World’s Oldest Rodeo
If you’re looking for an authentic Wild West experience—something that’s not a Made-for-Tourists tourist trap—then I’d suggest you head to central Arizona during the first week of July to celebrate the city of Prescott’s famed annual event, one that’s been attracting crowds for the past 121 years.
Home of The World’s Oldest Rodeo®, Prescott is the real deal, the state’s former capital when Arizona was just a Territory and birthplace of what were once called “Cowboy Contests.” Today this uniquely American sport, now known as rodeo, has grown into a multimillion dollar phenomenon found in all 50 US states.
The finest expression of this cowboy competition happens daily during the town’s weeklong festival known as Prescott Frontier Days®. During the week leading up to our country’s Independence Day celebration, Prescott kicks up its heels with parades, rodeo dances, fireworks, arts and crafts shows, and the hilarious “Boot Race” down the famed “Whiskey Row” in the historic downtown area in front of the courthouse. Four nightly rodeos are held prior to the July Fourth and Fifth celebration during which matinee rodeos are also added. In all, 8 separate performances are held within the historic Prescott Rodeo Grounds.
It all began way back in 1888 when a group of merchants organized the first “Cowboy Tournament” offering cash prizes to working cowboys. Over the years sponsorship and prize money increased and the fledgling rodeo moved from a roped-off area of unimproved land to its present location. By the 1940s a local steering committee helped organize the annual event and spectator interest grew. As purses increased so did the caliber of competition and livestock, stimulating even greater interest and attracting the West’s most talented cowboys. Today this rodeo ranks as one of the country’s finest among the 650 annual Pro Rodeo sanctioned events, as indicated by its recent induction into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.
Every rodeo performance kicks off with a spectacular Grand Entry, a stirring tribute to the dozens of individuals and sponsors who are responsible for the rodeo’s success. Over sixty riders strut and gallop their horses into the ring, representing sponsors, royalty and rodeo contestants. No Independence Day Event of this magnitude would be complete without a salute to the individuals who have helped make our country great, and the display of Old Glory accompanied by singing the National Anthem gets the whole thing started.
Almost before you can sit down, a half-dozen chutes spring open from across the arena and a bunch of wild broncs emerge, kicking up their heels as teams of three try to saddle their selected bronc and assist their team’s rider to make it across the finish line. If this doesn’t get your adrenaline going, nothing will. I saw more mayhem in 30 seconds than you’d see in a big city cage fight as cowboys seemed to find themselves on the wrong end of a horse’s hoof. This event is certainly reason enough to find your seat early, as it is both exciting and brief. It’s only when the horn sounds to signal the finish that you hear the collective exhale of the crowd who had been holding its breath for the past half minute to see who won and who survived.
In tie-down roping the mounted cowboy start from a box next to a chute that holds a calf. At the signal, the calf runs out, chased by the cowboy who tries to throw his loop to catch the calf. Once he does, the cowboy quickly dismounts, grabs the calf and tries to throw it to the ground. If he succeeds, he then tries to tie any three legs together with a short rope (piggin’ string) he’s been clenching in his teeth. Throwing his hands up in the air signifies the task is over, but this cues a 6-second test period to see whether the calf’s legs were truly tied. If the calf does not kick free after six seconds, the roper posts a qualified time.
Saddle bronc riding is considered by many to be the toughest rodeo event to master because of the technical skills involved. As with bareback riding, the cowboy must “mark out” their horse on the first jump out of the chute. This means the rider must have both spurs touching the horse’s shoulders until the horse’s feet hit the ground. The rider must use only one hand to hold a thick rein attached to the horse’s halter. If, during the required 8-second ride, he touches any part of the horse or his own body with his free hand, he is disqualified, receiving no score. To arrive at a score, judges evaluate the cowboy’s spurring action and his ability to control the horse while also considering the bucking action of the horse.
Similarly, bareback riders try to hang on for an 8-second ride while spurring their broncs with their toes turned out. As the horse bucks, the cowboy pulls his knees up. As the horse descends, the rider straightens his legs and spurs the horse, prodding for what will produce an even wilder and exciting ride.
Bull riding, like saddle bronc and bareback riding, requires the cowboy to stay atop his animal for a full eight seconds in order to receive a qualified score. Bull riders are not required to “mark out” like the other two roughstock events, but they must hold on with only one hand and may not touch the bull or themselves with their free hands. Bulls are different from horses in their bucking habits—they may spin continuously or, unpredictably, may add sudden jumps, kicks, and side-to-side movements to throw their riders. Typically, bull riding serves as the Grand Finale of a rodeo event card.
Steer wrestlers, known as “bulldoggers,” start on horseback and chase a steer that’s been given a head start. When the cowboy reaches the steer, he slides off his galloping horse—traveling around 30 mph!—and throws his arm around the steer’s neck, grabbing a horn. Then, trying to slow the animal down, he grabs the other horn and begins to wrestle the beast to the ground, pulling the steer to its side so that all four feet are pointing the same direction. Unlike the events scored by judges for technique, this event simply pits the cowboy against the clock, but demands timing, strength, speed and balance.
Team roping requires two skilled ropers, a header and a heeler, working together as a team, first roping the steer’s horns (header) , then roping both hind legs (heeler). Once the steer is caught, the clock stops when there is no slack in the lines with the horses facing each other. This event requires considerable practice in order for the team to perfect their skills and timing.
Cowgirls get involved in rodeo in barrel racing, an event in which the rider moves as quickly as possible around three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern. The cowgirl chooses to start to the right or left, crosses to the opposite side, then heads for the third barrel furthest from the start-finish line. Competition is so close that an electronic eye starts the clock and timing is made to the hundredth of a second.
Today more than 600 volunteers give of their time to help with the rodeo, parade, golf tournament and other events that make the annual Prescott Frontier Days a rollicking success. Every year at the end of June and into the first days of July the downtown area of historic Whiskey Row and the grounds surrounding the famed County Courthouse are transformed into a weeklong festival featuring craft and food vendors, entertainment and laughter.
The Prescott Frontier Days and World’s Oldest Rodeo give locals and visitors alike the opportunity to step back into history, reflect on the spirit and adventure of our country’s early pioneers, and celebrate the blessings we enjoy in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” It’s a bit of authentic Americana, the genuine hospitality you find in a small town mixed with the flavors of tradition and old-fashioned hard work. It’s the kind of celebration that’s more than just an excuse to party over a holiday weekend. It has the feel and substance of something that’s been earned because of endurance, fortitude and struggle. That goes a long way to explain why this signature event for the state’s former capital is still around today after 121 years. With these qualities, it’ll certainly be around a lot longer yet.
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