels–one of the rodeo’s sponsors.
Marriott was considered a ‘Major Sponsor,'”
meaning that it contributed between $50,000 and
$100,000 to the rodeo. “Marriott’s response at
the time was that they would no longer sponsor
the rodeo. However, Marriott has done a
flipflop. Marriott now claims ‘It is up to the
discretion of local properties to choose their
sponsorships,'” Hindi said.
Hindi also noted with concern that that
Hayward Area Recreation & Park District in
November 2008 rescinded a 20-year-old ban on
electroshocking at the Rowell Ranch Rodeo, held
in Castro Valley, California each May since
1900. The ban was lifted despite testimony from
Action for Animals founder Eric Mills and In
Defense of Animals founder Elliot Katz that it
had been successful and remains necessary.
The ban was originally imposed under
pressure from Mills and Katz, and was among the
first ordinances to restrain violence to animals
at rodeos passed anywhere in decades, since a
flurry of local restrictions on bucking straps
were passed a generation earlier. But
enforcement was apparently neglected after the
first few years that the ban was in effect.
At the May 2008 Rowell Ranch Rodeo,
SHARK investigator Mike Kobliska videotaped an
employee of the Flying U Rodeo Company
electroshocking at least five horses. Flying U
owner Cotton Rosser was eventually fined $2,500
by the Hayward Area Recreation & Park District,
of which $2,000 was structured as a donation to
the Sulphur Creek Nature Center for wildlife
The 2008 Cheyenne Rodeo already
demonstrated that a major rodeo can do without
electroshocking, Hindi pointed out. “Cheyenne
Rodeo promoters made good on their promise to ban
shocking rodeo animals to make them perform,”
Hindi said afterward. “We didn’t see a single
prod during the entire 12-day event. Cheyenne
also took significant steps to stop the dragging
of animals by ropers. Also, contestants were
stopped from continuing to stress their victims
once the allotted time for a run was over. All
of these steps resulted in less animal injuries
than inprevious years. We were also given
assurances that animals were not being used more
than once a day.
“But there were still numerous injuries,”
Hindi noted, “and this is unacceptable. Issues
that persist include calf jerk downs,” and “The
rodeo still has the indefensible ‘steer busting’
and misnamed ‘Wild Horse Race’.”
“Steer busting,” the PRCA event believed
to result most often in serious injuries to
animals, is often separated now from other rodeo
events, and held in separate arenas before
smaller audiences, or none. The Cheyenne “Wild
Horse Race” is not a PRCA event.
Chuckwagon racing
Rodeo has historically escaped regulation
through appeals to tradition, but that approach
failed in Phoenix in November 2008 when the city
council banned horse-tripping, a traditional
part of charreada, or Mexican-style rodeo. A
similar bill stalled in the Arizona legislature
earlier in 2008.
Effectively regulating some of the most
violent rodeo events without altering them beyond
recognition may not be possible. Chuckwagon
racing, for instance, a non-PRCA event often
included at major rodeos, “involves wagons with
teams of four horses that race around a dirt
track,” explained Bill Graveland of Canadian
Press during the 2008 Calgary Stampede. “They
also must maneuver around barrel obstacles on the
infield without losing their cook stove, tent
pole, or outriders following behind on horses,”
Graveland continued. “Drivers can bump into each
other. Riders can be thrown from horses and
horses can go down. Sometimes one animal will go
down, dragging its horsemates with it, or
sending other rigs and their horses tumbling down
the track in a horrific chain reaction of tangled
hooves and wooden wheels.
“Over the last decade or so, two
outriders have died when they were thrown from
their horses,” Graveland recalled. “A crash
last year badly injured Tyler Helmig of Leduc,
Alberta, who broke an elbow and needed
reconstructive surgery on a broken hip. Three
horses died in the accident.” Two
horses died in a 2006 incident.
The Calgary Stampede introduced “stiffer
penalties, fines and suspensions for wagon
interference, and a code of conduct for
participants,” Graveland wrote. Racers who were
judged to have caused accidents resulting in the
deaths of horses were formerly required to pay
the owners of the horses $2,500 for each horse
lost. That amount was quadrupled.
But the 2008 Calgary Stampede featured
the 23rd horse death in 22 years. Driver Rae
Croteau Jr. was assessed $10,000 for the horse,
a $2,500 penalty for interference, and a
10-second time penalty, a virtual
disqualification from winning the $100,000 first
Cloverdale shows the way
While traditionalists wonder if a less
violent approach to rodeo can succeed, the
62-year-old Cloverdale Rodeo & Country Fair in
Cloverdale, British Columbia, Canada abolished
steer wrestling, tie-down roping, team roping,
and wild cow milking after the death of a calf
incited protest in 2007–and drew a record
100,000 spectators in 2008.
“Dropping the events meant the loss of
sanctioning by the Canadian Professional Rodeo
Association,” reported Kent Spencer of the
Vancouver Province. But “With the new format and
increased prize money of $360,000,” second in
Canada only to the Calgary Stampede, “the rodeo
attracted 24 of the world’s top cowboys,”
Spencer wrote.
Making rodeo less violent may prove
essential to PRCA ambitions of expanding into
Australia and New Zealand. Auckland, the
capital of New Zealand, banned rodeo in July
2008, in response to complaints about the
treatment of animals at a rodeo held in 2007 in
Christchurch. Later in 2008 the Australian
Professional Rodeo Association was embarrassed by
video taken by Wendy Parsons of Animals Australia
and Jeannie Walker of the anti-rodeo web site
Documenting multiple alleged abuses of
animals at APRA rodeos since 2004, Parsons and
Walker released their video evidence to news
media just ahead of the August 2008 Mount Isa
Rodeo in Warwick, Queensland.

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