Many rodeo disciplines originate in traditional livestock activities, like roping calves, but today’s rodeo fans aren’t always cowboys and cowgirls. In fact, there are few other places where any city slicker can get so close to working animals.

Each year, more than 30 million fans attend almost 600 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rodeos across the country and in Canada. A fan base without agricultural roots and the sport’s high visibility makes rodeo a target for animal activists and a steady stream of fans that simply want more information.

How rodeo has used veterinary information to prepare for—and respond to—a range of questions can be an example for the beef industry. Local rodeo events themselves may offer opportunities for the general public to get closer to livestock.

Good Health, Good Performance

With events ranging from steer wrestling to calf roping, spectator questions often revolve around the topic of animal health and welfare.

Addressing questions firsthand is an initial step to a successful interaction, says John Barnes, a second-generation stock contractor and part of the family-run Barnes PRCA Rodeo Company in Peterson, Iowa. He is also the livestock superintendent for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, which places him in charge of the care of all bulls, broncs and calves brought in for the competition.

Barnes says he starts by reminding fans that each rodeo is a performance and animal health is critical to any athletic performance for humans or animals.

“Personally, the reasons for taking good care of the animal’s health are so important to me,” Barnes says. “I’ve been raised around livestock, and they only perform as well as they feel. They have to be at their peak health to perform at their peak ability. The cattle break from the box faster when they feel good. It’s the same with the horses and the bulls.”

For Barnes, addressing each and every question is key to ensuring everyone has firsthand information. If spectators don’t hear the truth from him, they can get information from activists and other sources.

Questions arise both from spectators and from folks in the livestock industry that want to know how the sport differs. Barnes is well placed to address these inquiries as he feeds about 300 head of cattle used in rodeo competitions at his ranch in Iowa, in addition to caring for 40 cows, 300 horses, 150 bulls and farming 600 acres of row crops.

“We get questions from both sides,” Barnes says. “With cattle professionals, we have to get away from what they are used to in the feedlot or pasture business. When you travel as much as we do, the calves are used to different feeds and water. They are also used to travel more than the average livestock. When we load up shortly after the performance, folks are surprised how easy it is. We have to continually adapt to the conditions that are dealt to us, and the animals are used to that, too.”

Barnes is quick to point out that in many ways livestock and rodeo are similar. Just like food animals, ensuring cattle and horses have fresh, clean water is critical.

Comingling and long hauls are a part of any rodeo stock’s daily life, and Barnes’ animal health program focuses on prevention, including a lineup familiar to most beef producers: dewormers for external and internal parasite control; vaccinations for BVD and anaplasmosis; and West Nile vaccinations for horses.

External parasite control is of a greater importance in rodeo stock, Barnes notes, because spectators can see a rough hair coat and may incorrectly assume the animal is not being treated well based purely on appearance.

In addition to a focus on prevention, simply keeping an eye on the animals is the fastest way to detect changes in health status.

“A change in routine is a change in health,” Barnes says. “It’s important to keep an eye on them. When you’re in the hospital, they wake you up to check on you. Just like that, if you want to make sure animals are doing okay, you have to check on them routinely.”

This close attention to health and behavior changes is a side of both the livestock industry and rodeo that most people don’t get to see, Barnes says. Allowing fans to talk to him and other stock contractors is one way to show firsthand how the animals are treated.


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The close veterinary care of both food and rodeo animals is another area for which the general public often has no knowledge. In fact, veterinarians are required to be onsite for all PRCA rodeos, says Doug Corey, DVM, Chairman of the PRCA Animal Welfare Committee and a veterinarian at Associated Veterinary Medical Center in Walla Walla, Wash.

In addition to the availability of veterinarians, rodeos Dr. Corey has been involved with often include meetings before the event and again immediately after the event to evaluate, assess, discuss and, if needed, practice any animal handling or health procedures at the rodeo. Each step helps the team caring for the animals to be prepared, well practiced and helps prevent injuries. The immediate regrouping helps any rodeo continually evaluate its level of care to animal athletes and revise if needed.

While a team of people are often involved, Dr. Corey says everyone can understand the education and devotion to animal care a veterinarian provides, which puts veterinarians in a unique position to speak with credibility.

“Veterinarians themselves, the mere fact that they are the caregiver to animals, lends them more credibility,” says Dr. Corey, who is also a member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) and has many non-rodeo equestrian clients in his hometown. “We are expected to know more on these issues, but we must earn that credibility by being honest with the rodeo committees we work with and the communities we are involved in.”