The modern rodeo is based on the activities found on early ranches dating back to the 1700s, and included roping, horse breaking, riding, herding, branding, and much more. As the westward expansion of the U.S. gained force, the cattle business boomed. Long cattle drives designed to bring cattle to the stockyards ended in these new “cowboys” holding informal competitions among themselves to determine which group had the best riders, ropers, and all-around best drovers. These early competitions were the first known “rodeos”.
Ultimately the expansion of the railroads and the introduction of barbed wire eliminated the need for long cattle drives, and range lands were divided amongst the increasing population of homesteaders and settlers. Along with the decline of the open West, demand for the cowboy’s labor began to dwindle so many cowboys began to take jobs with a new American phenomenon, the Wild West Show.
These shows were partly theatre and partly competition and were focused on making money and glamorizing and preserving the disappearing American frontier. Today rodeo competitors still call rodeos ‘shows’ and they participate in ‘performances’. At the same time, other cowboys were supplementing their income at their usual informal competitions, which were now being held in front of paying spectators. Small towns across the frontier would hold annual stock horse shows, known as ‘rodeos’, or ‘gatherings’. Cowboys would often travel to these gatherings and put on what would be known then as ‘Cowboy Competitions’.
Of these two types of shows only the cowboy competitions would survive. Eventually Wild West Shows began to die out due to high costs of mounting them and many producers begin strictly producing the less expensive cowboy competitions at local rodeos, or stock horse shows. Spectators would now pay to see the competitions and cowboys would pay to compete, with their money going into the prize pool. Many towns began to organize and promote their local rodeo, just as they do today. In frontier towns like Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Prescott, Arizona the rodeo became the most anticipated event of the year.
With the disappearing lifestyle of the western frontier, the popularity of rodeo grew, and rodeos began to spread across the country. Cowboys who had been facing grim financial prospects could now travel and make a living by rodeo alone, giving rise to the professional rodeo competitor.
Many of the major rodeo committees from larger rodeos came together in 1929 to cement uniform rules of competition under the umbrella of the Rodeo Association of America (RAA). Yet while it had become possible to document and determine champions in each event, promoters often took advantage of the cowboys, judging was uneven, and prize money often turned out less than agreed upon.
In 1936, a group of roughly 60 cowboys at the Boston Garden Rodeo became angry over a promoters refusal to advertise the rodeo and to add their entry fees to the prize money. They decided to stage a walk-out and refused to compete, which resulted in their requests being granted. These cowboys then formed the Cowboy Turtles Association and ultimately became the Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1945.
The Rodeo Cowboys Association changed their name to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1975, and remains the largest sanctioning body of rodeo in the United States and Canada. The National Finals Rodeo, the culmination of the PRCA’s rodeo year, is held each year in Las Vegas, Nevada.