The History of the Rodeo


One of the most popular sports in America and a unique tradition in Western culture is the rodeo. Cowboys and cowgirls from all over the country take part in the fun! But have you ever wondered where rodeo came from? At our online western store, our team is actually friends with many people involved in the rodeo scene, so we’re sharing the history of the rodeo with you.


What Is a Rodeo? 

A rodeo is a competitive sporting event designed to test the speed and skills of cowboys and cowgirls with horses and other livestock.

Origins of the Rodeo

The term rodeo comes from the Spanish word “rodear,” which translates to “round up” or “to surround,” referring to the act of gathering cattle. In fact, many aspects of the rodeo came from Spanish conquistadores, who introduced horses and cattle to the Americas in the 1500s, as well as Mexican vaqueros, who developed ways to manage the livestock though riding, roping, herding, and branding techniques. 

As the market for beef grew in the East while Spanish-Mexican settlers began moving further north into Texas and the surrounding areas, the Southwest cattle industry was growing, attracting young cowboys. At the end of their cattle drives, in little cow-towns, these young men would engage in friendly competitions with their fellow cattlemen for the unofficial title of best bronco rider, roper, and so on. As communities sprang up, people gathered for social occasions and major holidays, giving young cowboys the opportunity to show off their skills to a wider audience. Eventually, they started hosting informal competitions amongst themselves until it became a lucrative venture.1

Who Invented the Rodeo? 

In 1882, William F. Cody – also known by his stage name, Buffalo Bill – organized the first major rodeo as well as the very first Wild West Show in Nebraska. While he wasn’t necessarily the first to host a Wild West show, this western legend was certainly the most well-known.

Cody was a Pony Express rider, an American soldier and scout, a professional buffalo hunter, and a fantastic showman in his day. His skill on horseback, excellent marksmanship, and his many escapades inspired newspaper reporters and dime novelists to turn Cody into a folk hero, so it’s no surprise that Cody later accepted a part in a stage show, delighting audiences and proving he was a wonderful showman. As the line between man and legend began to blur, he would go on to make his mark on the history of rodeo with his Wild West Show, touring the world, while other entrepreneurs organized rodeo events more like the ones we see today.2

The Modern Rodeo

The cowboy tournaments featured in Wild West shows across the country evolved into annual competitions. The first annual rodeo held in Prescott, Arizona Territory on July 4, 1888, changed the trajectory of rodeos, establishing the event as a competitive spectator sport. It utilized advertising, charged admission, and awarded prizes to the champions. 

In an era of racial and gender discrimination, the rodeo was one of the few sports where men, women, African Americans, Native Americans, and Mexican Americans competed alongside one another. 

Modern rodeos typically include 5 main events:

  • Saddle-bronc riding
  • Calf roping
  • Bareback-bronc riding
  • Steer wrestling
  • Bull riding

Major rodeos also include women’s barrel racing and team steer roping among their events. Trick and fancy roping and trick riding used to be featured as contests as well but were later only included as performances instead.

Saddle-bronc riding, bare-back-bronc riding, and bull riding are judged based on both the contestant and animal’s performance. Competitions that are times include steer wrestling, calf roping, team roping, steer roping, and barrel racing.3

Throughout the history of rodeo, it has evolved from unofficial competitions in cow-towns at the end of a cattle driving trail to the spectacular events thousands gather to witness every year. As it’s most definitely a spectator sport, the competitors arrive in style, wearing western shirts in both vintage and modern patterns as well as, of course, cowboy boots.

Rodeo Ready with Sheplers – Western Wear

Whether you’re attending the world’s oldest rodeo, Prescott Frontier Days, or the largest rodeo, Cheyenne Frontier Days, you’d be remiss if you didn’t dress the part! Sheplers is your one-stop shop for western wear. We have everything you need to complete your best rodeo look, including comfortable and stylish cowgirl boots, cowboy hats in a variety of colors and styles, and the perfect denim for men and women to ensure you are rodeo ready this season.  

Additional Reading: 

How to Wear Cowboy Boots

What to Get Your Cowgirl for Mother’s Day 

Square Toe, Round Toe, Pointed Toe: The Difference


  1. Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas – Rodeos
  2. Britannica – Buffalo Bill
  3. Britannica – Rodeo

Original Post: Nov. 2016

Updated On: Jan 2021

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