Although all rodeo events pose significant risks, calf roping (also known as rope-and-tie) raises particularly serious concerns. Calf roping involves releasing the young animal ahead of the contestant/roper who is on horseback. The rider will chase and lasso the calf by throwing a rope over the calf’s neck. The contestant then dismounts and runs to the animal, relying on his horse to keep the calf from running by maintaining tension on the rope. After catching the animal, the rider forces the calf to the ground to then tie three of the calf’s legs with rope.
The risks of injury to the young animal due to calf roping include:
- damage to the windpipe and soft tissues of the neck due to being suddenly jerked in a different direction to which the calf is running
- bruising and broken ribs as the young animal is forced to the ground
- choking from being dragged along the ground.
Calves experience pain and/or fear when being yanked off their feet, thrown, choked and leg tied.
It is also not uncommon for calves to be mis-roped, where the rope lassoes a part of the body, and not the neck; this may include the rope lassoing the calf’s head, across their eyes and nose or around their legs. These incidents can cause bruising and abrasions, as well as posing a serious risk of causing bone fractures to the calf. Under current rodeo rules, competitors are generally not disqualified for mis-roping calves but are permitted to continue with the event. Thus, there is no penalty for competitors who do not complete the task properly and cause distress and potential injury to calves. When a calf is mis-roped, immediate assistance by arena officials to the competitor to remove the rope from the calf as quickly as possible would reduce risks to the calf.
The following video footage of calf roping has been provided with permission and shows ‘white eye’, bellowing and tongue lolling, which demonstrates the pain and/or fear experienced by these young vulnerable animals. Warning: this footage is graphic and requires parental discretion.
The natural response of a calf to being separated from other calves and chased by a ‘predator’ is fear and this causes stress to the young animal. A 2015 study undertaken in Queensland demonstrated that even calves who had not previously experienced roping showed elevated stress hormone levels in the blood after being roped . All calves in the study showed ‘white eye’, where the calf’s eye rolls to reveal about 50% of the white of the eye, and they also ran faster during roping in an attempt to flee the chasing rider. ‘White eye’ is believed to be a behavioural response to shut out environmental input which may be overwhelming for the calf to see. The same study also found that calves that had never been exposed to a holding pen or chute had increased stress hormones after they had been marshalled and moved across the arena by a rider and horse.
A recent study by the University of Sydney reports on research which used still images of calves before and after being roped in rodeos . Observers, who were blinded to the context of the images, scored each photograph against descriptive terms relating to the emotions the calves might be experiencing. During the chase phase, after the calves had been released from the chute, observers judged the calves were more agitated, stressed, frightened and anxious than they were immediately after the ropes were released. During this post-roping phase, most calves were scored as being calmer, contented and relieved, with some being scored as exhausted. The results indicate that calves being chased by a horse and rider experience more negative emotional states than they do after roping, when they are not being chased. Given that the physical impact of being roped and then forced to the ground is greater than being chased, it is likely that calves suffer even more distress at this stage of rope-and-tie events than the study has revealed for the chase phase. Further research on this phase of the roping event is required to better understand the true extent of the emotional impact on calves.
A previous study of 30 rodeo calves also showed increased stress hormone levels in calves, including those who had been chased but not successfully lassoed, compared to levels in calves who were present but not used for roping .
Calf roping is effectively banned in two states, Victoria and South Australia, through a mandated minimum body weight of 200 kg for cattle used in rodeos. In other states, calves as light as 100 kg can be used for roping and there are no laws prohibiting the use of unweaned or recently weaned calves. There are ongoing efforts by the RSPCA and other advocacy groups to change the legislation so that all jurisdictions mandate a minimum body weight of 200 kg for cattle used in rodeos or alternatively to prohibit the event.
Another form of calf roping, which is mainly confined to female competitors, is called breakaway roping. In this event calves are chased and roped around the neck then the rope is released to allow the calf to continue running to leave the arena. Studies examining the impact of roping on calves show that calves experience fear and stress due to being chased by a horse and rider [2, 3]. Consequently, this event, which may appear to be less aversive, is also likely to causes fear and stress to calves. Furthermore, some children are encouraged to participate in junior rope and tie events, where an adult throws the calf to the ground (often involving pulling the calf’s tail) to assist the child to tie the calf’s legs. This type of activity does not nurture children’s respect and compassion for animals but condones using clearly distressed animals for sport and entertainment.
What you can do
Calf roping results in unacceptable animal welfare compromise and risk of injury to calves, simply for the sake of entertainment. Laws need to be changed in states/territories that still allow calf roping to cease this distressing event. Only a small proportion of the population attend or participate in rodeos and the majority of the public are unaware of the suffering endured by animals at these events. The RSPCA is opposed to rodeos and rodeo schools because of the potential for significant injury, suffering or distress to the animals involved. Rodeos are held in all states and territories in Australia except for the Australian Capital Territory where they are prohibited. You can help stop rodeos by raising awareness of the risks to animals inherent in all rodeos events (particularly calf roping), especially if a rodeo is held in your local community. You can also meet with your local member of parliament and write to the Minister responsible for animal welfare in your state/territory to urge calf roping to cease.
 Sinclair M, Keeley T, Lefebvre A, Phillips C (2016) Behavioural and physiological responses of calves to marshalling and roping in a simulated rodeo event. Animals 6(30).
 Rizzuto S, Evans D, Wilson B, McGreevy P (2020) Exploring the use of a Qualitative Behavioural Assessment approach to assess emotional state of calves in rodeos. Animals 10(1) 113 doi.org/10.3390/ani10010113.
 Fisher MW, Deaker JM, Fisher RE, Kemp FE (2003) The effects of roping on the behaviour and physiology of calves in a rodeo. In Report to Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry; Kotare Bioethics Ltd.: Hastings, New Zealand.