I was excited to recently attend a rodeo, hoping to see what all the buzz is about regarding "animal cruelty" at these competitions. I entered the stadium with some trepidation at what I would witness -- there's no way I wanted to see any animal mistreated for any reason, especially for the sake of human entertainment.
I took a seat and observed the horses in their enclosures as they waited to take the stage. Without exception, the horses looked gorgeous, completely well-cared for and relaxed. I looked closely to see if I'd notice any rider or handler agitating a horse to excite the animal in preparation for the performance. I was looking for things like subtle pinching, cutting, whipping and other forms of questionable human behavior.
Much to my relief, there was none of that. Riders were engaged in calming their horses, speaking softly to them and "prettying them up" for their main events.
I watched a bareback bucking event and a saddle bronc exhibition. I was amazed at the tenacity of the riders as they attempted to stick like glue to their mounts' backs. Observation number one was noting how both of these events looked so much harder on the rider than on the horses!
Next, I looked closely to see what exactly these cowboys were wearing to prod their horses into bucking so violently. The riders were clothed in normal riding wear: shirts, jeans, in some cases chaps, and boots. Not one of them was sporting spurs or whips or any kind of prodding device. They just had specially-made gloves with which they could anchor themselves to their horses.
I watched each horse as he was released into the arena bucking like crazy. I became concerned when I noticed straps cinched around their flanks, and immediately thought these straps must have something to do with forcing the animal to buck. The straps were covered in a thick layer of sheepskin where they touched the horses, and genitals or other organs weren't bound or touched.
After the rodeo, I researched those flank straps, and also what makes horses buck at rodeos. I was pleased to learn that bucking rodeo horses are a hot commodity -- not because of any willingness to take abuse that would cause them to buck on demand, but rather because these horses are naturally inclined to buck. They like doing it, and do it because it's fun and releases tension. Rodeo riders seek out these animals because of the animal's natural predisposition to buck, and will invest as much as $50,000 for such a horse. Savvy horsemen know it would be stupid to abusively try to "break" a horse of something the horse really loves to do. And attempting to do so after laying out so much cash for the animal would really be cruel to the horse owner's finances!
The flanking straps are put in place immediately before the horse's time to compete. The straps are snug, but not overly so, and have a quick-release action. The straps only serve to make the horse harder to ride because they alter the direction of the hind legs, encouraging the horse to kick straight back. The straps are instantly released by the "pick-up men" so the horse doesn't get used to the strap, which they will do because the strap causes no pain and doesn't compel a horse to buck.
I'm not saying there aren't unscrupulous horse owners who abuse their horses -- unfortunately, there are no doubt many. But when an owner invests such large sums of money to buy, train and care for a rodeo horse, probably the last thing they want to do is throw away their investment by abusing the animal in any way. From what I witnessed first-hand at the rodeo, owners and riders take better care of their horses than they may do of themselves!
So, are demonstrators at rodeos really making a point about cruelty to horses? Nah...they're just speaking to the choir -- one that fully agrees with the concept of treating horses well and with extreme care.