First-time visitors to Texas often arrive with two high-priority tasks on their to-do list: get a pair of cowboy boots and go see a rodeo. Rodeos in Texas can trace their roots back to Spanish missionaries, who taught their ranch hands the horsemanship they'd learned in Spain. Those early ranch hands evolved into the Mexican vaquero and, later, the American cowboy. What started as an informal competition among cowboys is now a multimillion-dollar sport. Most major cities in Texas have at least one large professional rodeo per year, but smaller amateur events occur year-round.
With total attendance topping 2 million, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is a massive, three-week rodeo, fair and entertainment extravaganza. Founded in 1931, the rodeo started a college scholarship program in 1957, handing out $2,000 in the first year. The organization now provides $12 million in educational funding per year. Contestants compete for $1.5 million in prize money in events ranging from bronco busting to bull riding to team roping. The concert lineup features country stars such as Reba McEntire, as well as major pop stars and Tejano bands. The main rodeo is held in Reliant Stadium, while the fair and other events take place in the parking lot and several nearby buildings.
Where: Houston, Reliant Stadium
When: February and March
Established in 1950, the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo attracts over a million people annually. Competitive events held every year include bareback riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping, team roping, saddle bronc riding, barrel racing and bull riding. The Mutton Bustin' event is just for kids from 4 to 7 years old. The goal is to ride a sheep for at least six seconds. Musical acts at the rodeo are usually country artists, such as Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride, but occasionally classic rockers such as Styx and Journey are part of the lineup. The rodeo operates a Horse Education Center, where experts offer tips about owning and caring for horses. Several breeds are on display in the center, including palomino, Peruvian, Arabian and miniature horses.
Where: San Antonio, AT&T Center and Freeman Coliseum Grounds
Founded in 1896, the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo is one of the oldest rodeos in Texas, combining traditional rodeo events with a few offbeat offerings. While most rodeo performers these days don't actually work at ranches, the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo devotes part of their event to working cowboys. In the Best of the West Ranch Rodeo, ranch hands compete in events that mimic real-world chores, such as stock sorting and the always-tricky wild cow milking. The rodeo also has its own bar, the Rodeo Roadhouse, where rodeo fans can kick back, enjoy a cold beverage and do a little two-stepping.
Where: Fort Worth, Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo Grounds
When: January and February
Every Friday and Saturday night, there's a rodeo in Fort Worth. Serious rodeo fans will point out that this rodeo isn't part of the professional circuit, but that doesn't make the bull riding any less entertaining. The rodeo arena is part of the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District, where you can also visit Billy Bob's, the world's largest honky-tonk, or the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Where: Fort Worth, Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District
When: Every Friday and Saturday night
The Mesquite Championship Rodeo is family-oriented, with kid-friendly events and ticket and food prices that won't give the parents sticker shock. Kids can even make a little money if they participate in the Dash for Cash calf scramble. The youngster who can grab the flag off a calf wins the prize. Mesquite Championship Rodeo also presents special rodeo events in November and December that often attract big-name rodeo stars during their off-season.
Where: Mesquite (Dallas metro area), Resistol Arena
When: June to August, plus special winter events
In addition to the standard competitive events, the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo has pig races, a youth art show and a barbecue cook-off. Education is a key part of the rodeo's overall mission. The organization has provided more than $5 million in scholarships since 1981. In keeping with its community-minded focus, the rodeo started "going green" in 2010. About 120,000 pounds of livestock waste was recycled into an all-natural fertilizer. Musical acts range from Clay Walker to Rick Springfield.
Where: Austin, Travis County Expo Center
Launched in El Paso in 1929 as the Southwestern Baby Beef, Hog and Sheep Show, the event added rodeo competitions in 1940 and eventually evolved into Southwestern International PRCA Rodeo. The El Paso rodeo has all the traditional bronc riding and steer roping events, plus a mini-bull riding competition. Youths ride specially bred bulls that are only about 40 inches tall -- but they're just as mean as the big ones.
Where: El Paso, Cohen Stadium