Men and women sprint to a lassoed cafe at the biannual Wellsville Rodeo. Jamie Kinsley Photo.
Racing against the clock: York County’s only rodeo
We push past scores of cowboy and cowgirl hats on our way to the wooden bleachers. It’s the biannual rodeo held at Wellsville Frontier Days, and my friends and I are here to see bull riding, barrel racing, and steer wrestling.
Since moving to Newberrytown in 2021, I’ve seen signs for this tournament where men and women of all ages challenge themselves in a sport — with animals. It’s the only public place in YoCo to see such impressive athleticism and potential danger.
I tend to gravitate toward individual sports: track and field, crossfit competitions, mountain biking, paddle boarding, skiing, etc. (I lack the hand-eye coordination required in softball or basketball).
Unlike my relatively safe activities involving inanimate equipment, the rodeo participants thrust themselves into an arena with animals ten times their size! The riders manipulate their limbs in a tandem dance with the bulls or horses bucking underneath their bodies. If launched from their saddles, they better move quickly — or else.
An article in Current Sports Medicine Reports found a high prevalence of danger, with 32.2 injuries per 1,000 competitor exposures. There’s a chance the animals can get hurt, too, but it’s rare. The American Veterinary Medicine Association found an injury rate of 0.00041 (They found 15 injuries while analyzing 26,584 performances.
However, it’s these fast-moving, talented athletes that attracts my friends and I to the rodeo in the first place.
A western tradition
Prior to what I thought as a kid, both cattle and horses are not native to our region. Indigenous Americans who inhabited York County had no beasts of burden. The Susquehannocks carried goods on foot along their paths, sometimes using canoes to ferry cargo up the Susquehanna River.
The Columbian exposition changed all that.
Spanish-Mexican conquistadors brought horses and cattle from Europe during the 1500s. Horses came first, functioning as beasts of burden carrying people and supplies. Cattle came next, similarly taking on the role as transporters, but also acting as a food source.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, rodeos originated from this western cattle industry. When the Civil War ended, cowboys drove cattle east to a hungry market on our side of the country. Transnational cattle drives required skills such as riding, guiding, and roping.
The rodeo was born.
Cowboys tested their mastery with competitions against one another, evolving into the professional sport. In fact, the term “rodeo” derives from “roundup” in Spanish.
A rodeo starts in York County
When was York County’s first rodeo?
The earliest reference to a rodeo I can find is from a 1922 The York Dispatch article. 300 Boy Scouts convened at Haines Acres in East York to parade and drill a century ago. From the lack of animals mentioned, I think they used the term “rodeo” to market the event.
Northwestern York County’s Wellsville is the only public place in York County to see a rodeo. Traveling groups such as the Cherokee Oklahoma Rodeo may have visited our area (1951 The York Dispatch), but they were special occasions.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when this local treasure was born.
Wellsville Frontier Days started as a non-profit horseback riding club in 1961, offering both English and western events. According to their president Tabitha Eimerbrink, locals wanted a riding club, expanding quickly into horse shows on Memorial Day and Labor Day. Soon, bulls were added.
“We hold Rodeo’s rain or shine and I have watched guys get extremely muddy street wrestling and bull riding when they fall off,” Eimerbrink tells me. “I can remember attending when it was just a fun show and then watched the progression to the full rodeo that it now is.”
Even though bull riding attracts the most people, I enjoy barrel racing the most. There’s something about a strong woman and her horse, dashing through the sand and mud to beat the clock. Their hair in braids almost levitating above their back, indicating their horses’ high speeds. I simply love it.
If you decide to join me this year, here are the details:
Date and Time: Monday, May 30th starting at noon, gates open at 11 a.m.
Price: CASH ONLY – $10 for adults, $5 for kids ages 6-12, and free for kids under 5
Location: Wellsville Frontier Days – 75 Carroll Street, Wellsville
Find more Pennsylvania rodeos HERE.