Rodeo For Dummies: Wyoming’s Favorite Sport Explained For The City Slicker

Summer in Wyoming is rodeo season. Hundreds of thousands of fans attend regular community rodeos, county fair rodeos and, of course, the largest outdoor rodeo in the world. Don't know much about it? Here's a primer.

Jake Nichols

June 22, 202419 min read

Bareback rider Logan Patterson rides during the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo on July 23, 2017, in this file photo.
Bareback rider Logan Patterson rides during the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo on July 23, 2017, in this file photo. (Ronald C. Modra, Getty Images)

Spring and summer in Wyoming is rodeo season. Hundreds of thousands of fans attend regular community rodeos, county fair rodeos and other similar events.

Cody bills itself as the “Rodeo Capital of the World” by virtue of its nightly rodeos during summer. Since 1919, the Cody Stampede Rodeo is the longest-running professional rodeo in history — and also the only place in the country that has a rodeo performance nightly.

The twice weekly Jackson Hole Rodeo is another that packs in crowds every Wednesday and Saturday night from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

The town of Wilson gets its name from the Wilson family who produce the rodeo. The three-generation homesteaders boast several professional rodeo competitors in their own family tree, and they put on a heckuva rodeo geared toward appealing to the millions of tourists who come through Jackson every summer.

Then there is the Daddy of ‘em All: Cheyenne Frontier Days. The 10-dayProfessional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo, held every July, is the largest outdoor rodeo in the world, now in its 125th year.

Many Wyoming natives grew up around the sport. But many others have not. For the uninitiated and the station wagon and Winnebago crowd, here is a little Rodeo 101 to get even the tenderest foot up to speed.

Pre-Show Ceremony

Most every rodeo begins with a prayer and the national anthem. Rodeo royalty parades the state flag along with the Stars and Stripes into the arena. Just before the anthem, an invocation is prayed aloud.

The practice is almost universal at every rodeo event but has come under fire almost as much as animal rights activists have protested the treatment of rodeo livestock.

For instance, in left-leaning Jackson, the rodeo prayer was scrubbed clean of any reference to Jesus or God in 2012 after the ACLU threatened legal action.

Then-Mayor Mark Barron and the town council forced the rodeo concessionaire to remove any Christian element from the pre-show prayer and make it a generic petition without any ties to specific religions or denominations.

  • Rodeo Bull riding This ones gonna hurt JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Bull riding has been called the most dangerous eight seconds in sports JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)

Bull Riding

Many rodeos end their performances with bull riding, and for good reason. The adrenaline-packed event is considered “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.”

The event involves a rider trying to stay on a bucking bull using just one hand firmly gripping a flat braided rope. The free hand must never touch the animal or anything else or the contestant is disqualified.

The rider must stay on the bull for at least eight seconds to be scored. Judges award points based on several key aspects of the ride including control and rhythm of the rider in matching his movements with the bull’s. Points are deducted if a rider is constantly off balance.

Both the rider and the bull are awarded points. Two judges weigh the ferocity of the bull, the difficulty of the ride and the rider’s ability to stay in control before issuing scores ranging from 0–25 points for the animal and cowboy, alike. The combined scores of the two judges are then added — 50 maximum points for the animal, 50 maximum points for the rider.

The combined point totals make up the final score for the ride from 0 to 100. Good bull riders regularly earn scores of 75 or more. Scores above 80 are considered excellent, and any score in the 90s is exceptional.

Bull riding traces its roots to Mexican equestrian contests known as charreadas, where a steer was wrestled and mounted by a vaquero. It was another variation of bull fighting cherished by the ancient Mediterranean world, including Spain.

Bull riding split off into its own sanctioned stand-alone sport in 1992 when the Professional Bull Riders Association (PBR) launched. Nearly a thousand contestants compete in the PBR from all over the world including United States, Australia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico.

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The work of the bullfighters is as exciting and entertaining. Once a rider is off the bull, these unsung heroes get to work distracting the bull away from a fallen rider.

Bullfighters are sometimes still referred to as “rodeo clowns” for their costuming and makeup. But the role they play in protecting bull riders is as serious and vital as anything that happens in the arena dirt.

Rodeo Saddle Bronc Riding How much rein to give the horse is critical to every ride JH Rodeo 6 22 24
(Jackson Hole Rodeo)

Bronc Riding

Saddle bronc riding is one of those rodeo events that directly relates to ranch work. Cowboys wishing to pit their skills in staying aboard a bucking bronc against other working hands at a neighboring ranch is at the root of this roughstock event.

Originally based on horse-breaking skills of a working cowboy, the event is now a highly stylized competition that uses horses specially bred and trained for strength, agility and bucking ability.

Bronc riding uses a saddle and the cowboy holds onto a rope rein with one hand, keeping the other free for balance. As in bull riding, two judges score a ride based half on how well a horse bucks, and half on how well a rider stays in the saddle for the required eight seconds.

Cowboys score better when they are in sync with a horse’s bucks, spurring the animal on its shoulders with dulled rowels in a rhythmic fashion.

Disqualification results if a cowboy touches the animal with his free hand, loses a stirrup or fails to mark the animal out (a cowboy’s feet must be above the point of the horse’s shoulders when its front feet hit the ground during the first buck out of the chute).

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Look closely at the bucking chute while the cowboy prepares. Three or four other cowboys will be assisting with a variety of tasks from preparing the horse to pulling the flank strap on exit.

These helpful cowboys are usually family members, friends, stock contractors and fellow competitors. One of the special things about rodeo is how contestants help each other. As much as each cowboy wants to win, they are the first to share important intel on a particular horse or bull.

“This one likes to spin to the left,” a fellow competitor might offer in advice while in the chute.

  • Rodeo Bareback riding Cowboy wants those spurs over the shoulder of the horse when the horses front feet hit the ground JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Bareback riding Looks like fun dont it JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Bareback riding That free hand must not touch anything for the duration of the 8 second ride JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)

Bareback Riding

Bareback riding is similar to bronc riding except there is no saddle. Riders use a leather rigging with a handle, similar to that of a suitcase, to hold on.

The cowboy’s spurs have to be above the point of the horse’s shoulders at the first jump out of the chute and touch the horse on every jump for the full eight seconds to earn a qualifying ride.

Once the ride is complete, watch how the pickup men go to work. These unheralded saviors are doing two things at the end of each ride. One cowboy will ride alongside the bucking horse and pull off the flank strap to get the horse to run rather than buck. This way the bucking bronc is more manageable for the contestant to ride until the other pickup man can get close enough for that cowboy to dismount using the pickup man and his horse as a safe landing.

Cowboys are judged on their control and spurring technique, while the horse is judged on power, speed and agility. The two scores are added together with the highest possible score being 100 points.

Bareback riding is one of the most physically demanding events in rodeo competition and has a very high injury rate among cowboys. As opposed to bull riding and saddle bronc riding, bareback riders lay back more on the animal, resulting in massive jolts every time the horse kicks.

In all three roughstock events a cowboy may be offered a re-ride option on a different animal at the judge’s discretion. Common causes for a re-ride are equipment failure, an animal stalling or stumbling to the ground coming out of the chute, or the horse or bull just does not buck to the degree others in the pen did.

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: A cowboy’s legs will tell you everything about the ride. If a rider is in trouble barely hanging on, his feet will not move much and he will be “behind the d’s” just using his legs wrapped around the horse to help him stay aboard.

A stylish and high-scoring ride will include a rhythmic spurring action with toes pointed outward. 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.

A Note About Animal Welfare And Safety

In each of the three roughstock events, audiences will note a flank or bucking strap. This is wrapped around the animal’s loins to encourage extra bucking. These straps are usually covered with sheepskin, making them soft against the animal’s body.

Their purpose is not to cause pain or discomfort. At most, the strap is an annoyance to a horse or bull, and they will kick harder in an attempt to remove it.

Many of today’s bulls and broncs used in rodeo roughstock events are specifically bred and trained to do what they do. They are cherished and well cared for by rodeo stock contractors. Their work week might include two rides lasting seconds each. The rest of the time they are fed watered and looked after by veterinarians year-round.

Just about any stock contractor will note their animals are not only prized assets and partners in a business operation, but many visibly enjoy doing what they do and completely understand their job.

Take Khadafy Skoal, for instance. The bareback horse, owned by Riverton-based Powder River Rodeo (Hank and Lori Franzen), was the first Wyoming-born-and-raised horse to be voted PRCA Bareback Horse of the Year. During the 1990s, the little blue roan gelding became more famous than 90% of the cowboys he dislodged to the dirt.

Often, after shaking his rider, Khadafy Skoal would quit bucking and take a victory lap, head held high and proud.

“He was electric, he was different, he was amazing, and people wanted to see him,” Lori Franzen said. “Hank and I owe an enormous amount of our success to him.”

  • Rodeo Barrel Racing Eyes down to make sure shes clear but in the next split second this cowgirl will be looking up at the next barrel JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Barrel Racing Neck reining around that barrel JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Barrel Racing Rubbing a barrel is OK just dont knock it over JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Barrel Racing Sometimes a cowgirl will yell to her horse about staying clear of the barrel JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)

Barrel Racing

Barrel racing is a timed event for mainly cowgirls. This event combines both the horse’s athletic ability with horsemanship skills of the rider as the pair navigates three barrels (typically 55-gallon metal or plastic drums) placed in a triangle in the center of the arena.

Contestants may choose to run the cloverleaf pattern starting with the right or left barrel. As with all timed events, horse and rider make a run as fast as possible.

Runs are clocked either by an electronic eye—a device using a laser system to record times—or by an arena attendant or judge who manually takes the time using a keen eye and a flag to let a “clocker” know when to hit the timer stop.

Time begins when horse and rider cross a start line and ends when the barrel pattern has been successfully executed and the horse and rider cross that same line on the way out of the arena.

Horse and rider may touch or rub against a barrel but knocking one over results in a 5-second penalty. Depending on the size of the arena, top barrel racers will complete the pattern in 14 to 19 seconds.

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Watch the cowgirl’s eyes and hands. She’s busy. Headed into a barrel turn, one hand moves to the saddle horn as the horse generates massive torque in, around, and out of the turn. The other hand is neck reining her horse through the turn.

Coming out of each turn, the rider’s eyes are up and looking ahead for what’s next. The barrel racer’s focus is always one step ahead, encouraging her horse to be eager about what comes next.

  • Rodeo Team roping Header has made a catch and dally now its the heelers turn to throw his loop JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Team roping is the only event that makes no distinction for gender participation JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)

Team Roping

As suggested, team roping involves a two-person team whose job is to rope a Corriente steer by the horns and the back legs, stretching the animal out on the ground.

The first roper is referred to as the header. That person ropes the front of the steer, usually around the horns. But it is also legal for the rope to go around the neck or go around one horn and the nose resulting in what is called a half head.

The second participant is the heeler. After a successful head catch, the heeler ropes the steer by its hind feet. Team roping is the only rodeo event where men and women compete equally, together, in professionally sanctioned competition. They can be single-gender or mixed-gender teams.

Steers are released from a chute when the spring-loaded doors open. On each side of the chute is an area called the box where the header and heeler await the release of the steer. The header is on the left side box. The heeler rides out of the other.

A taut rope called the barrier runs in front of the header’s box and is fastened to an easily released rope on the neck of the steer of a designated length. That ensures a steer gets a proper head start.

After the header catches the steer, he or she then takes a dally—a couple of wraps of the rope around the saddle horn. Once the header has made the dally, the rider turns the horse to the left and the steer follows.

It’s now the heeler’s turn to throw a loop under the running steer’s hind legs and to catch them. As soon as the heeler also dallies tight, the header turns his or her horse to directly face the steer and heeler. Both horses back up slightly to stretch the steer, an official waves a flag and the time is taken.

Teams will encounter a 5-second penalty for roping only one hind leg and a 10-second penalty assessed for breaking the barrier.

A successful top-tier team takes between 4 and 12 seconds.

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: So much of a good roping run is dictated by what happens before the action ever starts. Watch both ropers in their respective boxes. Header and heeler want their horse calm but alert, backed into a corner of the box and looking at the steer.

The header controls the start. When he or she sees the heeler ready, the steer pointed nose out and ready, and their own horse standing still with ears forward and eyes locked on that steer, that’s when the header will give the nod that opens the chute gate.

An example of tie-down roping.
An example of tie-down roping. (Getty Images)

Tie-Down Roping

Also known as calf roping, this rodeo event features a horseback cowboy chasing down a running calf, roping it and dismounting in order to immobilize the animal on the ground.

This is another event modeled after actual ranch work. Plenty of calves have bolted from momma and the herd only to be tracked down, roped and tied for doctoring or other reasons.

The goal of this timed event is for the rider to catch the calf by throwing a lariat around its neck. The contestant then dismounts from the horse, runs to the calf and restrains it by tying three legs together.

Careful not to get in a hurry, though. Horse and rider must give the calf a head start without breaking the barrier—a 10-second penalty sometimes called a “cowboy speeding ticket.”

When the roper reaches the calf, he picks it up and flips it onto its side—a maneuver called “flanking.” Once the calf is on the ground, the roper ties three of the calf’s legs together with a short rope known as a “piggin’ string” carried between the roper’s teeth until he uses it. A well-trained horse will assist the roper by slowly backing away from the calf to maintain a steady tension on the rope.

When the tie is complete, the roper throws his hands in the air to signal time and stop the clock. The roper then returns to his horse, mounts and moves the horse forward to relax the tension on the rope. The calf must stay tied for six seconds before an official time is recorded.

Top professional calf ropers will rope and tie a calf in seven or eight seconds. Any time under 10 seconds is pretty good for high school and other amateur competitors.

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: A well-trained horse is key in this event. Keeping the rope taut will help the cowboy out as he tries to flank and tie the calf. Too little tension allows the calf freedom to be wiggly and evasive. Too much pulling on the rope can drag the calf out of the cowboy’s reach and can even disqualify the pair for “overworking” a calf.

Rodeo Breakaway roping is one of the fastest events at the rodeo JH Rodeo 6 22 24
(Jackson Hole Rodeo)

Breakaway Roping

This is a variation of calf roping where a calf is roped, but not thrown and tied. It has become the fastest-growing event in the past few years among women and girls.

Similar to calf roping, a calf is released from a spring-loaded chute. Once the barrier has released, the horse runs out of the box while the roper attempts to throw a lasso around the neck of the calf.

Once the rope is around the calf’s neck, the roper signals the horse to stop suddenly. The rope is tied to the saddle horn with a string. When the calf hits the end of the rope, the rope is pulled tight and the string breaks away, ending the run. The rope usually has a small bright flag at the end that makes it easier for the timer to see the exact moment the rope comes free of the saddle horn.

Don't blink. Times in this event are incredibly fast. A typical round will be won with a time of less than three seconds.

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Strategy is a huge consideration in this event. While every competitor is trying to be fastest, some early runs might be done on the safe side. How many times a cowgirl swings her loop before letting it go has a direct bearing on her time.

Three, four or more swings might indicate she is waiting for her horse to catch a particularly fast calf or she feels the timing is just not quite right. Maybe she is playing it safe, making sure of a good clean catch.

Once a fast time is put on the board, however, every contestant after is probably trying to beat it. There is no time for more than one or two swings. That rope has to be out of the girl’s hand quickly in three seconds or less.

Goat tying is just what it says — tying up a goat.
Goat tying is just what it says — tying up a goat. (Getty Images)

Goat Tying

This is another event for the ladies, popular at high school and college rodeos but not often seen at community rodeos or county fairs.

A goat is picketed at the far end of the arena. Cowgirl and horse come galloping in, starting the clock at a designated point midway down the arena.

As horse and rider approach the goat, the contestant performs a running dismount at top speed and runs toward the goat. The goat is flanked and three legs are tied using a piggin’ string cowgirls will keep in their mouth or belt loop.

The goat must stay tied for six seconds for a time to be registered. In high school and college, top competitors will tie their goat in under eight seconds, some, in less than seven.

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Most of these girls work tirelessly on their “ground game” using goat tying dummies. Their lightning-fast hands make a pickpocket look like he’s in slow-motion.

What separates the average run from a record time is often the dismount and approach to the goat. A cowgirl will often ride her horse for several strides with just one foot in the stirrup. Getting off a galloping horse requires athleticism.

Even the best sometimes take a header into the dirt. How does that contestant rebound from a bad fall, put it behind her and salvage the run?

  • Rodeo Steer Wrestling is called the big mans event JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Steer Wrestling Feet out front helps in the braking process JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)

Steer Wrestling

Often called the “big man’s sport,” steer wrestling or bulldogging requires size and strength as a cowboy rides alongside a runaway steer, eases off his own mount onto the back of the steer.

Once grappling the steer, the contestant takes hold of the horns and throws the steer on its side by twisting it head first to the ground.

A hazer is also used in this event. A horse and rider leaving out of the heel box rides alongside the steer to make sure it runs true and straight. There’s nothing worse for the steer wrestler to slide off his saddle only to find a steer has changed direction.

This event is one of the fastest at any rodeo. Winning times will range from 4-10 seconds. The world record stands at 2.4 seconds.

This event does not originate from ranch work, but rather traces back to the 1890s where it is claimed to have been started by Bill Pickett, a wild-west show performer who caught a runaway steer by wrestling it to the ground.

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: It’s said again and again, “Keep your feet out in front of you.” Once a cowboy has left his horse and has the steer in a headlock around the horns, stopping that runaway bovine is not easy. The successful contestant will have his legs out in front of him, heels dug into the dirt to put the brakes on the steer.

After the steer comes to a stop, the wrestling match is on and it is power versus pounds with a splash of technique to get that cow down.

Contact Jake Nichols at

  • Rodeo Rodeo Royalty involves queens and princesses who bear flags and compete in events JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Rodeo clown is part of the fun 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Prayer and National Anthem are key components of every rodeo JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Pickup men to the rescue 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Pickup man pulls the flank strap so horse bucks less as they look to get him out of the arena after a ride 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Feature Rodeo is where the west is still wild in Wyoming JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)
  • Rodeo Bullfighters do their thing to protect the bull rider2 JH Rodeo 6 22 24
    (Jackson Hole Rodeo)

Jake Nichols can be reached at

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Jake Nichols

Features Reporter