I attended my first rodeo the other week all too aware that the plight of the animals involved has joined that of battery hens and caged pigs as a hot topic for animal activists. Dolly Parton tunes blared and Tui beer flowed as we waited for the action at the Hawke's Bay show-grounds to start.
There was plenty of pomp and ceremony. Mounted flag-bearers paraded past with the flags of the four countries (New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the US) that are home to professional rodeos, the national anthem was sung and the Cowboy's Prayer recited.
There may be four nations with a strong rodeo culture but the geographic spread of such activity is gradually diminishing.
"Rodeos are banned in the UK, parts of Europe, Australia and the US on the grounds of cruelty to the animals. On our own shores, the Auckland council banned rodeos in 2008," advises Mandy Carter, campaign manager at Save Animals from Exploitation (SAFE).
SAFE's website contains an unequivocal quote from former mayor John Banks: "The gross spectacle of animal torture masquerading as a rodeo would never happen in Auckland."
Yet it's still perfectly legal in most districts.
The NZ Rodeo Cowboys Association, with 35 affiliated member clubs, has a hectic schedule of upcoming events in places including Dunedin, Hamilton, Gisborne and Taupo. On the evening we attended, cowboys mounted a series of rodeo horses with names such as Devil's Advocate, Jaw Breaker and Widow Maker. The aim was to stay on the violently bucking broncos for eight seconds.
While ostensibly it's the cowboy who is risking life and limb here, SAFE is adamant the animal is the real victim.
"We would definitely be opposed to use of horses... Like the bulls they are artificially induced to buck by the use of a flank strap which is a tight, uncomfortable band round their abdomen," says Carter.
"Rodeo is cruel because it is tormenting and goading animals into performing for entertainment."
We didn't stay until the bitter end but the Hawke's Bay rodeo consisted mainly of the bucking broncos and some barrel racing. There were plenty of distractions - the announcer's lively commentary, the roaring crowd, the skilful pick-up riders and the mouthfuls of dust we swallowed as the horses surged past - to divert the audience from the plight of the animals.
I saw one horse fall over in the chute; my husband reckons he witnessed two. But then that was swiftly overshadowed by the hilarity of the horse that simply wouldn't buck. Cynics would wonder if it was a light-hearted plant released in order to distract us from the more gruesome goings-on behind the gates.
An event known as calf roping is widely considered to be one of the cruellest components of a rodeo.
"Calves can reach top speeds of up to 35 km per hour and when stopped in mid-flight by the rope they are jerked off their feet, slammed to the ground and their legs tied together. Broken legs and internal injuries can be suffered in this 'entertaining' event," says SAFE's Carter who sent me a link to an Australian video with some truly sickening examples of cruelty to horses and calves - all of which made the rodeo we attended seem quite tame in comparison.
Nonetheless, we've made a family agreement to not attend another rodeo on the basis that routinely distressing horses in this manner for sheer entertainment can't be justified by bona fide animal lovers.
What's your view about rodeos? Are they just a bit of fun or is exploiting animals never acceptable?