Rodeo 101

For all of you who enjoy watching the rodeo (but don’t feel comfortable asking the cowboy sitting next to you, “What the heck is going on?”) we pulled together a list of the most misunderstood rules of rodeo. This article is adapted from our collaboration with Murdoch’s – see the full post here

There’s a reason it can get confusing: some rules change based on the arena, the association sanctioning the rodeo (or it might be un-sanctioned). These are the rules for competition at Rodeo All-Star, and we’ve noted if it is one that doesn’t always apply from one rodeo to the next.


Rough Stock Rules

Rough stock events are the three where cowboys ride bucking horses or bulls: bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding.

Mark Out Rule
  • Applies to: bareback and saddle bronc
  • A cowboy’s feet must be above the point of the horse’s shoulders when the horse’s front feet hit the ground after bucking out of the gate.
  • If done right, he “marked the horse out,” but if not, he “missed him out” and the ride is disqualified.


  • Applies to: all rough stock events
  • If a cowboy’s score is affected by equipment failure or a horse or bull that doesn’t buck to performance specifications, the judges may offer the cowboy a clean-slate chance on a different horse or bull. It’s up to judges’ discretion.
  • Rodeo guests often times have a hard time judging what may or may not be a re-ride.
Free hand
  • Applies to: all rough stock events
  • A rider cannot touch the animal or himself with his free hand.
  • If he does, the result is disqualification.
Losing a Stirrup
  • Applies to: saddle bronc
  • The rider must keep both feet in the stirrups.
  • If a rider loses a stirrup before the end of his eight-second ride, the judge will make a hand signal to the announcers and timers immediately. No score/disqualification.

Timed Event Rules

Timed events are the four where a horse and rider race against the clock to complete their event in the shortest amount of time possible: calf roping (aka tie-down roping), team roping, steer wrestling, and barrel racing.

Breaking the Barrier
  • Applies to: calf roping, team roping and steer wrestling
  • Failing to give the calf or steer the proper head start by leaving the box too soon. The head start length depends on the specifications of the arena, so it changes per location.
  • Results in a 10-second penalty.
  • It’s like jumping the gun in a track meet.


Illegal Head Catch
  • Applies to: team roping
  • There are only three legal head catches allowed at Rodeo All Star: 1) Around both horns; 2) Half a head; 3) Around the neck.
6 Second Rule
  • Applies to: calf roping
  • Calves must remain tied for at least 6 seconds before the ride qualifies.
  • The rule can change from one rodeo to the next.
Knock Down
  • Applies to: steer wrestling
  • A steer must not be knocked down or thrown prior to coming to a stop or changing direction. This can be hard to see for the general rodeo fan.
  • The steer must be let up and thrown again or it will result in a disqualification.
Dog Fall
  • Applies to: steer wrestling
  • An illegal maneuver in steer wrestling that causes all four feet and head to face different directions. Cowboy must roll the steer over or let it up and throw it again.
  • The steer must be let up and thrown again or it will result in a disqualification.
  • Little known fact: oftentimes you will hear a cowboy say he is a “bull dogger.” This actually means they are a steer wrestler. Way back in the day it used to be called bull dogging.


Jerk Down
  • Applies to: calf roping
  • To further promote animal welfare, the “jerk-down rule” is enforced and only clean catches are permitted. In Calgary, cowboys are flagged out and given a no-time if a calf is jerked off of all four feet and its body touches the ground before the roper reaches it. With animal welfare being a high priority, the jerk-down rule is watched very closely.
  • The most common “jerk down” you will witness is when a calf lands on its back or head at which point the cowboy will be disqualified.


Scoring Rough Stock Events

Because the livestock’s performance accounts for half of the rider’s score, judges look at darts, dives, twists and rolls. The tougher the ride, the more points the bull or bronc will be scored by the judges.

Scoring the Rider
  • The rider must mark out his horse with the first jump out of the chute.
  • The cowboy must ride for eight seconds.
  • The judge awards points primarily for spurring action in bareback and saddle bronc riding.
  • The rider loses points if his toes are not turned out with his spurs in contact with the horse; if spurring is not continuous throughout the ride; and if he is not balanced and in control (body must be centered, not tilted).
  • Points are gained or lost according to the rider’s rhythm and timing with a horse’s bucking.
  • In bull riding, points are scored by the rider maintaining body control and position regardless of what the bull is doing.
  • Spurring is not required in bull riding, but definitely adds points to the score.
ras2016-3Scoring the Livestock
  • High kicking action with hind legs fully extended makes for a better score.
  • The strength and force of the livestock’s bucking efforts are important. Judges look at how hard the livestock tried to throw off its rider.
  • Points are given every time the livestock changes directions and spins. Rolling and twisting add points to the score, because livestock that bucks sideways is harder to ride.


Scoring Timed Events

  • These events are timed, not scored. The fastest time wins, as long as they do not break any of the rules (breaking the barrier, knock down, jerk down, etc.)
  • It’s worth mentioning that in steer wrestling there is a “hazer.” This is a cowboy who is not wrestling the steer, but rides on the other side of the steer, keeping it in line. This is a fascinating topic, because the hazer is most commonly another steer wrestler competing against the guy he’s hazing for!  The hazer has a huge impact on the success of the competitor’s run. Born out of tradition, respect and comradery, all cowboys are very respectful when hazing and always do their best to make it a good run.  A hazer can better another competitor’s run, and the steer wrestler trusts the competition to help them out, which certainly doesn’t happen in other sports.