American Royal rodeo gets dragged into tussle over steer roping

Oct 18, 2011 The Kansas City Star 

The mounted cowboy's lasso floats out and snakes around the galloping steer's horns.

His horse jerks to the left, snapping the rope taut. The 600-pound steer flips into the air and then crashes into the ground.

This is steer roping, which has become rodeo's most controversial event.

On one side are animal welfare advocates, who say the event is brutal and can injure and even kill the steer. On the other side are cowboys and rodeo organizers, who say city slickers have no clue about life on the range.

This much is certain: Steer roping, unlike calf roping, often is held apart from other rodeo events, and sometimes not held at all.

The event is so sensitive that the American Royal, which has its rodeo coming up later this month, finds itself caught up in the wrangle.

The Royal recently had to issue a statement after a blog reported that the Royal was holding steer-roping at its rodeo, which prompted email protests from around the world. The Royal said there would be no steer-roping.

That was just this year. In recent years, the Royal faced the dilemma of whether to include steer roping with the rest of its rodeo events. It chose not to.

Instead, in 2007, 2008 and 2009, steer roping was held in Bucyrus, Kan., at the home of Bryan Beaver, an American Royal board member and now chairman.

The event, which had a purse of at least $10,000 one year, was held at the same time as the Royal's rodeo at Kemper Arena, according to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association .

The PRCA required steer roping to be part of the rodeo in those three years. Beaver made the event at his Flat Tail Ranch invitation-only and free of charge.

Even now, the Royal isn't eager to talk about it.

Beaver did not return calls to his home and business. Few others at the Royal were willing to discuss steer roping, and current and former Royal board members were advised to refer calls about steer roping to the rodeo association.

The PRCA's Cindy Schonholtz said Royal officials told the association the reason they did not want to hold the steer-roping event at Kemper was because the arena was not big enough. The association does not have a standard arena size for steer roping.

Jody Holland, who coordinates the Royal's rodeo and Western events, referred calls to Bob Petersen, the Royal's CEO and president.

Petersen, who grew up on a Nebraska ranch, said he was not familiar with steer roping.

"I've not seen it," said Petersen, who became president of the Royal last year after steer roping had ended. "I've never been part of it, and I'm not sure why it's an issue." But Petersen also said he issued a statement last month after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals posted an alert that the Royal was holding a steer roping event this year.

"Steer busting is a hideously cruel event," said the alert, which included a link to an online video that showed steer roping. PETA asked its members to contact Petersen.

Petersen's statement said the Royal "had discontinued our steer roping event several years ago. The American Royal is committed to promoting the proper care and treatment of the animals used in rodeo. We pride ourselves on implementing the highest standards for treatment of rodeo livestock in the business." Cowboys and protesters alike say that steer roping once was more a part of the rodeo, and only recently has it been separated from other events.

One animal welfare group, Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, has posted online many of the videos of animals being injured in rodeo events, especially steer roping.

Steve Hindi, the president of SHARK, said steer roping on ranches is not a problem because it is not a timed event. It is used when cattle need to be treated for injuries or illnesses.

In a rodeo, steer roping injures more animals than other events, he said.

"They run out of that chute, and they are trying to get away," Hindi said of the steers. "Then we cheer over them being clotheslined or dragged, or body slammed or whatever.

"Somehow in our silly minds, we go, 'Yeah, that is our American heritage. Aren't we proud?' " SHARK's videos, posted on YouTube, show at least one steer with its head twisted. Others appear unconscious or with the wind knocked out of them. One cannot get up and is carried off on a cart.

Often when a steer is tripped, the cowboy's horse continues to drag it across the arena.

Hindi said steer roping often is held separately from the rest of the rodeo, mainly to avoid demonstrators and bad publicity. But, he said, rodeo organizers refuse to see the abuse.

Rodeo organizers say some animal welfare groups and some city folks have ganged up on steer roping because they have never been around ranches and rodeos and don't understand.

"It is perceived as rough, and it is perceived as hard on steers," said Robert Simpson, the director of the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla., where the National Steer Roping Finals were held this year.

The event was held separately from the National Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas. Organizers cited the size of the ring.

"The truth is, if it is done right, like any other rodeo-type sport, the actual injuries on animals are very minimal," Simpson said.

Rod Hartness, an Oklahoma cowboy who won first place in the 2009 Bucyrus, Kan., event, said steer roping is like any sport. It can be dangerous.

"Any event that you do where you are competing with an animal, you could take a chance of hurting anything, the steer, your horse, yourself," said Hartness, who "blew out" his knee during a steer roping contest earlier this year and is in rehab.

"The thing about it is if you hurt an animal when you are roping him, he is going to hurt and he may kick you. So you try to lay them down and be as easy as you can with them to where you don't hurt them." The American Royal's rodeo will be Oct. 27-29 this year at the Sprint Center. The Wranglers Gold Tour Rodeo does not include steer roping.

The rodeo that had been at the Royal through 2009 moved to Wichita last year. The steer roping was not held with the other events, said Bob Hansen, the CEO of the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission, which sponsored the rodeo finals.

"Honest to God," Hansen said. "I don't even know where it was held." The rodeo moved this year to an outdoor arena in Weatherford, Okla.

Bronc Rumford, the president of the Prairie Circuit Rodeo, said he knew where the steer-roping event would be held but wasn't going to say.

"I am refusing to answer any questions," he said.

To reach Karen Dillon, call 816-234-4430 or send email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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