Bull riding originated in charreadas, contests of ranch and horsemanship skills that developed on the haciendas of Old Mexico. First termed jaripeo, bull riding was originally a variant of bull fighting where riders would literally ride the bull to death. It later evolved into an event where participants merely rode the bull until it tired and stopped bucking. Three styles of jaripeo still exist: Tierra Caliente is the most common; Charro riders only ride small bulls or large calves; and Colima is the deadliest and most difficult style, due to the rider being positioned in such a way that they can pitch forward onto the bull’s horns.
By the mid-1800s, charreada-style competition became popular in the Southwest, particularly in Texas and California where Mexican and Anglo ranch hands worked together. In 1852, the Lone Star Fair held in Corpus Christi, Texas, became the first-ever Anglo-American organized event to host a charreada-style bull fighting. Don Camarena, a matador from Mexico City, headlined the event. Jaripeo was featured as a secondary event, but was so popular that it made newspaper headlines as far away as New Orleans. During this time, Wild West shows also began adding steer riding to their acts, as steers were far easier to handle than bulls.
Although bull riding was a popular exhibition event, it, like most other rodeo events, lacked standardized rules. That changed in 1936, with the creation of the Cowboy’s Turtle Association, which came to be after cowboys protested rodeo promoter W.T. Johnson’s treatment of cowboys during the Boston Garden Rodeo. One of these cowboys was Dick Griffith, winner of four-consecutive bull riding championships. This new organization increased the popularity of rodeo, and in turn, bull riding. In 1945, they changed their name to the Rodeo Cowboy’s Association, and became the Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association (PRCA) in 1975.
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Bull riders broke away from the traditional rodeo scene and created their own organization and governing rules in 1992. Believing that bull riding, as the most popular rodeo event, could stand alone without sharing the limelight, 20 bull riders—including Ty Murray, Tuff Hedeman, and Cody Lambert—gathered in a hotel room in Scottsdale, Ariz., and each contributed $1,000 to the creation of the Professional Bull Riders, Inc. (PBR). Additionally, the PRCA still features bull riding as one of its sanctioned events.
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The PBR continues to make impressive strides in revenue, bull rider earnings, fan growth, and media attention. The PBR World Finals is known as the Super Bowl of the PBR – a grueling multi-day event that marks the end of the PBR season, determines the best rider and bull for the year, and turns one cowboy into a millionaire. The World Finals is the richest bull riding event in the sport, which includes a $1 million bonus awarded to the rider who is crowned the PBR World Champion.
The multi-tiered PBR event structure features 27 weeks of premier Unleash The Beast events, the Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour and Touring Pro Division, plus international circuits in Australia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico. In 2021, the PBR paid out $9 million to riders and $2 million to stock contractors, and more than 1,200 bull riders from five countries hold memberships. Today, bull riding is considered the fastest growing sport in the United States.
In 2022, PBR announced the relocation of its crown jewel, the World Finals, to Fort Worth, Texas, and Dickies Arena in May. As part of the relocation, PBR condensed the annual schedule for the Unleash The Beast to mimc other mainstream sporting seasons by running November-May.