Rodeo grew out of the American West’s cattle industry, but no one seems to agree on exactly when or where it started. Several dusty cow towns claim to be the home of the first rodeo including Sante Fe, New Mexico, in 1847, Deer Trail, Colorado, in 1869 and Pecos, Texas, in 1883.
The rodeo’s origins, however, date back to the time when Spanish conquistadors first colonized the New World in the 16th century. Along with their culture, the Spanish introduced horses and cattle to the Southwest. As the cattle industry grew to satisfy the demands of the East Coast market, cowboys (originally called vaqueros) were needed to work the cattle. The golden era of the cowboy began after the Civil War with the advent of large ranches and cattle drives.
Herding cattle and working on the open range attracted many young adventurers. The cattle industry flourished, especially in Texas, and cowboys on horseback developed the skills, equipment and terminology used in today’s rodeos. Riding, roping and branding became necessary skills for men leading cattle drives to railheads out east. During their free time, cowboys regularly tested their themselves against one another for bragging rights or for money. It was out of these friendly competitions that many say the first rodeo came about.
In the late 1800s, towns would host “Frontier Days” or “stampedes,” which were loosely held festivals that highlighted cowboy games. Famous cowboys like Buffalo Bill Cody and Bill Pickett performed their Wild West Shows that traveled around and gave city folks a glimpse of what life was like on the open range. The modern rodeo evolved from these shows and the Frontier Day competitions. In 1929, the Rodeo Association of America was formed to set rules for the sport and develop a point system so that a national champion could be named.
The Rodeo in Mesquite
Rodeo is the official sport of the Lone Star State, and the culture here remains strong, particularly in Mesquite, which has been declared “The Rodeo Capital of Texas” by the state Legislature.
The Mesquite Championship Rodeo is one of the few continuously running rodeos in the country. Neal Gay founded the Mesquite Championship Rodeo in 1958 as a permanent rodeo, as opposed to the traveling competitions that were popular at that time. The rodeo struggled in its early years, but in the 1970s, Interstate 635 was constructed, giving fans all over the Dallas area easy access to the arena.
Called “the original Western sport,” rodeo is the oldest sports franchise in Dallas. ESPN began broadcasting rodeo performances from the Mesquite Championship Rodeo in the mid-1980s and it’s now one of the most televised rodeos in the world. The Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association has nominated the event for Rodeo of the Year several times.
Today, thousands of fans gather at the arena each summer to watch favorite rodeo events like saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, bareback riding, team roping, barrel racing, tie-down roping and — of course – bull riding. Fans are even invited down to the arena floor to meet the cowboys and cowgirls before the competitions start. The family-friendly event also includes mechanical bull riding, barrel racing, face-painting, roping demos and pony rides. You’ll also find some specialty rodeos held outside the rodeo season, including a hip-hop rodeo in March, the Cowboys of Color in November, and the Winter Classic in December.
Visitors to the rodeo can also take advantage of a unique viewing experience — the shark tank. You can buy tickets to watch the bull riding event at eye level in the middle of the arena while seated in a closed cage. Those inside the shark tank get to see the excitement from the best seats in the house. It is an adrenaline rush as the bull becomes excitingly close to ramming into the tank.
Throw in some good-old Texas barbeque and a band playing two-stepping, boot-scootin’ music, and this is quite possibly the most authentic Texan entertainment you will find in the state. Come see for yourself how those hardscrabble cowboy skills have evolved into today’s modern rodeo.
Written by Jennifer Simonson for RootsRated in partnership with Mesquite CVB.