The Rodeo Athlete

  • by

Rodeo is considered one of the most dangerous sports that an athlete can compete in. Bull riding is the event that people often think of when considering injury during a rodeo; as was said in the movie 8 Seconds, “it’s not when you get hurt riding bulls, it’s how bad.” However, every event that these cowboys and cowgirls are participating in harbor some type of risk for injury.

The types of injuries commonly seen in the sport of rodeo are highly dependent on the event. With the roping events, finger amputations are one of the most common injuries due to athletes getting the rope wrapped around their fingers and severely cutting them, or even completely severing the finger. Tie-down roping and steer wrestling are both events that require the cowboys to dismount their horses at a high rate of speed. Both sprains, and tears to ligaments and tendons in the shoulders and knees are common. Cowboys that ride bucking horses are also very prone to neck and shoulder injuries; along with knee injuries sustained when dismounting the horse.

Because most rodeo athletes have a very vigorous travel schedule, many of these musculoskeletal injuries become difficult to treat. The athletes are not in one place for more than a couple of days, which does not allow for them to consistently see a physician or a physical therapist for rehab. Mike Rich, a PT that has spent many years working with rodeo athletes recommends “teaching the [athletes] what they can do for themselves.” Whether that be providing exercises or stretches that they can do by themselves on the road, or directing them to the next level of care. Being an advocate and educating these patients is going to be the best route in helping them recover from their injury.

Bull riders are still the sport of rodeo’s most injured athlete. In a study conducted between 1981 and 2005, it was found that nearly half of all rodeo related injuries occurred during bull riding. Knee and shoulder injuries are also common in this event, but what is even more prevalent is concussions, as they account for 9% of injuries suffered by these athletes.

As the medical community’s knowledge about concussions has greatly increased over recent years, we have seen many major sports organizations make changes to try and protect their athletes. What is interesting about the sport of rodeo is that they have yet to make changes requiring athletes to wear protective headgear. Beyond high school rodeo, there are no rules or regulations as to whether or not athletes are required to wear headgear or requirements for athletes to get medical clearance after a concussion before returning to competition.

Because rodeo is typically considered an individual sport, these athletes are typically making the call of whether or not they are ready to return to competition. It is important that medical providers start educating their rodeo athletes on the dangers of returning to the sport before their concussion is fully resolved. There needs to be extensive discussion about second impact syndrome, that occurs when a person experiences a second concussion before the first is completely resolved, which can potentially be fatal. Along with the cumulative effects that multiple brain injuries can have on overall brain function. By medical providers becoming more involved in the sport of rodeo, and educating both the athletes and the organizations that the athletes are a part of, changes can begin to be implemented to help protect these athletes from serious injuries, that could have life-long repercussions.


By Sierra Patzke and Mo Mortazavi, MD