This year marks the 90th year of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and, as you’d expect, a lot has changed. For starters, it wasn’t originally a rodeo.
“When the Houston Fat Stock Show began in 1932, our mission was to promote agriculture,” says Chris Boleman, the event’s president and CEO.
The inaugural Houston Fat Stock Show and Livestock Exhibition was founded by a small group of business leaders and cattlemen in an effort to shine a light on the cattle industry. It attracted only 2,000 attendees at the now-demolished Sam Houston Hall, and absent were popular events like the calf scramble, student art competitions, chuckwagon races, and carnival rides.
Today, Houston hosts the most-attended livestock show and rodeo in the world, with more than 2 million visitors coming out annually to enjoy bull riding, sold-out concerts, carnival rides, and barbecue cookoffs.
It’s also “the world’s largest charitable production of its kind,” Boleman says, adding that the focus remains on agriculture. “[W]e receive more than 34,000 livestock and horse entries, and are committed to creating a top-notch agricultural education presentation in the nation’s fourth largest city.”
As for historic moments, the rodeo has had many, including Charley Pride becoming the rodeo’s first ever Black performer when he took the stage at the rodeo in 1970. The late country star went on to perform a total of 33 times, a record for the most performances by an artist at the rodeo. Another country legend, George Strait, who has played at the rodeo 30 times, broke the NRG Stadium attendance record with 80,108 fans at his 2019 rodeo concert. He’ll be performing yet again on March 20, with guest Ashley McBryde.
On hiatus last year due to COVID-19, the rodeo returns Feb. 28-March 20 at NRG Park with a slew of new and tried-and-true events and experiences. Here are nine things to do to make the most of your Houston rodeo experience.
Take a Bite of Pickle Pizza or Deep-Fried Jambalaya Rolls
It wouldn’t be a festival without some decadently unconventional, intimidating carnival foods. This year, two new options will challenge your culinary curiosity: pickle pizza and deep-fried jambalaya rolls. The decadent pickle pizza, made with dill-infused cream sauce, cheese, and dill pickles, is available at Swain’s Concessions. Fans of creole food can sample the deep-fried jambalaya rolls—a marriage of chicken, sausage, rice and Cajun seasoning rolled up and deep fried to crispy perfection—at the Cajun Cowboy in the Rodeo Plaza.
Pick Up a Pair of Boots
You’ll see your fair share of Western fashion at the rodeo, but one thing you’ll spot consistently are bold, statement-making cowboy boots. In need of a pair? You’re in luck: Well-known vendors like Cavender’s Boot City and Boot Barn are selling their classic footwear in an assortment of designs, from flashy, colorful exotic skins to traditional brown or black leather boots. The popular Austin-based Tecovas brand also has a shop in the NRG Center. It features real leather boots for men and women starting in the low $200s.
Support Future Artists
Every year, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo puts on the School Art Program, which gives Houston-area students from grades pre-K to 12 the opportunity to show their rodeo-inspired artwork in a variety of mediums. Nearly 150 public and private schools submitted over 3,000 works of art this year to a panel of judges, who then selected 72 works to go to School Art Auction, which takes place in mid-March. The award-winning works go on display in the Hayloft Gallery in the NRG Center.
Two-Step at a Honky-Tonk
Throughout the rodeo’s history, world-famous singers like Elvis, Selena, and Garth Brooks have performed. This year is no exception, with renowned artists like Gwen Stefani, Tim McGraw, George Strait, Ricky Martin, and Maren Morris taking the stage. But if you’re wanting to grab a partner and dance the night away at a honky-tonk, check out The Hideout, located on the west side of the NRG Arena in a sprawling white tent. The energetic space is open March 1-19 from 6 p.m. to midnight and features up-and-coming acts like Grant Gilbert, Kylie Frey, Big Joe Walker, Graycie York, and Chris Colston.
Sip and Savor at the Champion Wine Garden
For those who want to sample fine wines while savoring barbecue fare, the Champion Wine Garden is a can’t-miss destination. Choose from more than 75 wines from wineries across Texas and the world, including Messina Hof Winery, Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Becker Vineyards, Fall Creek Vineyards, Apothic Wines Texas, and more from California, Spain, France, and Italy. Located in the Carruth Plaza at NRG Park, the Champion Wine Garden runs the duration of the rodeo. You can even reserve a table or tent—depending on your party size—ahead of time and enjoy live music while you bask in happy-hour bliss.
Enjoy Mariachi Music on Go Tejano Day
March 6 is Go Tejano Day, one of the most-attended days at the rodeo every year. The assortment of activities and events that pay homage to Tejano culture include Mexican folk dancing, mariachi music, and horseback riding. The best part of the day is the evening’s Mariachi Invitational, a competition with five Texas-based mariachi bands vying for the title of Best Mariachi Band in Texas. The final two bands perform in NRG Stadium and the audience of 70,000 fans choose their favorite via applause.
Women’s Breakaway Roping
This year attendees are in for a real treat with the debut of the Women’s Breakaway Roping event. This high-speed, timed event challenges female riders to rope a calf, but unlike tie-down roping, the rider doesn’t have to dismount to toss and tie down the calf. The event will be held seven nights during the Rodeo’s Super Series, a high-earnings, multiday tournament-style competition that features events including women’s barrel racing, bareback riding, bull riding, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, team roping, and tie-down roping.
Born to Buck Exhibit
Making its debut in 2017, the Born to Buck Exhibit is a fan favorite because it highlights some of the main stars of the rodeo: horses. Learn the history of bucking horses, their contribution and importance to rodeo events, how they’re raised and trained, and why they remain popular in the livestock world. Viewers can get an up-close look of these spirited animals with a selection of mares and their foals. Take in this exhibit before making your way over to the pig races and the petting zoo.
Reserve a table at The Ranch Saloon + Steakhouse
Just because you’re at the Rodeo doesn’t mean your meals have to be limited to barbecue and funnel cake. This year, you can venture to the new dining concept from Berg Hospitality called The Ranch Saloon + Steakhouse. For casual, comfort food like hamburgers and chili, stick with the Saloon side; to bite into a succulent filet mignon or wagyu rib-eye with a glass of wine, reserve a table at the Steakhouse, which features cuisine from popular Houston restaurants like B&B Butchers and Restaurant.
“The Ranch Saloon + Steakhouse activates a new upscale atmosphere and sit-down dining experience for guests in an environment that stays true to the celebration of all things rodeo and Texas,” says Benjamin Berg, founder and CEO of Berg Hospitality. “Although it is always risky to be the first to try something different, we are so excited to make the rodeo proud and offer attendees a new Texas-size dining space where all are welcome.”