Are Rodeos Bad for the Animals Involved?

There is a great deal of controversy involving animals used in sports and other recreational activities. Among these activities, rodeos are one of those frequently discussed. Those in favor of rodeos argue that the animals are treated kindly and some even argue that they enjoy the activities. Others point to the injuries and stress put on the animals involved.

We will take a closer look at rodeos and how they impact the animals involved, looking at arguments from both sides. Keep reading to learn more!

There Are Animal Injuries

Even those in favor cannot argue that the animals involved occasionally get injured, although they are likely to downplay the severity and frequency of the injuries. 

Hot Shots

It is common to zap horses and cattle with tools known as hot shots, which send bursts of electricity through their ends. These hot shots are most commonly used to get the animal to charge out of the chute instead of allowing it to take a calmer pace or just stay in the chute where it is comfortable. 

Even the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rules allow participants to shock the horses who are “stallers,” meaning those who do not want to come out of the chute right away. 

Horses Encouraged to Buck 

Rodeo participants want to put on a show and to boost that excitement level, it is common to try to encourage horses to buck. Of course, they do not naturally buck unless they have a reason to do so, so rodeos will frequently spur them viciously so they buck. 

The animals are also encouraged to buck using “bucking straps” which burn their groin area and abdomen. Unsurprisingly, these are not only painful, but they can also cause injuries to the legs and back. 

While Catching Calves

During the rodeo events focused on catching calves, it is very common for the animals’ bodies to be slammed hard onto the ground. This frequently results in painful and potentially dangerous twisting of their necks.

Injuries Can Happen During Practice as Well

When discussing how rodeos are dangerous for the animals, you must also consider the training and practice involved. Those who participate in rodeos will not start the event with zero experience. This would make for a poor show and could potentially put the animals and people at an even greater risk due to inexperience. 

Unfortunately, animals, whether or not they are those that actually participate in the rodeo, will be involved in the practice. Using mechanical items or stationary objects can only go so far. 

This leads to the animals experiencing the same potential injuries and stress they would during the rodeo, but in an area with even less supervision. No one is there to make sure that the people practicing keep the animals’ best interests in mind, so the practicing could go on for hours and hours on end. 

The length of practice sessions means that the potential for injuries and stress to the animals can be even greater than during a rodeo. For example, riders may rope a calf repeatedly, instead of just once or twice. 

Fatal Injuries Sometimes Occur

It is far from unheard of for the animals used in rodeos to receive fatal injuries. Some are injuries that occur from a physical impact, such as broken necks or backs. Others are due to exertion, such as aneurysms and heart attacks.

Traveling Is Hard on the Animals

According to the official Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rules, animals can be confined without food or water during transportation for up to 24 hours. To make matters worse, these confined conditions are usually overcrowded and extremely hot.

The Animals Get No Rest or Vet Care

Throughout their lives, rodeo animals are unlikely to get much rest. After one event, the animals get taken into trucks and brought to another rodeo. Their lives consist of rodeos on repeat, without time to recover between them. 

Veterinarians who have seen the animals from rodeos make it clear that these animals do not necessarily receive the veterinary care they need. For example, Dr. C.G. Haber was a vet and he was a federal meat inspector for 30 years. Based on his observations of former rodeo animals sold to slaughterhouses, they could have between six and eight ribs broken at the spine. In some cases, these would lead to lung punctures and gallons of blood just accumulating underneath detached skin. We can only imagine how much pain those animals must have been in. 

The animals do not have a happy end of their lives to look forward to, either. In nearly every case, retirement for a rodeo animal involves the slaughterhouse, without any rest or enjoyment of life beforehand.

Some Animals Are Drugged

It is also common to drug animals used in rodeos. Anabolic steroids, for example, are very commonly used as a way to make the bulls more aggressive and stronger. 

Sometimes, riders will also give their bulls anti-inflammatories. 

2013 Calgary Stampede

During the 2013 Calgary Stampede, a rider was suspended because two of his steers had two drugs in their systems. 

Concerns About Drugging Are Not Always for the Animal

When rodeos do express concerns about riders or owners who dope their animals, it is not typically due to concerns of animal welfare. In that 2013 Calgary Stampede, for example, there is an explicit reason that the rules do not allow the animals to have any drug residue. This is because the competition is terminal, so the champion steer gets killed to be eaten.

Not All Events Are Sanctioned

The unsanctioned rodeos are even more problematic, and they commonly occur in rural areas. As long as no authorities are around and there is open land and a desire for a rodeo, people will set them up. They spread the word and people show up, but because these rodeos are unsanctioned, there are not any rules, dramatically increasing the risk of injuries or death to the animals.

Problems with Specific Rodeo Events

To provide a better idea of why rodeos are considered to be harmful to the animals involved, look at the specific problems with some of the most common rodeo events. 

Riding Bulls and Broncos

Both bulls and broncos instinctively buck during these events as their instinctive reactions to having a tightened flank strap on their underbelly, which is a sensitive area. The bucking is also the natural reaction of being kicked over and over again with metal spurs. 

This comes from the fact that cattle and horses are prey animals. As such, their instinctive reaction to being ridden like they are in this event is what would happen if a predator attacked them. As such, it is also safe to assume that this event causes the animals panic, stress, and fear. To further show the fear or stress response that the animals are giving, look at situations where the animals charge the riders on the ground. 

The stress to the animals during these events is so bad that bulls and horses regularly hurl themselves right at solid objects just to get the rider off. The animals only truly calm down once they no longer have the rider and their flank straps are loosened. 

There was a study that looked at bull behavior during rodeos. It found that almost a third of the assessed animals had signs of distress before the bull-riding events began. The researchers found that those without the reaction may have either given up and just endured the experience or became habituated to it. 

There is also a newer type of rodeo that makes the bull riding even worse by adding in loud pyrotechnics and other noises. This only increases the stress on the animals. 

Calf Roping

Calf roping is commonly seen as one of the most problematic events during rodeos, since the animals in question are young and vulnerable. This event exposes them to unnecessary distress and harm. 

During this event, the calf is released ahead of a rider on horseback. The rider throws a rope over the calf’s neck to lasso it. The contestant dismounts and goes to the animal, catching it and forcing it to the ground before tying three of its legs together with rope. 

There are multiple injuries that occur from this particular event, including damaging the neck of the calf, specifically the spine, windpipe, and soft tissue. It is also very possible for the calf to experience choking, broken ribs, or bruising. 

A study in Queensland confirmed that the calves used during this event experience stress. 

Steer Wrestling

With steer wrestling, a horseback rider chases the steer, then jumps from the horse to the steer, grabbing the animal by its horns. It then twists the steer’s neck 180 degrees, forcing the animal to the ground. 

The steers in this event deal with the fear of being handled and chased roughly. It is also very possible for steers to experience damage to their horns. Some have also died due to broken necks. Steer wrestling can also bruise the muscles and tissues of the steer or its windpipe. 

Team Roping

Two riders chase the steer, with one aiming to rope around the animals’ hind legs and the other to do so around the head, horns, or neck. It is common for the steers to be fully stretched and forced to the ground, since they cannot support themselves at all with their hind legs. 

The event causes a great deal of confusion and distress for the steers. There is also fear, anxiety, and stress due to the lack of control.

Specific Problems with Charreadas

In addition to the general problems with animal treatment at rodeos, there are some types, such as Mexican charreadas, that are particularly bad for the animals. The problem with cahrreadas comes from a few of the specific events during them. 


This steer tailing event involves riders grabbing steers by their tail. Riders then wrap the tail on their stirrup and boot, trying to force the steer to the ground. This specific event can result in the steer’s tail flesh being torn from the bone, which is called degloving. 

El Paso de la Muerte

This event focuses solely on riding a wild mare until she becomes too exhausted to continue. Riders try to jump from their horses onto the mare’s bare back. They then aim to ride her until she gets so tired that she stops bucking. 

In addition to the strange situation for the mare and the vast potential for injuries, she receives further stress in the situation because three other riders chase the mare around the arena during the event. 

Manganas a Pie

In this event, three riders chase a mare that is wild. One tries to rope the mare around her front legs, which will make her trip then fall. Obviously, deliberately tripping such a large animal can lead to serious injuries, if not just stress. 

Piales en Lienzo

Another problematic event at charreadas involving tripping animals, this one involves someone riding on horseback. They then trip a wild mare, specifically using her hind legs. 

Terna en el Ruedo

This is a similar event to roping in American rodeos, which is already a problematic event. This event requires three riders to quickly rope a bull. One ropes the hind legs, another the front legs, and the other the neck.

Specific Incidents

It is not hard to find specific instances of animal cruelty, injury, or death from rodeos, or even human injury or death from them. In fact, PETA has a seven-page partial list of incidents from 1995 to 2018. The following highlights show some of the more recent incidents to highlight that this is still a problem, and display the range of ways in which animals and people can be injured from rodeos. 

  • July 2, 2018 in Mobridge, South Dakota: A horse broke its neck by running into a fence during a wild-horse racing event at the Sitting Bull Stampede. 
  • May 19, 2018 in Castro Valley, California: A horse had to be euthanized after a “substantial” injury to its shoulder and back during the Rowell Ranch Pro Rodeo. 
  • July 4, 2017 in Crawford, Nebraska: The roping event at the Old West Trail PRCA Rodeo resulted in a calf dying. 
  • July 4, 2017 in Lake Helen, Florida: A horse collapsed three times then died during barrel racing in extreme heat. 
  • May 23, 2016 in Adrian, Missouri: A 12-year-old girl and the horse she was riding both died when the horse had a fatal heart attack, causing it to crash into a nearby gate and crush the girl.

Current Penalties Are Minor

Even with the incredibly lax rules currently in place regarding animal welfare in most rodeos, they are commonly broken. Part of this is the lack of concern for the animals and the other part is that the penalties are typically minor. 

The penalties are usually miniscule in comparison to prizes, making the risk worth the potential reward for most rodeo participants. For example, riders choose to dope the animals because there is usually a very small risk of it being discovered. As such, they feel that this low risk is worth it to increase their chances of winning greater prizes.

Rodeos Are Not in the Animal Welfare Act

Some people may believe that animals in rodeos must be treated fine thanks to the Animal Welfare Act, a federal law. However, this Act specifically exempts rodeos in its protections. 

This is a common theme and multiple states also provide an exemption for rodeos from anti-animal-cruelty statutes. Other states choose to just use the rules outlined by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, which are clearly inadequate.

The Other Side: Why Rodeos Say They Are Safe for the Animals

Those who participate in rodeos argue that the animals are completely safe and that there are sufficient regulations in place. 

Industry Rules

In 2012, Cindy Schonholtz, who was the industry outreach director of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, argued that the association has 60 rules related to handling and caring for the animals. The argument was that this should be enough indication that this organization takes the welfare of the animals seriously and there should not be any concern. The association has had animal protection rules in place since 1947, expanding them over the years as needed. 

Some of the most important of these regulations include wrapping steers’ horns to protect their heads, not using sharp steers, taking injured or unhealthy animals out of the competition, and always having a veterinarian on-site. 

Prods Are Not Used Much

Those in favor of rodeos also argue that they only use prods or similar items sparingly, as a way to move the livestock into the open areas. They further argue that if an animal is in a chute, the prod is only allowed to be used on a horse’s shoulder if the owner, contestant, and judge all agree on it. They argue that this use would be for the safety of the animal when it does not leave the chute, since this can be a dangerous area. 

Their Goal Is to Keep the Animals Healthy

Supporters of rodeos also argue that their goal throughout is to keep the animals healthy.

Countering the Rodeo’s Arguments

Countering the Rules Argument 

While it is true that there are rules in place to protect the animals involved in rodeos, those opposed to them argue that they are not sufficient. Additionally, most of the rules in place are designed to protect the economic interests of the rodeo, or to protect the riders. 

Countering the Prods Argument

In terms of the counter argument that the prods are used sparingly, those opposed to rodeos make two arguments. One is that any use of these prods is harmful to the animal. The other is that their definition of sparingly is not the same. For example, the rule that horses can only be prodded on their shoulders in the chute if the owner, contestant, and judge agree does not mean much, since all of those parties are likely to prioritize the rodeo going on when making a decision. 

Countering the Health Argument

Looking at the argument that rodeos have the goal of keeping their animals healthy, those opposed to them argue that this is clearly not always the case. Even if it was the case, the reason for wanting to keep the animals healthy would be economic or social, not due to the animal’s welfare. This could lead to decisions that only prioritize animal health when it is in their financial interests.

Can We Do Anything How Rodeos Harm Animals?

There are multiple ways that we can work to reduce the harm that animals deal with from rodeos. The extreme solution would be to completely ban rodeos, but many argue that is not necessary. Instead, a middle-ground position that allows rodeos to continue but with regulations that look out for the well-being of the animals is the ideal solution. 

Banning Specific Events

Instead of banning rodeos as a whole, people could work to ban specific events that are the most harmful for the animals. For example, calf roping is the event that allows for documentation of cruelty most easily. Banning this event could go a long way to improving the safety of animals at rodeos. 

Make Animal Wellness Requirements

If they continue, rodeos should have some sort of wellness requirements for the animals involved. These would be a combination of ensuring the animals receive sufficient care, both before and after the events, including veterinary checkups to ensure they were not injured during the rodeos. 

The wellness requirements could also limit the amount of stress that animals are placed under during the events, or the extent to which their physical abilities are pushed.

Progress Has Already Been Made

To show that there is a way to protect the animals from rodeos, consider that some states and cities have passed laws that either ban rodeos or tightly regulate them. Nevada, California, and Rhode Island have all passed laws of some sort in this respect. Additionally, some cities have passed ordinances to restrict or completely ban the worst practices in rodeos. 

Some animal rights organizations have also filed lawsuits against specific rodeos. For example, Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) sued California Rodeo Salinas, which is the largest rodeo in the state, based on a documented pattern of repeated underreporting of the animal injuries.


Rodeos are certainly bad for the animals involved, at least in their current form. The events can cause physical injury as well as stress and emotional distress to the animals and many animals die. Some argue for a complete eradication of the rodeo industry to prevent this problem while others simply want some of the more dangerous events to be banned.