The Veiled Lie of the Rodeo

contributed by Steve Huxter

Professional rodeo associations and operators want the public to marvel at the skill of the cowboy as he nimbly triumphs in the game of catch me if you can with the calf. The cowboy is master of the saddle in his battle with the bucking bull or horse and they glorify the athleticism of the mighty horse or ferocious bull that tosses the rider on their head.

But there is a lie woven into this perception. The lie is that the animals, though not willing participants; rise to the challenge and at time the bull, steer or horse… wins!

I’ve spent many years working with animals and studying animal behaviour. It doesn’t take an animal behaviour specialist to know that all animals experience fear. And there is no worse an experience for any animal species, ourselves included, then thinking our safety is in serious and immediate threat.

So, when a calf or steer leaves the chute and hears the thunder of hooves behind them accompanied by the roar of the crowd you can be certain that animal is in flight mode and fears for its life. The bucking horse or bull with an unwanted rider on its back, a strap cinched around its flank and is then given a sharp prod when the gate flies open, is acting in distraught self defense when it contorts wildly to free itself of the strap and rider.

I admit that I didn’t pay much attention to rodeos until I read an article by Jack Knox in the Victoria, Times Colonist newspaper regarding the controversy surrounding the Luxton Rodeo. It wasn’t the article itself that caught my attention; rather, it was the reader’s comments on the article. I was surprised at the misunderstanding that supporters of the rodeo had about the psychological impact on the animals.

Comments such as: “Do you know that 50% of the score goes to the animal and 50% goes to the rider.” and “Once the rider is off, they amble off to their chute, very contented; knowing they have won.”

I’ve been studying animal behaviour for a few decades and I can tell you with absolute certainty that the bull could care less about getting their 50% share of the score and the only reason they are “content” is because they no longer have a cowboy on their back and they don’t give a pinch of horse dung that they’ve “won”.

To be fair, the public has been misled by professional rodeo associations who refer to the animals as “competitors” or “animal athletes”, the veiled implication being that the horses, bulls, steers and calves are willing participants and enjoy the competition.

However, the true motivations for the actions by the animals that are drafted into competition are… fear, pain and self-preservation.

Understanding animal behaviour requires an objective study and observation. What we may believe to be true of an animal’s thinking and actions may be rationalized in our own minds to support what we wish to believe. Some people are better able to empathize with the animal’s circumstance, others are not.

Instead of a calf, how would the public react if a Labrador Retriever were let loose in the ring and the horseman’s task was to rope it, throw it to the ground and immobilize the dog. You could imagine the outcry. I can assure you, that a calf feels as much fear and trauma as the dog would. It’s not about intelligence or sentience, it is about a deep set fear that they are about to die.

If our dog or cat companion is traumatically frightened our instinct is to sooth them and help the fear subside. Why do we differentiate between a dog/cat and a calf who will feel as much fear and trauma?

The calf running away from the horse and rider does so because it fears for its life. The bull or bucking horse does its best to dislodge the rider, not because it is a personal challenge for the animal! It’s frightened and will do whatever it can to relieve its fear; all so we can be entertained. What does this say about the human race and the message that we are teaching our children?

The message is undeniable; that it is acceptable and ethical for people to cause animals suffering for our entertainment.

This is about entertaining humans and there are so very many other ways that we can entertain ourselves without subjecting an animal to being chased, roped, thrust to the ground and immobilized, even if it’s only for a few seconds.

The rodeo is ENTERTAINMENT, it’s not that important. Those who claim that the rodeo is a “cultural tradition” need to evolve, much like many countries evolved beyond their “cultural tradition” of keeping slaves.

Our “moral compass” should extend beyond humans and enfold the animals that suffer at our hands.


“We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it.

 Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.”

~ Albert Schweitzer

One comment

  1. Dear Mr. Huxter, how lucidly you put the whole rodeo-misinformation scenario. Panic, pain and pressure to escape. They are such terrifying emotions that rodeo animals are exploded into. One minute they are calm and tranquil, fearing nothing more than perhaps a little apprehension at all the activity around them. The next minute their whole world changes – from the ear-splitting eruptions from the crowd to the physical way in which their current ‘space’ is changed. From then on it is all about Fear, Pain and Self-Preservation as you so accurately describe it. If Dr. Schweitzer can urge the whole world to consider the emotions of the beings Canadian law calls unfeeling ‘objects’, then surely in this thankfully animal-conscious world we aware Canadians do something about banning animals in rodeos. Goodness me! If Spain can be so close to banning bull fighting, then surely Canada will see the sense in banning this torture of our own-fellow creatures. Count me in on working to achieve that.

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