After long lonely weeks on the trail, cowboys would get to town eager for a good time. Flush with money and whisky, they would often challenge each other to informal contests to see who had the best riding and roping skills. These early competitions were the origins of rodeo as we know it today. Many towns proudly claim the first official rodeo, including Deer Trail, CO where, on July 4, 1869, two groups of cowboys met to settle an argument over who was the best at performing everyday ranching tasks.
As the need for long cattle drives declined. Cowboys began to travel to stock shows to put on cowboy competitions in front of paying audiences. Another phenomenon that developed at the time was the highly entertaining Wild West show. These shows, which were part theater and part competition, were designed to glamorize and preserve the disappearing American frontier. Much of the pageantry and showmanship of modern rodeo comes from these Wild West shows.
Rodeo is unique in the world of competitive sports. It is America’s original extreme sport and the only sport to evolve from an industry. Today’s professional rodeo cowboy is a bit different from his 1800s predecessor, but the ideals, showmanship and hard work are still valued by today’s competitors and fans. A cowboy’s standing in the rodeo community is still dependent on his skill with a rope or his ability to ride a bucking animal. The cowboy code still dictates that a cowboy ought to compete honestly and fairly and help his fellow competitors, even though they might be competing for the same paycheck.
Rodeo in its various forms continues to grow in popularity as a spectator sport. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association is the sanctioning body for over six hundred rodeo events around the United States each year with more than 22 million live event fans. The Professional Bull Riders, which began in 1994 is dedicated exclusively to riding the toughest bulls in the industry. It has become one of the most prolific sports on television with over 450 hours of programming and 100 million viewers annually. While today’s top level professional cowboys more often resemble modern elite athletes competing for championship titles and high dollar prizes than the dusty, work worn cowboys of the past, they still honor the roots of the western lifestyle that rodeo originated from.