The Heritage of Rodeo

The heritage of rodeo dates back to the 1600s and relates to caring for animals on the open range. Around the world roping, riding and herding were all essential activities that evolved into competitions among the working hands on ranches.

The Calgary Stampede rodeo is profoundly linked to the region’s ranching culture and heritage.

The Wild West shows that toured North America in the late 1800s had a major role in shaping popular images of cowboy life. Performances mythologized the “old west” and created an entertainment culture that featured riding, roping and shooting.

However, Calgary Stampede founder Guy Weadick had a different vision. His dream was to create a genuine cowboy contest that tested the skills and horsemanship required by working cowboys. So for the first Calgary Stampede in 1912, cowboys (and cowgirls) gathered from across North America to test their wrangling skills in the burgeoning sport of rodeo.

Some early events did grow out of the Wild West genre — such as bulldogging (steer wrestling) — invented by Wild West performer Bill Pickett — or buffalo riding, which would never have taken place historically.  Other events, however, emerged from ranching traditions: saddlebronc riding, tie-down roping, and bareback riding all originated from roundup and branding activities.

During spring roundups in the late 1800s, cowboys would gather the cattle that had wandered on the range during winter months, and brand the new calves. Ropers were key figures in the branding corrals, and many went on to win championships in rodeo events. One of the outstanding ropers at the Bar U ranch in the 1920s, for example, was a Nakoda cowhand, Jonas Rider, who was known for his exceptional speed and dexterity. He became the Calf Roping champion at the Calgary Stampede in 1923 and was a top contestant through the rest of the decade. 

Clearly as time has passed the lines between historical working cowboys, rodeo cowboys, and romanticized Hollywood cowboys have blurred. But the western heritage and values that the Calgary Stampede promotes and preserves, in significant part through its western events, have authentic roots in the local conditions, economy, and culture of the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

— By Stampede historian Aimee Benoit