Rodeos are an opportunity for cowboys to showcase their roping and riding skills learned on the range. Rich in America's Western heritage, the rodeo, which is Spanish for "round-up," has come into its own as a sport in which some of the bovine athletes are better know than the cowboys trying to last the eight seconds on their backs.
Rodeos are often criticized as being abusive to the animals used in the events, however.
"There's talk about animals getting hurt, painful procedures being used, and poor care in general," said Dr. James Furman, a practitioner in mixed practice and former rodeo rider, during the AVMA Animal Welfare Forum. "The ironic thing is, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has had animal welfare guidelines since 1947."
Most rodeo events reflect real-life practices on cattle ranches. Cattle often have to be pursued on horseback, roped, and immobilized for such procedures as castration, branding, or vaccination.
Even though it looks rough on the animals, Dr. Furman said ranchers take pride in their herds and place a premium on their health and well-being.
Those sentiments are reflected in PRCA guidelines, he said, which call for adequate housing and safe transport, and provide for on-site veterinary care. Animals are chosen randomly and inspected before each show, and stimulants and tranquilizers are prohibited. If an animal looks like it may hurt itself in a holding pen, the gate is opened to allow the animal to run.
Cowboys are disqualified and/or fined for animal abuse, he said.
About the bull-riding event, he explained the rider is triggering an innate quality by using a flank strap. Prior to the event, a narrow cotton rope is placed around the bull's abdomen like a belt. It is not pulled tight, nor is it attached to the genital region, and it provides a "tickle" stimulus that causes the bull to buck.
Sites are required to have equipment ready to safely remove an injured animal from the arena. And injuries, at least to the animals, are relatively rare. Many cowboys make the weekly injury list, but an on-site survey of 21 PRCA rodeos found only 15 animals injured in 26,584 performances, a 0.00041 percent rate.
"We take every measure possible to provide humane care before, during, and after rodeos," Dr. Furman said.
The most pointed questions were directed at Dr. Furman during the question-and-answer session. Dr. Peggy Larson criticized the roping of running calves and the damage it can cause to their necks when they are jerked to a sudden stop.
Dr. Furman responded by pointing out that cowboys are changing their roping methods; where they once pitched the slack above the running animal, flipping it onto its back when the line went taut, they now try to keep the slack to side, spinning the calf around, still standing.