Horse- and steer-wrangling events that have been banned in some states are turning up at small Mexican-style rodeos held in rural Dakota County, causing concern among animal humane officials and activists.

"Mexican rodeos" typically include such events as "steer tailing," banned in Nebraska, and horse tripping, banned in California and eight other states. Both are allowed in Minnesota.

In horse tripping, a rider ropes the front legs of a galloping horse and pulls it down. Steer tailing, also called coleo or tail spinning, involves dragging animals down by their tails; it has occurred at rodeos on a rented farm near Hastings in Vermillion Township.

About a dozen Mexican-style rodeos were held in several Dakota County locations last summer, mostly in the same township. The town board there is seeking a court injunction to stop the activity unless a horse show permit is obtained.

The township's suit in Dakota County District Court describes tail spinning as a sporting competition "with contestants on horseback riding alongside running cattle, and the contestants grabbing hold of and pulling on the cattle's tail while attempting to cause the cattle to fall to the ground and roll over."

Tail spinning is likely to injure a steer, said Keith Streff, senior humane officer for the Animal Humane Society, based in Golden Valley. Streff, who was born on a dairy farm, said 400- to 600-pound animals toppled while running near full speed "have a high degree of probability they will be injured ... they are not made to go down at that speed."

If spinning "consistently results in injury or death, that could be construed as criminally cruel, and we would look into that if a complaint is filed," said Streff, one of Minnesota's two animal welfare enforcement officers.

The California-based Charros Federation USA defends Mexican rodeos, also called charreadas, saying there is little evidence to support claims of inhumane treatment in rodeos and notes that few animals are seriously injured.

The federation's website says lone Mexican horsemen developed steer tailing long ago, before they had ropes strong enough to stop wayward steers on the range. The rider chased a stray cow, grabbed its tail and wrapped it around his ankle or stirrup. Then he urged his mount forward and outward, toppling the steer. It would get up and instinctively run back to the herd.

Raul Pliego, organizer of the Vermillion rodeos, said in his written response to the township suit that spinning at his gatherings was a "game [that] was played for fun and the entertainment of those in attendance and not for money or reward."

Pliego's attorney, Simon Trautmann, said, "The crux of our response to the town council has more to do with a pattern of racist behavior by the neighbors that prevents [the Pliegos] from having family events and enjoying the use of their property."

Trautmann noted that Pliego had obtained a year-long restraining order in January barring further verbal or other harassment by his closest neighbor, whom a judge found had fired a rifle near their joint boundary line.

New to Minnesota

Other than the rodeos held in Dakota County, it's unclear how widespread such rodeos are in Minnesota. The Humane Society of the United States is aware of Mexican rodeos in western states, but not in Minnesota, said Valerie Pringle, an equine protection specialist.

"We certainly oppose bull riding, steer roping, steer tailing and horse tripping because they cause torment and stress to the animals, and expose them to pain and injury and sometimes death," Pringle said.

Because steer tailing and horse tripping are legal in Minnesota, Pringle said, "Maybe this is a wake-up call to the state Legislature. Maybe they need some stronger laws on the books."

Minnesota's Animal Welfare Act states: "Torture or cruelty means every act, omission, or neglect which causes or permits unnecessary or unjustifiable pain, suffering, or death." The law also says: "No person shall willfully instigate or in any way further any act of cruelty to any animal or animals, or any act tending to produce cruelty to animals."

Humane officer Streff said it is tough to prove rodeo events involving livestock are criminal unless an animal is killed or injured. He said he has responded to animal welfare calls about Mexican rodeos in Vermillion and in neighboring Rosemount. Some calls came from neighbors who reported seeing horses at rodeo sites with their heads forced upward by halters tied to tree branches above their heads.

Streff said some riders use this technique to make horses submissive, as they tend to lower their heads after being released from the tree ropes. The technique is legal but painful to the horse, and Streff said he warned people at a horse-boarding farm in Inver Grove Heights and one in Rosemount, where rodeos were held, not to use that training method. He said the technique was also reported in Anoka County.

The national Humane Society's Minnesota director, Howard Goldman, said he plans to look into Mexican rodeos during the upcoming season. He said he also will alert his group's 170,000 Minnesota members to attend any such events they hear of and document animal abuses for complaints to authorities.

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283