When I was about 7 years old and living in Whitianga (Coromandel Peninsula, North Island of New Zealand), my parents took my brother and I to the local rodeo event. It was a big day out for the (then) small town and the surrounding area. There were food stalls, craft markets, and bulls and stallions were being ridden. Teenagers could ride calves and young children could have a go at riding a ‘wild’ sheep. Rodeo events like this have been going on every year for decades. It is just what you do. The area has sheep and beef farms and rodeo is a natural accompaniment. Everyone got into the spirit of the day – fun and laughter followed. The champion stallion rider was venerated.
I rode a sheep that day. My parents (mostly mum – she is from a farming background) convinced me to give it a go. I remember it being fun. But I also remember asking my mum afterwards if she thought the sheep enjoyed it as well. That was the first and last rodeo event we attended.
Rodeo events are most popular in countries or regions with historical ties to rural agriculture. The USA is well-known for its rodeo – particularly in Southern States such as Texas, and the mid-west; ‘cowboy states’. Australia also has a penchant for rodeo.
In New Zealand, rodeo events are held up and down the country during the summer months. These events are advertised as ‘family friendly’ and an entertaining day out. Most are run by the New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys Association (NZRCA), which overseas 35 rodeos annually (Report to Accompany the code of welfare: Rodeos).
So, what is the problem?
Rodeo is unacceptable to a growing number of people. Anti-rodeo Facebook groups (e.g. Anti Rodeo Action NZ and New Zealand Anti-Rodeo Coalition) have a large number of followers. These groups host anti-rodeo demonstrations across New Zealand. Many of those who are opposed to rodeo cite animal welfare grounds – rodeo events are seen as “legalised animal cruelty” (SPCA New Zealand). It has been argued that the events at rodeos are unnecessary displays of ‘archaic’ stockperson skills. This includes: calf roping; horse and/or bull bucking; and steer wrestling.
“Is putting animals in a stressful situation like this justified? If you look at the cost benefit analysis, the benefit is sport for the participants and entertainment for a crowd. I don’t see that putting animals through this kind of fear and stress is justified by the benefits.”
(Virginia Williams, animal welfare consultant vet) 
Several groups publicly oppose rodeo events or aspects of them: SPCA New Zealand, the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA), Lions Clubs New Zealand, and The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand (to name a few).
Researchers from The University of Queensland’s Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics and School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, along with those from Toulouse University, conducted a study on the effects of calf roping . Their findings conclude that calf roping causes stress to the animals. However, only stress hormones and limited behavioural data were assessed. Detailed behavioural assessments may have been more informative – and potentially indicated extreme negative welfare states experienced by the calves. Interestingly, the study was funded by a rodeo body: the Australian Professional Rodeo Association (APRA).
The other side of rodeo
Other than the obvious entertainment value for people attending the events, and sporting value for the competitors, it could be argued that the animals used would not exist but for rodeo. It is also important to consider the animal’s entire life, not just the time it is performing, or entertaining. When not competing, many of these animals are lavishly fed and allowed to do as they please. If their whole life is ‘better’ in rodeo than it may otherwise be, this may change our assessment .
The Code of Welfare for Rodeos
The use of animals for entertainment purposes is ethically divisive. On one side are those who see it as ‘just a bit of fun’ or important to rural agriculture; on the other side are those who maintain that the use of animals for entertainment is abhorrent. Occupying the middle ground are those who support some aspects of rodeo and not others, and those whose issue is not with using animals for entertainment, but with the welfare consequences of this particular entertainment event on the animals involved.
“My contention is that at least some of the rodeo events are unreasonable and unnecessary and cause unreasonable and unnecessary pain and distress.” 
Suffice to say, rodeo is a contentious topic. For this reason, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) received a large number of submissions when conducting their 10-yearly review of the Code of Welfare for Rodeos . The Code has expectations for appropriate treatment of animals used in rodeos and identifies what is inappropriate. NAWAC published a report to accompany The Code, which details the reasoning behind their recommendations and these differences of opinion. It is an interesting read and shows how truly divisive this topic is. I will summarise some of the key issues here:
- Societal views on the use of animals in rodeos, i.e. is it ethical?
- Limited relevance to NZ culture, e.g. outdated stockperson skills
- Not good for NZ’s reputation as animal welfare leader and its ‘clean, green’ image
- Calf events have been banned in a number of other countries
- Little economic value to NZ
- Positive role of rodeo in rural cohesion
- Stockmanship – how do we assess animal welfare at rodeos?
- Veterinarian should be present at rodeos – last say in all welfare decisions
- Animal welfare officer to identify issues and work with veterinarian
- The use of spurs on bucking animals – it is necessary?
- Prohibition of spurs called for – their use causes pain to animals
- Spurs provide a point of contact to remain on bucking animals – removing them would make it difficult for a contestant to remain seated
- Specific events – calf welfare in rope and tie events
- This event is believed to be particularly stressful
- But in the few studies performed (at the date of report), ‘detrimental physiological damage’ was not reported
- Not all NAWAC members could agree that the event should be discontinued – there was not enough evidence for significant pain and distress
- The Code has ‘Recommended Best Practice’ to not use calves in rodeo events
- Children’s events
- Effect on children exposed to ‘disrespectful’ animal treatment – animal abuse linked to abuse of people
- Rodeos are family-orientated – children involved as part of family unit
- Sheep disallowed for this purpose – too small to handle being ridden
- Health, injury, and disease – should fireworks be used?
- Add interest to the event
- Unexpected noise and movement causes fight or flight response in horses and cattle
- Fireworks, pyrotechnics and gas fired explosions not to be used at rodeos
The Code itself is a longer read (28 pages). It also references the NZ Rodeo Association on page 7:
“The New Zealand Rodeo Association holds a number of training days for new contestants and for those wishing to learn more about rodeo events.”
This makes the reader nervous about the potential for bias and collusion. A legal document has a responsibility to be impartial and exclude vested interests. The Code is seen by some “as a shield to protect a defendant in the face of prosecution”. It may well be less than 10 years before it is updated to reflect ethical concerns.
Society’s expectations of animal welfare standards are constantly evolving – practices that were once acceptable no longer are or may become unacceptable in the future. Therefore, it is vital that we continue to discuss and debate these issues and respond to public concerns.
- Flagler, B., Blazing saddles, in VetScript. 2016.
- Sinclair, M., et al., Behavioral and Physiological Responses of Calves to Marshalling and Roping in a Simulated Rodeo Event. Animals, 2016. 6(5).