Horses and blood, dust and mud
for Tri-State Livestock News
Cowboys call it a living or a way of life, spectators call it entertainment, and others call it too dangerous. The sport of rodeo can get a bad reputation, but people are still paying their entry fees to get in and hopefully win some money.
Following the death of Professional Bull Rider, Mason Lowe at the National Western Stock Show, some can see why the sport is called dangerous. Even something that looks like a small wreck, can be a pretty terrible one.
Ryan Knutson, a South Dakota bull rider, believes the sport is safe. Knutson has been riding bulls for 14 years, and currently competes in PRCA events. He says staying in shape physically and using proper safety materials is what keeps him safe while on the back of a 1,800+ pound bull.
Protective gear like mouth guards, vests and helmets are commonly worn by athletes to minimize the amount of injury. Protective vests were introduced to the sport in 1993 following the death of legendary bull rider, Lane Frost. After Cody Lambert wore his first prototype during the NFR in ’93 and walked away from a wreck, others wanted them as well. Vests are made of foam and ballistic material and covered in leather. Most athletes adorn them with sponsorship logos.
Mouth guards are worn by riders to prevent concussions, mainly, and keep their pearly white smiles. A 2012 study found concussions to be the third most common injury in bull riding, following top injuries to shoulders and knees. Doctors have found that some concussions in bull riding happen when an athlete smashes his jaw together. Mouth guards are required to be worn while competing.
Helmets, on the other hand, are not a requirement for athletes over the age of 27 to wear while competing. The PBR does not require athletes born before 1994 to wear a helmet, and the PRCA doesn’t require them at all. Dr. Tandy Freeman said in a 2015 article, that it didn’t matter. There is not a statistically significant difference between riders who wear a helmet and those who do not when it comes to the number of concussions in bull riders.
Although there is major risk every time he gets on a bull, Knutson says he will continue to compete.
“I love the thrill of it,” said Knutson, “It is an adrenaline rush like no other.”
Besides the protective gear a rider can wear, Knutson says the people involved in the sport can minimize injury as well. Medical professionals on scene, rough stock owners and bull fighters are huge proponents in keeping a bull riding athlete safe.
“Bull fighters are our heroes,” said Knutson.
Jeff Rupert serves on the board of the Western States Bucking Bull Association and owns bulls as well. He makes it a point to find every rider that draws his bulls and talk with them before they get to the chute. Talking about how the bull rides rides, what his ticks are, and what habits he has in the chute can prepare a rider for the next 8 seconds.
Rupert knows how dangerous the sport is, as he used to ride bulls for a living. His worry today, is seeing too many kids get into the sport without proper training or someone to look to for guidance.
“It is a terribly dangers sport,” said Ruppert, “even more dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.”
Ruppert recommends kids who are just getting into bull riding look into rodeo schools or find a retired cowboy to help them. He says bulls used today are bred much hotter than bulls he used to ride. Finding the right people to help new riders with protocols to keep them safe with make the sport more enjoyable
Knutson will say the sport of rodeo can be dangerous, but spectators and future athletes shouldn’t be put off by it.
Courtney Schafer, Office Manager for Sutton Rodeo Production, agrees. Sutton Rodeo of Oneida, SD produces Rodeo Rapid City, the evening entertainment during the Black Hills Stock Show and PRCA’s Large Indoor Rodeo of the Year, 18 years running.
“When you have the right pieces in place, people can enjoy themselves and you don’t have to worry about safety,” said Schafer.
When putting on an event, Sutton Rodeo considers contestants, livestock and spectators.
The PRCA governs the safety of animal athletes. Sutton must have a vet on site and make sure that all horn wraps, flank straps and bull ropes are up to code. Horn wraps are used on roping steers during calf roping and team roping events. The wrap ensures that the rope never touches the steers skin, and does no harm to the animal. Flank straps used on bucking stock must be made of neoprene or fleece to not irritate the skin. Bull ropes are made of cotton for the same reason, and all rough stock must have ropes set on their waists, helping animals kick up and out, rather than under them. This keeps the livestock safe, as well as the contestants.
As for the athletes, sports medicine professionals are on site at ever event. The PRCA has a Cowboy Crisis fund, making sure that athletes are taken care of during an event and in the case of injury. Weight limits on calves and steers keep competitors safe during steer wrestling events. Schafer says there is no incentive to not take care of both livestock and competitors.
Where fans are considered, Schafer wants them to enjoy the event without worrying about their safety. Roaming paramedics and trained protocols in place ensure families can enjoy an awesome show without worrying about safety in the arena.
When asking Schafer about the danger of the sport, she responded ‘Did you drive to work today?’
“Every time we step out the door we are taking some sort of risk,” said Schafer, “We can never be 100-percent safe, that is the importance of having these practices in place.”
Some people may believe all the safety precautions take the fun away from the sport, but Schafer disagrees. She only encourages athletes and arena hands to not let familiarity get in the way of remembering the safety protocols in place.