Insiders Guide to the Rodeo

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The top 10 things every Houstonian must do at the Livestock Show & Rodeo

By Amber Ambrose February 2, 2014 Published in the February 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Alyssa Orr

Don’t let the name fool you: the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is not just livestock and rodeos—there’s also the carnival, the concerts, various edibles-on-a-stick, and that’s just for starters. It’s a veritable blitzkrieg of cowboy-ness, and one that could easily prove overwhelming. Herewith, a list of the 10 things every Rodeo-goer must do before riding off into the sunset. 

1. Get the boot shine.

Scuffed and muddy is fine for the range, but these are the Oscars of rodeo, and one’s footwear needs to reflect this. Go ahead, submit to the ubiquitous shiners in the Reliant Center and elsewhere, who will happily clean, condition, buff, and polish those dirty, dingy things until they’re as good as new, all for $7. It’s a rebooting like none other. 

2. Take the photo on top of the longhorn. 

How often do you get to take a picture with a cattle icon, much less one as grand, elegant, photogenic, and constitutionally docile as this one? How often do you get a chance to forever confuse descendants about your origins? Never and never. Trust us: You + Steer = Great Souvenir.

3. Witness the sow give birth. 

Or the cow or sheep, for that matter. They’re all humanely housed in the Reliant Center’s AGventure birthing center, and apparently think nothing of going through labor and delivery in front of a live audience. Expect to see up to a dozen tiny pink piglets emerge from one mother, one to three lambs from a sheep, a single calf from a cow, and any number of gasps from rapt onlookers. 

4. Ride the Ferris wheel at night.

There’s nothing like the Rodeo’s carnival on the south side of Reliant Park when it comes to fun, fast rides, funnel cakes, feisty carnies, and of course the biggest F of all—the Ferris. It’s called La Grande Wheel, but don’t let that half-French name fool you. This is the ne plus ultra of thrill rides, a 15-story leviathan that will have you careening wildly through the nighttime sky. How wild? Think of it as the way Sandra Bullock forgot to die in Gravity

5. Seek out concerts in the Hideout tent. 

Sure, the big-name acts are the draws, but there’s no shortage of country music talent to be found in a little white tent on the east side of the Astrodome. There, you won’t just listen to up-and-comers and bask in that rarest of Rodeo experiences—the intimate setting—you’ll dance your head off, and all for free. Two caveats: you have to be at least 21 and you absolutely must wear comfortable boots. It’s going to be a long night at the dance hall. 

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6. Play hooky to see the trail riders mosey through town. 

Cherished tradition and eternal anachronism (you haven’t lived till you’ve seen a chuck wagon come down Travis), they travel in packs, riding in gentle protest of our asphalt and concrete ways. You can never really tell who they are or where they’ll be, which is no small amount of the trail riders’ charm.  Don’t want to leave things to chance? Check the Trail Ride schedule on the Rodeo Houston website to see which of the 13 routes comes closest to your home or office, or see them all in one place during the Downtown Rodeo Parade at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 1. Some riders come from near, others from far, others from really far—as in Reynosa, just over the Mexican border.

7. Watch what happens when a kid tries to ride a sheep. 

This Kids Country event takes place in something called the Mutton Bustin’ tent, but it’s more likely to produce gut bustin’—laughter, that is—when some of the city’s bravest 5- and 6-year-olds take on some of the area’s most recalcitrant sheep. Every hour on the hour you’ll witness fearless tykes strap on a helmet, don a protective vest, and, yes, hop onto a wild sheep. The goal? To stay on that wild and woolly thing for eight seconds, just like their idols in the main arena.

8. Take the “I Ate All Eight Challenge” and live to tell about it.

Been looking for a reason to wear those pajama jeans? Grab a punch card, some cash, and the stretchiest pair of pants you can find—it’s time for a culinary scavenger hunt that will have your arteries begging for mercy. Eat your way, if you can, through eight winners of this year’s Gold Buckle Foodie Awards, sampling something from every rodeo-friendly category: best breakfast, best fried food, best food-on-a-stick, and more.

9. Watch the racing pigs.  

Popular, thrilling, and boasting fans as fanatical as NASCAR’s, the Kids Country piglet races are as rodeo as it gets. Don’t even pretend you’re immune to the excitement of a bunch of adorable swine running around a 150-foot track in hopes of being first across the finish line. The experience is more rewarding than seems possible, even for the pigs, who, like youngsters everywhere, will apparently do whatever it takes to get an Oreo. 

10. Embrace your inner cow. 

Face it, everyone has one. We don’t all put them in stalls or parade them up and down the pavilion, dodging hay, sawdust, and the occasional cow patty. But there are few of us indeed who don’t owe our lives, at least in part, to the bovine. And there’s no better place than the Rodeo to pay this creature the respect it deserves. Ask questions about the various breeds, learn about their lives, or just pat one on the snout and tell her you love her.

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