Rodeo: Non-human animals and human identity

By Rebecca Finkel
Queen Margaret’s University, Edinburgh
This post originally appeared on Rebecca’s blog ‘Rodeo Masculinities’ and Rebecca is currently writing her her findings from this research project.

My friend and research partner, Dr Kate Sang, introduced me to post-humanism and the writings of Braidotti. It’s been one of those things where I knew nothing about it, and then once I did, it started turning up everywhere. My colleague, Dr Paula Danby, is also interested in post-humanism for her work on equine tourism, and we’ve had some interesting chats about rodeo and non-human animals. Although my initial conceptualization of this research didn’t include a focus on non-human animals, I’ve become very interested in this dimension and also think it could inform a wider piece of research in the future.

In terms of rodeo, non-human animals feature in mainly three roles: 1) show (stockshow), 2) performance (sport events), 3) work. It will be interesting to see the treatment of these animals and the ways humans interact with them/the relationships between the species. In other words, the social construction of masculinities in relation to the non-human animals.

For example, in the performance side of the event, masculinity seems to be linked to the size and type of non-human animal. For example, bull riding is seen as the top echelon of ‘macho’ performance given the size and fierceness of the animal. Mutton busting is for children and could be seen as a training ground.

The mastery of the human over the non-human animal is the key. Masculinity is tied up with the skill in controlling the non-human animal, as it was crucial for ranch work and survival on the range. In this way, interactions with non-human animals are exemplary of a particular way of life and reflection of self identity.

“A cowboy is a man with guts and a horse”

The mythic idea of the cowboy and his horse is also at the core of ‘cowboy culture’. They are viewed as a team. This brings up interesting post-humanism dimensions of human and non-human animals having to think and work together to survive. The horse was often the main companion of the cowboy on the range, and there was a reliance on each other. The attitudes and behaviours of cowboys towards their horses is worth further exploration… A few questions arise:

– What benefit does the non-human animal get out of rodeo? Or, is it about serving humans?

– Is the non-human animal a ‘tool’ for the human? Is it a symbiotic relationship or one of human dominance?

– Are these relationships gendered? Do men treat non-human animals differently than women at rodeos?

Men and horses bring up different images than women and horses in this context. Paula reckons women are more maternal and caring towards horses, viewing them more for kinship, while men treat them as ‘tools’ for their own glory and prestige. This can be understood socio-culturally as well as financially. She suggests that horses in sporting events such as rodeo may be seen as a means to an end for men, a reflection on their sense of selves and status, especially when prize money is at stake. This is a fascinating dimension of gender, identity, image, and commercialization tied up with non-human animals. It is something I want to explore further.

In terms of gender and non-human animal treatment, I chatted with my stepsister, Ryan, who works with horses, about rodeo. She reckons rodeo is male-driven and stereotypically alpha man ‘macho’, so it is a very different environment and treatment of horses than other equine sports, such as show jumping. In show jumping, there is more gender balance with riders and often more women often compete than men. Paula also suggests that previously a lot of equine events at professional levels were more male dominated; however, this is now becoming more gender balanced, as equestrianism is the one of the only sports (if not only sports) that men and women actually compete against each other equally. Indeed, Dr Kate Dashper has also published on equine sport and dressage in terms of gender and culture.

Animal rights controversies

There have been protests and controversies by animal rights activists surrounding rodeo. The main controversy is with the bucking broncos, where a flank strap is tightly tied around the horse’s lower belly to cause bucking.

Ryan reckons that there are oversights on this, as it is a regulated sport which takes place in public during a competition. She also notes these performing horses have lighter work schedules than other working horses.

Non-equine events at rodeo, such as calf roping, also draws criticism.

Ryan also stresses there is oversight for these events, as most policing happens within the sport itself. She also mentions that it is a spectator sport, so the audiences would not stand for cruelty in this public arena. Event managers and owners are sensitive to spectators’ feelings about animal welfare and more likely to address it. She suggests being spectator-driven contributes to oversight and fewer problems. The marketing materials for many rodeos stress this animal welfare message as well.

Overall, post-humanism represents a change in thinking of humans as more important and dominant over non-human animals. It will be interesting to see if rodeo has caught up with this.

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