Rodeo 101

Professional rodeo action consists of two types of competitions – roughstock events and timed events – and an all-around cowboy crown.

In the roughstock events bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding a contestant’s score is equally dependent upon his performance and the animal’s performance. To earn a qualified score, the cowboy, while using only one hand, must stay aboard a bucking horse or bull for eight seconds. If the rider touches the animal, himself or any of his equipment with his free hand, he is disqualified.

In saddle bronc and bareback riding, a cowboy must “mark out” his horse; that is, he must exit the chute with his spurs set above the horse’s shoulders and hold them there until the horse’s front feet hit the ground after the initial jump out of the chute. Failing to do so results in disqualification.

During the regular season, two judges each score a cowboy’s qualified ride by awarding 0 to 25 points for the rider’s performance and 0 to 25 points for the animal’s effort. The judges’ scores are then combined to determine the contestant’s score. A perfect score is 100 points.

In timed events steer wrestling, team roping, tie-down roping, barrel racing and steer roping; cowboys and cowgirls at “the other end of the arena” compete against the clock, as well as against each other. A contestant’s goal is to post the fastest time in his or her event. In steer wrestling and the roping events, calves and steers are allowed a head start. The competitor, on horseback, starts in a three-sided fenced area called a box. The fourth side opens into the arena.

A rope barrier is stretched across that opening and is tied to the calf or steer with a breakaway loop. Once the calf or steer reaches the head-start point –  predetermined by the size of the arena – the barrier is automatically released. If a cowboy breaks that barrier, a 10-second penalty is added.

Added money: rodeo is different most other sports in that it’s pay-to-play: at most rodeos, every contestant pays an entry fee, and those entry fees are part of the prize money for that event; added money (also called the committee purse) is what the local rodeo committee may put in for each event, which in the long run usually comes from sponsors

Average: usually used to describe the aggregate score for a contestant who competed in more than one round, e.g., «He had times of 9.3 and 9.8 seconds in the two rounds and placed third in the average with 19.1 seconds on two head.

Barrelman: an entertainer who, after a bull ride, uses a barrel to distract the bull and protect the cowboy

Barrier: in timed events, a line at the front of the box that the contestant and his horse cannot cross until the steer or calf has a head start, usually marked with a rope and a flag so the timers can see it drop and start the clock

Box: in a timed event, the area a horse and rider back into before they make a roping or steer wrestling run

Breaking the barrier: in the timed events, if the roper or steer wrestler leaves the box too soon – failing to give the animal enough of a head start – he is assessed a 10-second penalty

Bronc rein: a saddle bronc rider holds onto a bronc rein, a six-foot braided rope, at a specific position that he determines based on the size and bucking habits of the horse he’s about to ride; bronc riders often give each other advice about the best position for that handhold to allow the horse its best performance, e.g., “Give him 3½ fingers”

Bulldogger: a steer wrestler

Bullfighter: an athlete who protects the bull rider after he dismounts or is bucked off by distracting the bull and directing its attention to the exit gate, sometimes stepping between the bull and the bull rider

Calf roper: a tie-down roper

Chute: a pen that holds an animal safely in position

Covering: in the roughstock events, staying on for at least the minimum time, eight seconds: “He covered all three broncs he rode last weekend.”

Crossfire penalty: in team roping, if the header doesn’t change the direction of the steer before the heeler catches, the run is disqualified

Dally: in team roping, each roper, after throwing his loop, wraps the loose rope around his saddle horn – dallies – and the two ropers move their horses to face each other, pulling the ropes taut to stop the clock

Day money: a portion of the roughstock (usually bull riding) contestants’ entry fees that may be used as a separate per-performance payoff for a multi-performance rodeo; all bull riders who make a qualified ride during a paid performance are paid an equal share of the day money; if they also placed, they get prize money in addition to day money; if there are no qualified rides during a performance, the day money is added to the total payout for that event

Draw: each roughstock competitor who enters a PRCA rodeo is assigned a specific bucking horse or bull in a random draw conducted at PRCA headquarters three days before the rodeo; each timed-event contestant is assigned a calf or steer in a random draw on site, shortly before each performance of a rodeo begins

Drop: in roughstock events, the way a bucking horse or bull may lower its front end suddenly while kicking out in back, creating a more difficult ride; in timed events, the way a calf or steer may lower its head to avoid a catch

Equal money: many PRCA rodeos offer equal money in the team roping event, meaning that the committee adds the same amount to the purse for headers and heelers as for other contestants (rather than adding the same amount as the other events, to be shared by the two-person team)

Flags: judges in the arena drop flags to signal the timers to stop the clocks

Flankman: a cowboy or cowgirl who works behind the bucking chutes, adjusting the flank strap around the animal before the ride; the best flankmen and women are familiar with each individual animal and know exactly how much flank to give that animal to encourage optimal bucking

Flank strap: a soft sheepskin- or Neoprene-lined strap placed in the area where a human’s belt would go, it encourages the animal to kick out behind itself rather than rear up, providing a safer, showier ride

Go-round: many rodeos have more than one round of competition; each is called a go-round, and all cowboys entered in that rodeo compete in each go-round unless there is a semifinal, fi nal or progressive round

Gold Card member, life member: a 10-year, dues-paying member of the PRCA who has reached his 50th birthday, or a 20-year dues-paying member of any age

Ground money: if not enough contestants qualify for the number of places to be paid in any event, the money that would have been awarded for the remaining places is divided evenly among those contestants who did qualify (have a score or time); that money is considered ground money

Hazer: in steer wrestling, the cowboy who rides on the right side of the steer to make sure the steer runs straight

Header/heelerthe two partners in team roping – the header throws the first rope, over the animal’s head or horns, and the heeler throws the second rope to catch both the steer’s hind legs; roping only one leg results in a five-second penalty

Hooey: the knot that a cowboy uses to finish tying the calf ’s legs together in tie-down roping

Hooking: a generic term for any contact a bull makes with his horns to a person, object or another animal

Hung up: when a bull rider or bareback rider cannot remove his hand from the rope or handle before he dismounts or is thrown off the bull’s or horse’s back, his hand is “hung up” – a dangerous situation – and the pickup men or bullfighters will move in to help dislodge his hand so he can get clear of the animal

Judges: as in other sports, trained PRCA judges ensure that all participants follow PRCA rules; they determine times for runs in the timed events and scores for rides in the roughstock events, record penalties for any infractions of the rules, and inspect the arena, chutes and livestock before each competition

Left (or right) delivery: many bucking animals prefer to stand in the chute facing a particular direction, so they can leave the chute in the direction they prefer

Mark out: in the bareback and saddle bronc riding, a cowboy’s feet must be above the point of the horse’s shoulders when the horse’s front feet hit the ground – if so, he “marked the horse out,” but if not, he “missed the horse out” and the ride is disqualified

Nodding: in the roughstock events, a cowboy nods when he is ready for the gateman to open the gate and the ride to begin; in the timed events, a cowboy nods when he is ready for the calf or steer to be released from the chute and get its head start

Penalty: in timed events, common penalties include 10 seconds for breaking the barrier and, in team roping, five seconds for a one-hind-leg catch

Permit holder: a PRCA contestant who has not yet won his first $1,000 at PRCA rodeos and successfully applied to become a card-holding member of the organization

Pickup men: two mounted cowboys who help riders dismount, release a bucking horse’s soft flank strap, and escort bucking horses and bulls to the exit gate after a ride

Piggin’ string: in rodeo’s tie-down roping and steer roping events, the small rope used to tie the animal’s legs together; in the pasture, this technique immobilizes the animal so it can be “doctored”

Pigtail: a piece of string attached to the barrier that breaks if a timed-event contestant’s horse exits the box too soon, not giving the calf or steer enough of a head start according to PRCA rules; this is called “breaking the barrier”

Rank: an adjective of praise and respect used to describe especially challenging roughstock

Reride: if a cowboy’s score is affected by equipment failure or a horse or bull that doesn’t buck to performance specifications, the judges may offer the cowboy a clean-slate chance on a different horse or bull

Riggin’: a suitcase-style handhold customized to a rider’s grip and attached to a molded piece of leather that is cinched, with a pad, around the horse’s girth

Rookie: a cowboy in his first year of card-holding PRCA membership

Ropes: the correct term is rope, not lasso, lariat or riata; most ropes used in ProRodeo timed events are made of strong yet flexible braided materials such as nylon/poly blends, and a cowboy may change his rope selection depending on the weather and the cattle; bull ropes and bronc reins are often made of sisal or poly blends

Roughstock: the bucking horses and bulls used in bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding, usually bred and raised for the job

Score: in roughstock events, the points awarded for the difficulty of the ride (bucking) and the cowboy’s skill in riding; in timed events, the length of the head start given to the calf or steer, which the judges calculate based on PRCA rules (each cowboy must calculate how much head start to allow the calf or steer to get before signaling his horse to leave the box; if he miscalculates, he will be out late and get a longer time, or will be out early and be penalized for breaking the barrier); when used to describe a timed-event horse (“That mare scores well”), it refers to the horse’s obedience in staying in the box until the cowboy signals it to start the pursuit

Slack: excess entries at some rodeos may be scheduled for preliminary (slack) competition, usually before the rodeo opens to the public

Spurs: the spurs used in PRCA rodeos have dulled rowels that do not penetrate the animals’ skin, which is several times thicker than human skin; see the PRCA and Livestock Welfare chapter for more information

Standings: a professional cowboy’s success is measured in earnings; cowboys may keep track of where they rank in yearly earnings in several sets of standings

Stock contractors: the companies that bring livestock to the arena for rodeos – bucking horses and bulls for the roughstock events and steers and calves for the timed events

Timed events: steer wrestling, team roping, tie-down roping and steer roping – events in which the contestant(s) who make the fastest qualified runs win

Triple Crown winner: a multi-event cowboy who wins three world championships in the same year; the most recent cowboy to do so was superstar Trevor Brazile in 2008 and 2010

Try: a noun used for both cowboys and livestock, denoting grit, determination, fitness, stamina and resilience: “Give that cowboy a hand – he had a lot of try.”

Turn out: a cowboy may turn out of a rodeo if, for example, he has a scheduling conflict; this is different from “doctor-releasing” due to injury

Rodeo competition, in the beginning, was a natural extension of the daily challenges cowboys confronted on the ranch – roping calves and breaking broncs into saddle horses.

Bull riding, which is intentionally climbing on the back of a 2,000-pound bull, emerged from the fearless and possibly fool-hardy nature of the cowboy. The risks are obvious. Serious injury is always a possibility for those fearless enough to sit astride an animal that literally weighs a ton and is usually equipped with dangerous horns.

Regardless, cowboys do it, fans love it and bull riding ranks as one of rodeo’s most popular events.

Bull riding is dangerous and predictably exciting, demanding intense physical prowess, supreme mental toughness and courage. Like bareback and saddle bronc riders, the bull rider may use only one hand to stay aboard during the eight-second ride. If he touches the bull or himself with his free hand, he receives no score. But unlike the other roughstock contestants, bull riders are not required to mark out their animals. While spurring a bull can add to the cowboy’s score, riders are commonly judged solely on their ability to stay aboard the twisting, bucking mass of muscle.

Size, agility and power create a danger that makes bull riding a crowd favorite everywhere. Balance, flexibility, coordination, quick reflexes and, perhaps above all, a strong mental attitude are the stuff of which good bull riders are made.

To stay aboard the bull, a rider grasps a flat braided rope, which is wrapped around the bull’s chest just behind the front legs and over its withers. One end of the bull rope, called the tail, is threaded through a loop on the other end and tightened around the bull. The rider then wraps the tail around his hand, sometimes weaving it through his fingers to further secure his grip.

Then he nods his head, the chute gate swings open, and he and the bull explode into the arena.

Every bull is unique in its bucking habits. A bull may dart to the left, then to the right, then rear back. Some spin or continuously circle in one spot in the arena. Others add jumps or kicks to their spins, while others might jump and kick in a straight line or move side to side while bucking.

Team roping, the only true team event in ProRodeo, requires close cooperation and timing between two highly skilled ropers – a header and a heeler – and their horses. The event originated on ranches when cowboys needed to treat or brand large steers and the task proved too difficult for one man.

The key to success? Hard work and endless practice. Team roping partners must perfect their timing, both as a team and with their respective horses.

Similar to tie-down ropers and steer wrestlers, team ropers start from the boxes on each side of the chute from which the steer enters the arena. The steer gets a head start determined by the length of the arena.

Team ropers such as Joe Beaver and Travis Tryan spend long hours perfecting their timing with each other and their horses. One end of a breakaway barrier is attached to the steer and stretched across the open end of the header’s box. When the steer reaches his advantage point, the barrier is released, and the header takes off in pursuit, with the heeler trailing slightly further behind. The ropers are assessed a 10-second penalty if the header breaks the barrier before the steer completes his head start. Some rodeos use heeler barriers too.

The header ropes first and must make one of three legal catches on the steer — around both horns, around one horn and the head or around the neck. Any other catch by the header is considered illegal and the team is disqualified. After the header makes his catch, he turns the steer to the left and exposes the steer’s hind legs to the heeler. The heeler then attempts to rope both hind legs. If he catches only one foot, the team is assessed a five-second penalty. After the cowboys catch the steer, the clock is stopped when there is no slack in their ropes and their horses face one another.

Another important aspect to the event is the type of horses used by the ropers. The American quarter horse is the most popular among all timed-event competitors, particularly team ropers. Heading horses generally are taller and heavier because they need the power to turn the steer after it is roped. Heeling horses are quick and agile, enabling them to better follow the steer and react to it moves.

As with saddle bronc riding and team roping, the roots of tie-down roping can be traced back to the working ranches of the Old West. When calves were sick or injured, cowboys had to rope and immobilize them quickly for veterinary treatment. Ranch hands prided themselves on the speed with which they could rope and tie calves, and they soon turned their work into informal contests.

As the event matured, being a good horseman and a fast sprinter became as important to the competitive tie-down roper as being quick and accurate with a rope.

Today, the mounted cowboy starts from a box, a three-sided fenced area adjacent to the chute holding the calf. The fourth side of the box opens into the arena.

A cowboy’s success in tie-down roping depends in large part on the precise teamwork between him and his horse. The calf receives a head start that is determined by the length of the arena. One end of a breakaway rope barrier is looped around the calf’s neck and stretched across the open end of the box. When the calf reaches its advantage point, the barrier is released. If the roper breaks the barrier before the calf reaches its head start, the cowboy is assessed a 10-second penalty.

The horse is trained to come to a stop as soon as the cowboy throws his loop and catches the calf. The cowboy then dismounts, sprints to the calf and throws it by hand, a maneuver called flanking. If the calf is not standing when the cowboy reaches it, he must allow the calf to get back on its feet before flanking it. After the calf is flanked, the roper ties any three legs together with a pigging string – a short, looped rope he clenches in his teeth during the run.

While the contestant is accomplishing all of that, his horse must pull back hard enough to eliminate any slack in the rope, but not so hard as to drag the calf.

When the roper finishes tying the calf, he throws his hands in the air as a signal that the run is completed. The roper then remounts his horse, rides forward to create slack in the rope and waits six seconds to see if the calf remains tied. If the calf kicks free, the roper receives no time.

Saddle bronc riding is rodeo’s classic event, both a complement and contrast to the wilder spectacles of bareback riding and bull riding. This event requires strength to be sure, but the event also demands style, grace and precise timing.

Saddle bronc riding evolved from the task of breaking and training horses to work the cattle ranches of the Old West. Many cowboys claim riding saddle broncs is the toughest rodeo event to master because of the technical skills necessary for success.

Every move the bronc rider makes must be synchronized with the movement of the horse. The cowboy’s objective is a fluid ride, somewhat in contrast to the wilder and less-controlled rides of bareback riders.

Dan Erickson shows the form and technique that have made him a Wranger NFR qualifying saddle bronc rider. One of the similarities shared by saddle bronc and bareback riding is the rule that riders in both events must mark out their horses on the first jump from the chute. To properly mark out his horse, the saddle bronc rider must have both heels touching the animal above the point of its shoulders when it makes its first jump from the chute. If the rider misses his mark, he receives no score.

While a bareback rider has a rigging to hold onto, the saddle bronc rider has only a thick rein attached to his horse’s halter. Using one hand, the cowboy tries to stay securely seated in his saddle. If he touches any part of the horse or his own body with his free hand, he is disqualified.

Judges score the horse’s bucking action, the cowboy’s control of the horse and the cowboy’s spurring action. While striving to keep his toes turned outward, the rider spurs from the points of the horse’s shoulders to the back of the saddle. To score well, the rider must maintain that action throughout the eight-second ride. While the bucking ability of the horse is quite naturally built into the scoring system, a smooth, rhythmic ride is sure to score better than a wild, uncontrolled effort.

Speed and strength are the name of the game in steer wrestling. In fact, with a world record sitting at 2.4 seconds, steer wrestling is the quickest event in rodeo.

The objective of the steer wrestler, who is also known as a “bulldogger,” is to use strength and technique to wrestle a steer to the ground as quickly as possible.

That sounds simple enough.

Here’s the catch: the steer generally weighs more than twice as much as the cowboy and, at the time the two come together, they’re both often traveling at 30 miles per hour. Speed and precision, the two most important ingredients in steer wrestling, make bulldogging one of rodeo’s most challenging events.

As with tie-down and team ropers, the bulldogger starts on horseback in a box. A breakaway rope barrier is attached to the steer and stretched across the open end of the box. The steer gets a head start that is determined by the size of the arena. When the steer reaches the advantage point, the barrier is released and the bulldogger takes off in pursuit. If the bulldogger breaks the barrier before the steer reaches his head start, a 10-second penalty is assessed.

A perfect combination of strength, timing and technique are necessary for success in the lightning-quick event of steer wrestling. In addition to strength, two other skills critical to success in steer wrestling are timing and balance.

When the cowboy reaches the steer, he slides down and off the right side of his galloping horse, hooks his right arm around the steer’s right horn, grasps the left horn with his left hand and, using strength and leverage, slows the animal and wrestles it to the ground. His work isn’t complete until the steer is on its side with all four feet pointing the same direction. That’s still not all there is to it.

To catch the sprinting steer, the cowboy uses a “hazer,” who is another mounted cowboy who gallops his horse along the right side of the steer and keeps it from veering away from the bulldogger.

The efforts of the hazer can be nearly as important as those of the steer wrestler. For that reason, and the fact that he sometimes supplies the bulldogger with a horse, the hazer often receives a fourth of the payoff.

Bareback riders endure more abuse, suffer more injuries and carry away more long-term damage than all other rodeo cowboys.

To stay aboard the horse, a bareback rider uses a rigging made of leather and constructed to meet PRCA safety specifications. The rigging, which resembles a suitcase handle on a strap, is placed atop the horse’s withers and secured with a cinch.

Bareback riding has been compared to riding a jackhammer with one hand. Jason Jeter can probably attest to that definition. As the bronc and rider burst from the chute, the rider must have both spurs touching the horse’s shoulders until the horse’s feet hit the ground after the initial move from the chute.  This is called “marking out.”  If the cowboy fails to do this, he is disqualified.

As the bronc bucks, the rider pulls his knees up, rolling his spurs up the horse’s shoulders. As the horse descends, the cowboy straightens his legs, returning his spurs over the point of the horse’s shoulders in anticipation of the next jump.

Making a qualified ride and earning a money-winning score requires more than just strength. A bareback rider is judged on his spurring technique, the degree to which his toes remain turned out while he is spurring and his willingness to take whatever might come during his ride.

It’s a tough way to make a living, all right. But, according to bareback riders, it’s the cowboy way.