It’s rodeo season out West and yesterday, less than a week after reveling in the Pagosa Springs Rodeo, I got to photograph the Galisteo Rodeo in New Mexico. The Galisteo Rodeo was much smaller and scrappier than the Pagosa event, but it felt very authentic. Most of the spectators were families and fans from nearby towns and all the cowboys were local heroes.
In keeping with the family-friendly atmosphere, the Galisteo Rodeo follows the animal welfare rules and regulations laid down for U.S. rodeos by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
The PRCA first began establishing rules for humane treatment of livestock in 1947. Some practices like horse tripping and bull tailing are banned and participants are disqualified and fined for animal abuse. Accidents and injuries to animals do happen, but not as often as you might think: one study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association found only 15 injuries in 26,584 performances.
To understand some people’s objections to rodeos it’s important to understand the difference between animal welfare and animal rights. The PRCA adheres to principals of animal welfare, which holds that people have a right to use animals, but that we have an obligation to treat them humanely. People and organizations who argue for animal rights believe animals and people should enjoy the same rights and often oppose the use of animals in all endeavors including: raising farm animals for food and clothing, rodeos, circuses, zoos, hunting, trapping, fishing, and using animals for research and education purposes.
People who are passionate about animals fall on both sides of the animal welfare/ animal rights line and most of them will never see eye to eye. At the Galisteo Rodeo, I asked the head trainer from The Horse Shelter in Cerrillos, a local equine rescue where I also volunteer, where he fell on that spectrum and he said something along the lines of, “you can focus on the bad things that happen in the world or you can focus on the good. Rodeos promote the bonds between horse and rider and encourage honing the skills necessary to safely and humanely raise and handle cattle.”
I love the rodeo, but I do find some events difficult to watch. In particular, I don’t like seeing the little calves roped and tied. But when arguing against rodeos, I think it’s important to remember that most of the events in the arena stem directly from common ranch practices. From time to time, calves must be roped for vaccinations, castrations and relocations. Such is the life of a domestic cow.
Of course, there are those who argue that calves should never be roped, that they should be allowed to run free in endless green pastures, and that’s a lovely thought, but it’s not very realistic. The beef industry isn’t going anywhere in this country, like it or not. Rodeos promote skilled handling of livestock and the more skilled the handlers, the less cattle prods and other hurtful tools will be used. Yesterday, I watched the mounted bull doggers corral and load the bucking bulls into the chutes and it was an incredible demonstration of team work between horse and rider and a matching of wits between horse and bull. Watching a rodeo, it’s evident to me that the majority of participants have a deep understanding and respect for the animals. In my opinion, rodeos are more a part of the solution than part of the problem.