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What are the animal welfare issues with rodeos?

A rodeo is a form of entertainment or sport where untrained horses and cattle are used to demonstrate riding and handling skills. Events include bronco riding, bull riding, calf roping and steer wrestling. 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.

Arguments put forward in support of the use of horses, bulls, steers and calves in rodeos tend to focus on these events being a traditional part of country life, that they are good for the local community and that the animals are well treated and they ‘enjoy’ their work.

Based on observed behaviour, there is very little evidence that the animals ‘enjoy’ the rodeo experience. Rodeo horses and bulls buck repeatedly as an instinctive reaction to being kicked with spurs and to the tightened flank strap around their sensitive underbelly. Horses and cattle are prey animals and their reaction to being ridden in this way is the same as their reaction to being attacked by a predator, a situation where they experience increased fear, stress and panic. It is not uncommon to see horses and bulls hurl themselves at solid objects in order to rid themselves of the rider. Only when the rider has been thrown or dismounts and the flank straps loosened do they quieten down. Also, some ridden animals are so distressed that they then charge the rider on the ground, further demonstrating this very strong fear response.

Although all rodeo events pose significant risks, calf roping (also known as rope-and-tie) raises serious concerns. Calf roping involves releasing the animal ahead of the contestant/roper who is on horseback. The rider will chase and lasso the calf by throwing a rope over the 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 legs with rope.

The risks of injury 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 they are running
  • bruising and broken ribs as they are forced to the ground
  • choking from being dragged along the ground.

The following video footage of calf roping has been provided with permission and shows ‘white eye’, bellowing and tongue lolling demonstrating these calves are experiencing pain and/or fear when being yanked off their feet, thrown, choked and leg tied. Warning: this footage is graphic and requires parental discretion.

The natural response to being separated from other calves and chased by a ‘predator’ is fear, leading to stress. A recent study undertaken by the University of Queensland has demonstrated that even calves who had previously experienced roping showed elevated stress hormone levels in the blood after being roped [1]. In terms of behaviour, all calves in the study showed ‘white eye’, where the eye rolls to reveal about 50% of the white of the eye, and they 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.

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 for all jurisdictions to mandate a minimum body weight of 200 kg for cattle used in rodeos.

A new form of rodeo being promoted in Australia is professional bull riding where bulls are ridden while subjected to loud noises and pyrotechnics amid clapping and cheering. In December 2017, a bull suffered a broken leg and had to be euthanased during one of these events in Adelaide. Forcing animals to endure this suffering for sport and entertainment is unnecessary and inhumane.

Where rodeos are permitted to be conducted, the RSPCA advocates the adoption of compulsory and enforced animal welfare standards and a registration and licensing system. Compliance with compulsory standards for the management, housing and transport of rodeo animals must be made a condition of licensing. Attendance by a suitably qualified veterinarian should also be mandatory at all rodeo events to ensure prompt and appropriate veterinary care is provided to animals as required.

Also read:

RSPCA Policy C08 Rodeos


[1] Sinclair M, Keeley T, Lefebvre A, and Phillips C (2016) Behavioural and physiological responses of calves to marshalling and roping in a simulated rodeo event. Animals 6(30).

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Updated on August 12, 2019
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