Animal rights activists think a series of incidents at Hawke's Bay rodeos were a catalyst for the sport's falling popularity with high-profile sponsors - moves SAFE says show the sport has had its day.

However, rodeo supporters say the sport is growing in popularity thanks, in part, to improvements in the way stock are handled.

SAFE campaigns manager Marianne Macdonald said the tide of public opinion was turning against rodeo after incidents at Upper Mohaka.

"Year by year more and more people are speaking out strongly against rodeo. It's really not something that New Zealand, in 2018, wants. It's something that really needs to be consigned to the history books.

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"Another sign of changing opinion is more and more sponsors are pulling out. The most recent one was last week, Foodstuffs, who own Pak'nSave and Four Square. For example, the Upper Mohaka rodeo, the footage that was taken there, in 2017, caused a lot of sponsors to pull their sponsorship."

Macdonald said the footage recorded at Upper Mohaka rodeo showed young calves and bulls in distress.

Calves were filmed being wrenched off the ground by ropes around their necks, bulls struggling to climb out of chutes. An animal handler was also filmed holding a bull by his ear and the inside of his nostrils, to force him back into a pen.

"This is the same rodeo where in 2015 a bull was killed."

Macdonald said she did not believe rodeo had made any progress in improving its record on animal welfare.

"Every time volunteer investigators go to rodeo, they see the same suffering. The same animals suffering from fear, stress and in danger of injury. Again this year we had another animal die, this time at Martinborough.

"Abusing animals in rodeo will always be wrong. It doesn't matter how much cowboys try to make out they are changing things."

NZ Rodeo Cowboys Association president Lyal Cocks however, said rodeo had changed for the better, and continued a strong rural tradition - passed down from generation to generation.

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"Benefits of rodeo range from its historically strong ties with rural communities to its donations to rural charities and organisations.

"The internationally recognised sport of rodeo has been a part of New Zealand's rural culture for more than 50 years.

"In some districts, there are families who have been involved in rodeo for generations.

"It's a way of life, working with horses, raising stock, teaching their children the stockmanship skills they learned from their whanau.

"Rodeos themselves also provide a platform for many small rural organisations to raise funds. Lions NZ groups have had a long association with rodeos, for instance."

Cocks said some of those community organisations depended on fundraising for their operations and annual rodeos provided a substantial donation.

Rodeo profits were also used to help local charities.

"Judging by the increased crowd sizes this season (on average, taking bad weather events into account, more people have attended rodeos this season than last season) experienced by most rodeos there are many more people who would like to see rodeo continue as a sport in NZ than those who would like it banned."

Almost 20 years after the New Zealand Animal Welfare Act set strict principles for the conduct of rodeos and the treatment of associated animals, the wellbeing of the animals at rodeos was now paramount.

The Rodeo Code of Welfare was reviewed as recently as 2016 by a parliamentary subcommittee.

"Clubs, stock handlers and competitors have all been informed of the code of welfare and its expectations of best practice. Education of the code of welfare is ongoing to ensure best practices become the norm.

"In recent years there has been an increase in the number of training clinics available for novice competitors and rookie riders to practise their skills, to learn from more experienced rodeo champions, before they enter the rodeo events.

"This provides an improvement in the overall quality and consistency of stockmanship.

"The running of rodeos is constantly being vetted to ensure consistency in the way stock is treated.

"The rules have been changed in various ways to further reduce the risk of harm to animals.

"For instance, we've shortened the period that a contestant has to catch and release a calf in the rope and tie event.

"The rough treatment of stock during competition, such as the accidental flipping of calves in the rope and tie events, results in disqualification.

"Any stock which becomes unruly in the chutes must be released immediately.

"All calves must be provided only by approved stock contractors who have trained the calves; and the NZRCA is working on the same happening to all providers of stock."

North island president Shane Bird said events in the Hawke's Bay had always been very well supported by locals.

"Crowd numbers are always strong and it seems the only thing to affect the numbers in the weather. The Hawkes Bay people are great supporters of rodeo."

However, SPCA chief executive Andrea Midgen wanted the whole sport banned.

"We believe that people are becoming more educated about why rodeos are cruel and not in the best interest of the animals involved. Ultimately the SPCA would like to see rodeos banned in New Zealand.

"They are a terrifying and cruel experience for animals. No animal should have to suffer, especially for human entertainment.

"The Animal Welfare Act 1999 should protect every animal in New Zealand from cruelty, yet rodeo animals are subjected to pain, fear and distress in the name of entertainment. Allowing rodeos is like legalised animal cruelty.

"Rodeos are banned in the UK, the Netherlands and parts of Australia, the United States and Canada. It's time for New Zealand to make a change."