What is Rodeo?

I find myself thinking about the inspirations of rodeo a lot. What draws people to this sport and way of life? From sketch artists to painters, sculptors and leather workers to photographers like myself this community of people is brimming with artists. This is my take on what’s inspiring about it and why I keep shooting it.

I’m going to preface this by saying that 5 years ago I knew nothing about the sport – only that it included horses, cattle and people. In certain circles, including ones I was in, rodeo is painted in a poor light and there are implications of animal abuse related to rodeo. I learned right away that poor understanding of the sport and lack of education led to this. I would never support anything affiliated with animal abuse – if I saw it in this sport I would not still be around it. There are countless rules with every association to ensure animal care and heavy disciplinary action for any who compromise these rules. 

When I started shooting rodeo, I wanted to truly learn the purpose of each event so I could accurately capture it. Some may have thought this was overkill – but to me, knowing the goal of something allows it to then truly come through in the story that an image can tell. Every event has its own narrative to tell and a specific set of skills required to do it. I was lucky enough to have a great mentor in Mike Copeman, who taught me a lot of the basics of what I know of the sport. Over the last few years, I have been able to experience even more firsthand.

Rodeo may have its roots in the working and taming of animals, but in this modern age of the sport, it has far surpassed that. Rodeo is now about how well-trained or matched the cowboy or cowgirl is with their animal athlete. 

On the roughstock end, the sole purpose of the events is no longer to ‘break’ the animal but to challenge the strength and dexterity of the rider against the skill and style of the athlete beneath them. Every horse or bull has its own style, and the cowboys or cowgirls must learn how to work with that animal’s style to make it safely through those 8 seconds while being in time with the animal’s moves and in control of their own movements. This takes a lot of time, dedication and patience from the contestants.

In the timed events, the challenge is not about mastering the animals either, but how well you can work together to achieve a task. The horses must be just as well, if not more, trained than the person competing, and know their jobs well enough that they can work independently from the rider. In many timed events, cowboys and cowgirls will give the credit to their animals after a major win, because they know what it is like to not have that skill beneath them and be training young horses. 

Every rider has their own little unique way of doing things, but watching a well-trained horse and rider who each know their jobs and trust the other to get them in the perfect positioning is truly something you will notice, even when you don’t know the event itself. When the event looks easy, you know there are countless hours of practice by both the human and animal contestants to make it seem that way. 

As someone who grew up around only cattle, not rodeo, getting to see and capture that connection between the animals and riders is what I believe truly draws people in without them consciously knowing. 

From my experience, rodeo is about the human and animal contestants’ connection while competing, matching and challenging their skills and strength.

What’s rodeo to you?

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