Calf roping (Rope and tie)
In this timed event, a calf is chased by a competitor on horseback. The calf is typically roped around the neck while running away, bringing the young animal to a sudden choking halt. The rider then dismounts, throws the calf on his side and ties three legs together. Injuries caused by the force of the roping, jerking to a halt and being thrown to the ground include tearing or stretching of ligaments, disc ruptures, damage to subcutaneous tissue and haemorrhaging.
At a Caboolture Rodeo in Qld in 2018 a calf was unresponsive after being roped and had to be carried out of the arena on a stretcher. There was a similar occurrence at a Townsville Rodeo in 2019. This time the calf was dragged away by his back legs.
During the roping stage of the event, obvious signs of stress such as bellowing, the tongue hanging out, ‘white eye’ and excessive salivation are quite common. After being hog-tied, the calves often struggle unsuccessfully to free themselves.
Another major concern is that mis-ropings are common. ALQ has documented calves roped around the front legs, back legs, eyes, tail and nose, instead of around the neck. Competitors are not even disqualified as a result of mis-ropings, which makes suggestions that this event is a display of skill an absolute nonsense. Mis-ropings increase the risk of injury to these vulnerable calves.
A steer wrestler begins the event on horseback, chasing a fleeing steer. The wrestler must then lean from his horse to grasp the steer’s horns, using his body to stop the steer’s momentum. He then applies leverage to the steer’s horns to throw him on his side. To gain this leverage, the steer’s head is twisted, often severely, which can cause considerable pain and spinal damage, along with muscle and tendon injury.
Steers used in this event may sometimes sustain broken horns, which ALQ has documented.
It is also quite common to see steers walking off very slowly for 15-20 seconds at the completion of their participation. Moving away slowly is very rarely seen in any other rodeo event which could indicate that the extreme twisting of the neck causes pain and/or dizziness.
After a steer is released from the chute, two horsemen (the header and the heeler) attempt to rope him within thirty seconds. The ‘header’ ropes around the steer’s head, neck or horns while the ‘heeler’ ropes both hind legs in order to bring him to a stop. This commonly results in the steer being simultaneously pulled in two different directions, which obviously causes risk of injury. Steers also quite often fall to the ground during this event.
In the bull riding event, the rider must try to stay on the animal for eight seconds.
Bulls buck repeatedly "as an instinctive reaction to being kicked with spurs and to the tightened flank strap around their sensitive underbelly. 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. The ‘fight-or-flight’ response is a survival instinct which the animal is unable to consciously control." (RSPCA)
Prior to the opening of the chute gate and afterwards, most bulls are relatively calm. This suggests that bucking events could not readily occur without the spurring of the animals’ shoulders and the flank strap. Talk of the animals being ‘bred to buck’ conveniently ignores the specific stimuli that are used to stress the animals into bucking repeatedly and on cue.
Behaviours frequently observed which indicate this event stresses bulls (other than the bucking itself) are excessive salivation, rapid circling after the rider has been tossed, charging and pawing the ground. It’s unfortunate that ignorant and/or uncaring members of the audience often find the bulls’ stress-related behaviours funny.
Saddle Bronc and Bareback Bronc
In both these bucking events, each contestant attempts to stay on a horse for eight seconds. If this is achieved, the judges award points for technique.
Flank straps are pulled tightly and spurs are dug into the horses’ shoulders to make them buck excessively. After their riders come off, most horses will continue to buck until their flank straps are removed, after which they usually settle quickly. This suggests that the horses find the flank straps especially irritating or distressing.
"Horses... 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." (RSPCA)
Occasionally, horses become so distressed they lose awareness of their surroundings and have been known to ‘buck blind’ into arena fences.
More frequently, horses show their fear of participation by refusing to leave the chutes - e.g by ‘freezing’ (literally digging their heels in) or even sitting down. On many occasions ALQ volunteers have documented that this freezing behaviour results in the horses being pushed and slapped, even on the face, instead of being let out.
Falls are common which pose a risk of injury.
Bucking horses can suffer back and leg injuries, and arthritis from repeated pounding on hard ground.
Industry talk of the animals being ‘bred to buck’ conveniently ignores that the horses only buck excessively and on cue when experiencing the negative stimuli of a flank strap and spurs.
In 2020, electric prodding of horses for any reason became illegal in Queensland.
Calf scruffing was an event held at quite a number of unregulated Queensland rodeos until recent years. Pairs of competitors who were usually untrained members of the public took part. One person hung on to the head of a calf after he was sent running from a chute, while their partner grabbed the tail and continued to hold on to it, with the goal being to bring the animal to ground in the fastest possible time.
As a result of Animal Liberation Qld publicising the completely unacceptable treatment of animals in this event, the Department of Agriculture now warns any rodeo or show society found to be holding this event that they risk future prosecution.
Debunking the arguments in favour of rodeos
If rodeos fail to show compassion towards animals, and instead celebrate an often-brutal dominance over them, why is it that large numbers of people still think they are an acceptable form of entertainment?
One factor is that the rodeo industry and its proponents vigorously defend rodeos using a variety of arguments, all of which are either flawed or are based on a cruel worldview.
Here is a summary of some of the main arguments in favour of rodeos and ALQ’s counter arguments:
Rodeos are a traditional Australian event where cattle handling skills are demonstrated and kept alive.
Rodeos in fact do not have a genuine, long-standing tradition in Australia. Since the pioneer days, Australian stockmen have been admired for their ability to work with animals, but rodeo ‘cowboys’ are a different breed. Did Australian stockmen ride bulls in the pioneer days? Of course not. Rodeo cowboys follow the American tradition of deliberately provoking stock animals into displaying ‘wild’ and untamed behaviour. Devices such as electric prods, flank straps and spurs are used in an effort to ensure the distressed animals exhibit the behaviours deemed to be entertaining for the crowd.
Many rodeo events are also timed. The need for a fast time in calf roping, for example, makes this event even more stressful and dangerous for the animals than is the case when calves are roped as part of animal management practices on cattle properties. Out of the rodeo arena, calf roping can be done at slower speeds.
Rodeos are really just imported entertainment and claims that they are an essential part of rural Australian identity should be challenged.
And as for the argument that the ‘traditions’ of rural and regional Australia should be respected and maintained, this should only ever apply when a particular tradition is deserving. Exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes needs to be consigned to history’s scrapheap. All healthy communities need to evolve over time.
Rodeos are how rural and regional people come together in their communities.
Animal exploitation is wrong no matter where it occurs and no matter what the circumstances. How wonderful it would be if regional and rural communities wanting to maintain and strengthen community ties began to explore alternatives to rodeos. Options such as concerts or music festivals would have the added benefit of offering women participants equal status and would cater better for men who do not fit the ‘macho’ cowboy stereotype celebrated at rodeos (not that there is anything macho about scaring an innocent animal).
Rodeo practices don’t hurt the animals because they are tough. Cowboys get hurt more.
In their capacity to feel pain, the animals are our equals. Just as large, muscular humans feel pain, so of course do large, muscular cattle. Whilst their hides might be thick, they are still sensitive enough to feel a fly land upon them. And a thick hide will never protect an animal against torn muscles, broken limbs, broken horns, damaged eyes, or the pain of tail twisting, just to name some possible traumas.
In recent years we have documented the deaths of many animals at Qld rodeos:
- 2018 Eatons Hill Hotel Rodeo - 2 bulls broke legs: https://vimeo.com/328137964
- 2018 Mount Isa Rodeo - 2 deaths on the first day - steer broke leg and horse died after crashing: https://vimeo.com/285416608
- 2018 Rockhampton Great Western Hotel - bull broke leg: https://vimeo.com/259059615
- 2019 Millmerran Rodeo - panicked steer crashed into arena fence post and died: https://vimeo.com/321123606
- 2019 Quamby Rodeo - 2 deaths - horse died after fall and bull broke 2 legs: https://vimeo.com/350470123
- 2020 Stanthorpe Rodeo - death of bucking mare who either collapsed or broke her neck when falling: https://vimeo.com/396211666
- In 2015, we filmed an animal at Roma Rodeo with a horn almost torn off during steer wrestling. This injured animal could not even stand up because of pain and shock. In 2019 we filmed another steer with a horn injury during the same event at Mount Isa Rodeo.
- In 2018 and 2019 we filmed two calves who were unresponsive after being roped in the rope and tie (calf roping) event. They had to be carried out of the arena, one on a stretcher.
We’ve regularly seen obviously stressed animals with their tongues hanging out, vocalising and with the whites of their eyes showing. Make no mistake, rodeo animals are subjected to both physical and psychological stress. And according to world renowned animal behaviourist Temple Grandin, fear should be considered as important as suffering induced by pain, as intense fear stress is very detrimental to welfare. (Grandin, 1997).
With regards to the argument that rodeo cowboys get hurt more than the animals, the essential point to make is that these people choose to participate and take risks; the animals do not. Financial rewards are available for human participants as well.
Rodeos enable the rescue of animals otherwise destined for slaughter.
Pro rodeo supporters often claim that if it weren’t for rodeos, the animal performers would already have been killed for food. This fate of course will still eventually befall the vast majority of rodeo animals. Until then, they will typically face plenty of ordeals: the regular stresses of ‘performing’; travelling long distances from place to place on cattle trucks; an inability to graze or access water at rodeo venues for many hours; loud music and noisy crowds both day and evening. Rodeo animals clearly do not lead an idyllic life.
Worse things happen to animals on farms than happen at rodeos.
Should we tolerate assaults in our community because they are lesser crimes than murder? The answer has to be no. Similarly, the fact that certain animal husbandry practices cause extreme suffering should not mean that we should just ignore the pain and distress suffered by rodeo animals. Why not work towards eliminating all kinds of animal suffering?
Rodeo is popular throughout Queensland and is promoted as family entertainment. How can it be wrong?
Just because an activity is popular does not necessarily mean it is ethical. Many activities that were popular and socially acceptable in the past are no longer tolerated or are being questioned: keeping wild animals in cages at zoos, confining dolphins and orcas in captivity, cock-fighting; bear baiting, etc. Society is evolving and there is now greater awareness of animal sentience and suffering. Events such as rodeos will be scrutinised more and more in the future; there will be more scientific evidence of the distress they cause and eventually they will be found to be unacceptable by the majority of Queenslanders.
The idea of rodeos as family entertainment must continue to be challenged on social media and the mainstream media. Rodeos are opposed by all animal protection groups, both in Australia and worldwide. Activities known to harm animals should automatically not be regarded as family-friendly. Children have a natural empathy towards animals but unfortunately rodeos can gradually desensitise some children to the distress and suffering of cattle and horses.
Back in 2016, the Outdoor Media Association in Brisbane advised us that our proposed images of calf roping were too violent for a planned billboard, despite depicting typical stages of the event. We were required to censor those images before approval was granted. If the images were too violent for a billboard, how on earth can the event of calf roping be regarded as family friendly?
Rodeo animals are athletes; they enjoy the competition.
Animals, unlike human athletes, don’t have a choice in whether or not they will compete at rodeos. They also have no understanding of what is happening to them or why, whereas in a true sporting contest both sides know the rules of the game. Rodeo animals’ participation is forced upon them and it is impossible to believe that they would regard what happens to them as enjoyable.
Is it likely a calf would choose to be roped around the neck at full speed, thrown to the ground and tied up? Would a steer look forward to having someone jump off a horse to grab his horns and then have his neck violently twisted? Do horses and bulls want a tightened flank strap around their sensitive underbellies or enjoy repeated spurring on their shoulders? Rodeo events are predominantly fear-based in nature in order to provoke the reactions necessary for the competition to proceed.
Rodeo supporters in rural/regional communities live in the ‘real world’. Animal advocates who want to ban rodeos live ‘in a bubble’, are too ‘soft’ and have no idea.
The view that the ‘real world’ must always equate to a life of exploitation for animals is a bleak one and of course animal advocates are motivated to challenge this type of thinking and help bring about a better world for animals. We would also argue that perhaps it is the rodeo supporters themselves who are the ones living in a bubble, unable or unwilling to see the cruelty and exploitation in this industry despite the cruelty and exploitation being so obvious to many compassionate people.
What leading Australian animal protection organisations think about rodeos:
"A rodeo is a form of entertainment or sport in which skills such as riding broncos, bull riding, roping calves or wrestling steers are displayed. RSPCA Australia is strongly opposed to rodeos because of the potential for significant injury, suffering, distress or even death to the animals involved. Rodeos are held in most States in Australia but are prohibited in the Australian Capital Territory.
Roping calves involves releasing the animal ahead of the contestant/roper who is on horseback. The rope is thrown over the calf's neck. The contestant then dismounts and runs to the animal, relying on his horse to keep it under control. After reaching and catching the animal it is thrown onto its side and three of its legs are tied with rope. The contestant then must remount his horse and ride it forward to prove that the tie will hold to the judge's satisfaction.
Clearly, this type of activity can cause serious injuries to the calf as they are suddenly thrown to the ground or suddenly jerked in another direction by the rope around their neck, often with great force. As the horse moves forward this drags the calf along the ground which can also cause serious physical damage. In some cases the animal is pulled backwards off its feet which can cause very severe injuries that may be fatal. Calf roping not only causes physical pain and injury but also subjects the calf to serious mental stress as well. A recent study undertaken by the University of Queensland has demonstrated that calves who had experienced roping previously showed elevated stress hormone levels in the blood after being roped similar to that described above*. For calves who had never been exposed to a holding pen or chute used at rodeos, the same study also showed a stress response after they had been marshaled or moved across the arena by a rider and horse.
In other rodeo activities, devices such as flank straps, spurs and electric prodders are used to encourage the animal to buck and react. These devices can cause significant pain and suffering to the animal.
Where rodeos are permitted to be conducted, RSPCA Australia advocates the adoption of compulsory registration and licensing. Compliance with national standards for the management, housing and transport of rodeo animals must be made a condition of licensing. Attendance by a veterinary surgeon should also be mandatory at all rodeo events to ensure that only fit animals are used and that any injured animal is treated appropriately or humanely killed."
*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
For more information go to: http://kb.rspca.org.au/What-is-the-RSPCA-view-on-rodeos_239.html
Sentient, The Veterinary Institute for Animal Ethics
"Sentient, The Veterinary Institute for Animal Ethics, opposes the use of animals in rodeo and calf roping events.
The use of animals at these events risks serious welfare threats and safety concerns for people involved. These events are poorly regulated and often occur in remote locations which can make enforcement difficult.
Such events represent highly physically and psychologically stressful environments to animals, exploiting prey animal's fear response all for the benefit of sport and entertainment. Stimulating bucking behaviour, rodeos capitalize on animals' instinctive counter predatory response and survival reactions which are initiated by fear and/or pain.
Animals are highly sensitive (they can detect a fly on their coat) and advanced riders understand and respect that all contact should be minimal and gentle. Calf roping has been associated with increased stress hormone levels (including cortisol, epinephrine and nor-epinephrine) as a result of binding animals’ legs and tossing them to the ground.
Sentient promotes animal use and work only when it is in line with animals’ natural behaviours within the limits of acceptable welfare standards."
For more information go to: http://www.sentient.org.au
"Rodeos are a cruel spectator sport, condemned by all animal protection organisations, in which bulls, horses and sometimes other animals are physically provoked into displaying 'wild' behaviour by the use of such devices as spurs, electric prods and flank straps. Rodeo animals suffer many kinds of injuries, and are sometimes killed or have to be destroyed."
For more information go to: http://animalsaustralia.org/issues/rodeos.php
Australian Veterinary Association
"There is considerable inherent welfare risk to animals participating in rodeos. These risks are exacerbated by poor or non-existent levels of regulation and enforcement at a state level, and the involvement of multiple rodeo organisations with varying welfare standards. Many rodeos take place in remote areas where there is little monitoring or enforcement of animal welfare codes of practice. Consequently the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) is concerned the welfare of the animals used is compromised by rodeos which can be conducted in a manner that is cruel and unnecessarily dangerous."
For the complete AVA Position statement on rodeos go to: http://www.ava.com.au/policy/154-rodeos
Queensland scientists confirm that calf roping causes stress
A recent University of Queensland scientific study that looked into the effect of calf roping on the animals’ stress levels has found increased concentrations of stress hormones in the calves’ blood after roping. The researchers concluded: "The roping event in rodeos is stressful for both experienced and naïve calves."
This study, published in the journal Animals in April 2016, confirms what observation has always very strongly suggested: that calf roping is an aversive experience for these young animals.
Read the full report here: calf-roping-study.pdf
Discussion paper on calf roping
Full paper here: ALQ_Rodeo_Background_Paper