“And, we try to catch ’em on the second bounce. So, because it’s a tough sport, and you know you get on the back of a 2,000-pound bull, somehow you gotta get off, and sometimes they don’t get off so good, they either hit the fence, or they make contact with the animal. It’s a very dangerous sport.”
Dale Kiecke is a physical therapist who manages the clinic at Reliant Stadium. Kiecke helps cowboys tape up old injuries before the nightly rodeo. Clint Cannon of Waller, Texas stopped in before the bareback competition. He was competing with a dislocated collarbone and a cast on his left hand, injuries from his last rodeo in Fort Worth.
“I bucked off the back and the horse kicked me when I was coming down. Kicked me in my hand, kicked me in my head and knocked me out. And I gave it three weeks off and Houston was my first rodeo back on it. It’s sore, but it’s all part of the business.”
In rodeo, there is no team doctor or coach to forbid you from riding. Each cowboy decides for himself. Protective vests and helmets are highly suggested, but not required for adults.
Cannon came in second that night and won $1,000. The cowboy who was third, Tom McFarland, landed wrong and broke his leg. Like many cowboys, he resisted efforts to take him to the hospital.
Medical studies have analyzed the danger by event. Calf ropers and female barrel racers have very low injury rates, while bull riders have the highest, followed by bareback riders. The most common injury is concussion. Cowboys also suffer cracked clavicles, torn knee ligaments and whiplash. Few have health insurance.
Riding bulls is more dangerous than any other contact sport, including football, rugby, and ice hockey. Given the risks, cowboys are underpaid, says Dale Butterwick, a rodeo medical researcher and professor at the University of Calgary.
“The number of rodeo cowboys that have ever earned a million dollars is extremely low, whereas if you go to professional hockey, if you’ve been in the thing for three years, you’re making a million bucks a year. And the other thing is cowboys don’t get paid when they’re not competing. Other professional athletes do. So the cowboy is up against it in so many ways.”
Steven Peebles rides bareback. While only 20 years old, his body has a long history.
“Oh, I’ve had a lot of injuries. I’ve dislocated all my toes out of my foot before; I’ve broke both my legs; I broke my elbow; I’ve dislocated shoulders, been knocked out a bunch. I’ve had a lot of injuries.”
“Why do you do it?”
“Just love it. Love being out on the road, it’s like a full time vacation, you get to have fun, hang out with all of your buddies, and you get paid to do something you love. So. It’s an adrenaline rush, and once you get addicted to it you’re addicted to it kind of deal.”
Peebles hopes to compete another dozen years. That’s if he’s lucky. Cowboys know that a bad injury could force them into instant retirement. Others stop when they get married or have kids. But Peebles is young and ambitious.
“If you haven’t won a gold buckle and that’s your dream or whatever, it’s kinda hard to get settled down and stop rodeoing when you haven’t finished your dreams that you’ve been out here working so hard for. That’s the way I look at it.”
From the KUHF health, science and technology desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.
Mobile Sports Medicine Systems offers medical care at rodeos, and keeps statistics on injury rates: http://www.msmsinc.com/
Justin Boots manages the Cowboy Crisis Fund, a charity to help cowboys pay for rodeo-related medical expenses. Information at http://www.justinboots.com/en/cowboy_crisis.html