It doesn’t take a lifelong cowboy to understand the appeal of Texas’ official individual sport. The rodeo promises thrills, athleticism and tentpole attractions fit for anyone with a pulse. We inhaled funnel cake in Houston and laughed at mutton-bustin’ kids to appreciate the down-home charms of the rodeo.

Watch Friday Night Lights and you’ll understand Texas’ favorite sport. But what about the official sport? The official sport of Texas, rodeo finds its most evolved expression here, where ranch-honed skills meet hospitality and modern spectacle. We ventured to some of the state’s—and the world’s—largest rodeos to rope in the fun.

Houston Hullabaloo

Speaking of top-notch: For 20 days every spring, NRG Stadium, south of downtown Houston, becomes the epicenter of the livestock-loving world. That’s when the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, also known as Rodeo Houston, takes over the 80,000-capacity venue and the city’s imagination.

Rodeo Houston is the signature event of the state’s largest metropolis. In 2013 more than 2.5 million people turned out for the rodeo’s attractions, which include a kickoff parade, sporting events, an outdoor carnival, star-studded concerts, a barbecue cook-off and more.

We began at the carnival, which sprawls across NRG Park’s complex of five venues including the stadium. We devoured the carnival food—the $13 turkey leg was worth every penny—and the little ones among us reveled in the games and the petting zoo. The visit was capped by a ride on the 15-story La Grande Wheel, one of the world’s largest portable Ferris wheels, which left us totally in awe.

But the rodeo itself is equally impressive. Every night, more than 65,000 fans fill the stadium to watch skilled cowboys and cowgirls perform amazing feats. Winners [at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo] are announced daily in a bracket-style tournament format, and when you’re at the biggest rodeo invitational in the world, the caliber of the athletes is world-class. We were fascinated by the horses’ cooperation during the roping competitions, thrilled by the twists and turns of the barrel-racing contests and electrified by the dynamic bull and bronc riding.

Tickets to nightly post-rodeo concerts sell out quickly and include access to the rodeo’s other attractions. Marquee-name country artists perform most nights, while R&B, pop and norteño stars headline other evenings. Our practical advice is the same no matter your angle: wear comfortable shoes, plan ahead for parking, bring cash and enjoy the spoils, of which there are many.

San Antonio’s Smorgasbord

The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo is affiliated with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, or PRCA, the world’s oldest and largest rodeo-sanctioning body. Meaning? The talent in San Antonio is the best of the best, and the thrills won’t stop for the full two-hours-and-change show. About 1.7 million people visited the rodeo in 2014, with a record single-day attendance of 200,000.

Some come for the timed events, where cowfolk compete against the clock and one another to get their animals roped, subdued or otherwise across the finish line. Others come for the “rough stock” events, where eight seconds on a bucking beast is the difference between winning and losing. We got a kick out of the mutton-bustin’, an event in which children ages 4–7 try to stay mounted on a sheep for six seconds. Kudos go to our personal champ: the little boy riding backward.

Sports aside, San Antonio’s rodeo is an overall extravaganza. More than 40 breeds are displayed at the stock show, where visitors can view the livestock of exhibitors from all over. The carnival is a romp, and nightly concerts feature global music powerhouses from country and other genres. Past Headliners have included Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and a cappella sensation Pentatonix.

It’s the kind of well-rounded entertainment you’ll come to expect from a top-notch rodeo.

Whether they’re wearing clown makeup or not, rodeo protection athletes are a gravely important part of the scene. Rodeo clowns provide laughs and entertainment, while “bullfighters” distract the bull from an exiting rider, but the line between the two can blur. The PRCA annually names a Clown of the Year.