The animal welfare problem with rodeos
Rodeos are a form of entertainment in which horses and cattle are used in competitive events. These events include bronc riding, bull or steer riding, steer wrestling, and rope and tie. SPCA advocates for an end to the use of animals in rodeo in New Zealand because these events cause unnecessary distress and can result in significant injuries to the animals involved.
In New Zealand there are approximately 30 rodeo shows held per year as well as training events and jackpots (events not open to members of the public). Rodeos are covered by the Animal Welfare Act 1999 as well as a set of minimum standards under the code of welfare for rodeo. The standards currently enable rodeo events to take place.
Rodeos are contentious. 62,941 New Zealanders signed a petition to ban rodeos in 2016, and a Horizon poll commissioned by SPCA and SAFE in the same year showed that 68% of respondents supported the statement that “Rodeo causes pain and suffering to animals and it is not worth causing this just for the sake of entertainment.” Traditional rodeo events have been banned in parts of Europe, Australia, and the US, and in the UK.
SPCA is not opposed to the community value of people coming together to display their skill in competitive events, but advocates for animals to be replaced in events - or at least used in a way that has a much lower impact.
The government’s own animal welfare advisors, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, have published a report that found that every event apart from barrel racing causes moderate to severe animal welfare impacts.
Fear and distress at rodeos
The animals who participate in rodeos have no choice and have little control over their situation.
Bulls, horses, cows, and calves are herd animals. It is terrifying for these animals to be singled out and pursued, as well as subjected to the noise and confusion of the arena. Many of these animals are used repeatedly, subjected to more fear each time. As prey species, these animals will instinctively avoid showing injury so that they do not appear weak to predators.
Equipment like flank straps, goads, and spurs provoke normally calm bulls and horses into fearful, reactive behaviour like bucking, rearing, and kicking. These fear responses during movement can make animals more prone to slipping, falling and injuries.
Farming industry guidance advises using calm, measured stock people and well-designed yards to move and handle cattle and horses expressly to avoid the behaviour seen at rodeos. While rodeo participants sometimes argue that rodeo events are a way to practice skills used on-farm, the way animals are handled in most rodeo events is not in line with good practice in handling cattle and horses.
Based on observed behaviour, there is very little evidence that the animals ‘enjoy’ their rodeo experience. Scientific indicators of fear and distress in cattle and horses include wide eyes, a high respiration rate, excessive salivation, vocalisation, flared nostrils, trembling, and defensive behaviour such as kicking, bucking, and rearing. These signs can often be observed at New Zealand rodeos.
Injuries at rodeos
It can be difficult to obtain accurate death and injury statistics as rodeo organisers are not required to report these numbers to the public - but animals are reliably injured each rodeo season. The types of injuries that can be sustained by animals include torn ligaments, fractures, broken bones, bruising, and internal damage. In some cases, these injuries are so severe the animals die or are killed at the rodeo.
During lassoing events, riders on horseback lasso the animal around the neck head, or hind quarters (event dependent) and bring the animal to a sudden stop before bringing the animal to the ground. Lassoing around the neck can result in significant neck inflammation, severe winding from pressure on the trachea, and bruising from coming to a stop from high speed. Musculoskeletal injuries and bruising can also result from being thrown to the ground. Injuries to the cervical spine can include fracture, luxation, and alteration of vertebra position.
In the steer wrestling event, a mounted rider chases a steer, drops from the horse to the steer, and wrestles the steer to the ground. Injury in steer wrestling can include damage to the animal’s horns, neck, windpipe, and tissue bruising.
Calf roping raises serious concerns as it involves the use of young and vulnerable animals. Calf roping involves significant risk of injury from lassoing calves around the neck, significant inflammation of the neck, severe winding from pressure on the trachea, musculoskeletal injuries, and bruising from coming to a sudden stop followed by being thrown to the ground.
Equipment used at rodeos
SPCA is opposed to the use of whips and spurs in all animal entertainment events. This equipment can cause pain and injury leading to distress.
Increasing evidence shows that the use of severe bits and aggressive use of bits (snapping) can cause significant breathlessness, discomfort or injury. Bits are often used during barrel racing events and in training for these events.
SPCA advocates for the immediate discontinuation of flank straps as these cause discomfort, distress and anxiety. The flank strap, as described by the New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys Association, is used to teach abnormal bucking behaviour. The mechanism described by which it works is a form of conditioning, where when the animal ‘kicks up’, the strap loosens, and is ultimately removed at the end of the ride. The loosening and removal of the strap serves as a safety signal (reinforcer), encouraging the animal to buck harder in order to quickly remove the threat presented by the flank strap (aversive stimulus).
Bucking and kicking is a form of behaviour that is typical of cows and horses when fending off predators or escaping. Indicators of fear and distress are evident in animals when the strap is used, and handling animals in this way increases the risk of injury.
It is sometimes suggested that certain horses naturally buck and enjoy bucking at rodeo events. If horses can be taught to reliably buck for rodeo events, then the continued use of the flank strap and equipment such as spurs should not be necessary.
Rodeos are a community event. Children are often in attendance, and sometimes involved in events such as calf riding. Watching and being involved in rodeo events normalises disrespect of animals (exploitation for entertainment) and promotes inhumane care of animals to children.
SPCA advocates that children’s involvement in activities involving animals should act to develop an understanding of and empathy for all animals.
How you can help
You can help by raising awareness of the risks to animals. Talk to your friends, family, and colleagues about rodeos and explain why animals should not be used in rodeo events. Don’t attend rodeos – rodeos will only continue as long as people attend them. You can also meet with your local member of parliament and write to the Minister responsible for animal welfare to advocate for the end to the use of animals in rodeo events in New Zealand.
SPCA will continue to advocate for animals in rodeos. While SPCA ultimately wants to see an end to the use of animals at rodeos, as long as it is allowed to continue, we will push for significant changes and improvements.