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Rodeo Injuries: An Examination of Risk Factors.

Rodeo without question is a de facto high collision sport with immense risks. In the roughstock events the incidence of injury at both the amateur and professional levels are exceptionally high. The purpose of this study was to identify some of the risk factors believed to contribute to injuries in this sport. Particular emphasis was focused on the reanalysis of existing empirical data from the 15-year study of rodeo injuries by the Justin Sportsmedicine Program and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Qualitative research methods were employed which included observations, interviews, and videocassette viewing of rodeo competitions. Previously documented studies were used to substantiate or contradict information obtained in the field. Results of the study suggest that the rodeo athlete, animal, arena, lifestyle, and evolutionary nature of the sport are among the risk factors which lead to injury. Several recommendations are offered in an attempt to lessen the potential for injury: periodic physicals a nd/or screenings, mandatory safeguards (i.e., protective vests and headgear), removal of camouflaging banners and advertisements from arena fence rails, proactive research and development regarding facility surface composition, arena design and spatial considerations, and weight training and precompetition stretching.

Rodeo conceivably ranks as one of the fastest growing and most dangerous contemporary sport forms in America. Although at the professional level record keeping is incomplete, perhaps no other sport has such a high incidence of injury as rodeo. Regardless of its perception by some sports purists, who question whether it is sport or spectacle, rodeo is a thriving industry which incorporates the requisite elements of sport: physical prowess, institutionalized competition, and intrinsic and extrinsic participant motivation (Coakley, 1998). Rodeo's heightened popularity and appeal is evident through its ever-increasing corporate sponsorships, network affiliations and coverage, licensing contracts, and spectator appeal. The increased popularity is also evident in "pop culture" through recent movie productions (e.g., Painted Hero and 8 Seconds), Country and Western music, contemporary fashion trends, and marketing and merchandising outlets which actively promote western attire.

Rodeo, once considered a western sport and lifestyle, and its supporters can be found in rural and urban communities throughout the United States. Fans of the sport are far more diverse than in the past with respect to socioeconomic status, ethnicity, level of education and geographical residence (Daneshvary, Schwer, & Rickman, 1993; Eitzen & Sage, 1993; Scholsburg, 1987). Rodeo as a sport form has always been shrouded in the mystique of the "Old West," a dimension which has had both inhibiting effects in the past and beneficial outcomes presently on its marketability in American society. With few exceptions, no other sport in the United States is seen as epitomizing American values, traditions and lifestyles as does rodeo (Pearson & Haney, in press). The sport is one that conjures up profound images of ritualistic lore and fanatical bravado conceivably unparalleled in modern spectator sports. Due in part to its cultural trappings, savvy business and marketing strategies, rodeo has emerged from dangerous work -related pastimes to a multimillion dollar sport industry.

The bravado and "machismo" characteristics of the rodeo cowboy are frequently demonstrated in the athlete's willingness to compete in spite of nagging and debilitating injuries. This over commitment to sport, at the expense of health and well-being, is viewed by Hughes and Coakley (1991) as a form of positive deviance: one of the core beliefs of the "sport ethic." In spite of overwhelming odds and considerable health risks a myriad of factors contribute to the rodeo cowboy's willingness to compete. Griffin, Peterson, Halseth and Reynolds (1987) argued that the quest for financial success through increased prize money in rodeo may have led many young, less skilled athletes to compete. They contended that the youthfulness of these inexperienced competitors might have been a factor in the high incidence of injury in the roughstock events.

Rodeo is similar to other contact sports where pain, injury or discomfort is frequently dismissed and/or ignored, and to acknowledge a physical setback is a sign of weakness. A rodeo cowboy's ability to withstand pain in order to perform often appears reputationally as a barometer of his courage. Sands (1990) noted that the risks and severity of injuries incurred by rodeo cowboys are often trivialized to the point of absurdity. The term "wreck" frequently employed by rodeo cowboys to downplay or minimize the physical, emotional and psychological trauma associated with a severe accident is indicative of this phenomenon. Another ploy used to downplay pain is "cowboying up." This positive self-talk strategy is designed to push individuals through injurious periods. A prominent professional sport team physician was quoted as saying: "In every sport some guys have disregard for pain. But we see more of this type of guy in rodeo than in any other sport" (Swift, 1993, p. 6).

The cultural milieu of the sport appears to encourage the taking of extraordinary risks, and oftentimes lionizes those who engage in such activities (Errington, 1990; Long, 1995; Sands, 1990; Swift, 1993; "The True American," 1996). The lionization of the rodeo athlete, with respect to risk taking, is notably depicted by public address announcers through their introductions of the athlete. During these brief introductions announcers frequently refer to a traumatic or near fatal injury recently incurred by the athlete. Information of this nature tends to have an endearing affect on the audience. The "Hard Luck Award" bestowed upon a roughstock or timed event competitor at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR) is also indicative of the encouragement of extraordinary risk taking. The award is a one year unrestricted airline pass for the contestant taking the most life-threatening fall as judged by fan applause.

The risk of injury is associated with every sport; however, some sports have a much higher incidence of injury than others. In those characterized by heavy contact (i.e., boxing, football and hockey) injury is quite prevalent. Yet, the unpredictability of certain situations within rodeo may have an additive influence on the incidence of injury. For example, the random draw of animals in the roughstock events, as well as the diverse arena dimensions and configurations minimize some of the advance preparation that might be participated in by rodeo athletes. These variables alone make each ride mutually exclusive of the previous one.

The uniqueness of the sport that can be viewed as rather open, and somewhat unregulated, permits athletes to compete with few precompetition safeguards. To date, no physical examinations or screening mechanisms have been employed to detect drugs, alcohol, "performance enhancing" substances or dangerous unhealed injuries. However, many rodeo athletes have begun to wear protective vests, even though there are no industry mandates or standards pertaining to their construction (i.e., material and design). A Houston area bull rider who participates in the sport on a part-time basis noted that protective vests are made of all kinds of material. When interviewed he was quoted as saying, "Mine [protective vest] was made by a friend out of that bullet proof vest material."

It has been documented that subtle discouragement and unwritten rodeo "codes" exist pertaining to most protective equipment (Antosh, 1996; Griffin et al., 1987). Much of the debate centers around fan reaction and appeal toward rodeo cowboys clad in protective equipment. Similar issues have been discussed by social scientists pertaining to safeguards (i.e., rule enforcement and protective equipment) in hockey and other contact sports (Coakley, 1994; Eitzen & Sage, 1997; Errington, 1990; Figler, 1981; LaPrade, Burnett, Zarzour, & Moss, 1995).

Unlike other contact professional sports which have team affiliations and staff health care providers rodeo does not. Therefore, the health and well-being of each participant is an individual responsibility. The basic goal of this investigation was to try and establish patterns of rodeo injury and uncover the correlates of these injury patterns.

At the outset, we investigated the existing literature to determine the patterns of injury associated with roughstock competition. We then examined the literature to determine if the findings of others fit with our own observations, and if these conclusions could account for the observed injury rates. Finally, we reanalyzed the data from the Justin Sportsmedicine Program in a search for patterns of injury unexplained with existing findings.

As previously noted, rodeo without question is one of the most dangerous and injurious contemporary sport forms in America. It is believed that injury is basically unavoidable (Fredriksson, 1985); and compared to other high collision sports the exposure-to-injury ratio is "staggering" (Meyers et al., 1992). Yet rodeo cowboys accept the high incidence of injury as an occupational hazard endemic to the sport. A Houston area physical therapist and health care provider to the HLSR asserted that bull riding was probably the most dangerous sport in the world, with the exception of auto racing, because you have the extra element of a purposely agitated animal (Long, 1995). It is interesting to note that few studies have been conducted to specifically identify, assess and analyze the etiology, contributing factors, treatment modalities, and preventive safeguards in rodeo (Meyers, Elledge, Sterling, & Tolson, 1990; Nebergall, Bauer, & Eimen, 1992). A recent attempt to document the nature of rodeo injuries has been th e 15-year injury study (1981-1995) of those athletes taking advantage of the "Justin Heeler." This analysis examined the injury patterns of a self-selected sample of rodeo contestants conducted by the Justin Sportsmedicine Program (1996), in conjunction with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).

The incidence of injury in rodeo is alarmingly high at both the amateur and professional levels, particularly in the roughstock events like saddle bronc riding, bareback riding and bull riding (Griffin et al., 1987; Justin, 1996; Meyers et al., 1990; Nebergall et al., 1992). Meyers et al. reported that 92% of all injuries in collegiate rodeo occurred in roughstock and steer wrestling events. They contended that collegiate rodeo athletes faced an 89% potential for injury per season. This figure is noteworthy because it nearly doubled that of collegiate football (47%).

Data collected by the Justin Sportsmedicine Program corroborates the potential for and incidence of injury in rodeo, and specifically roughstock events (Justin, 1996). According to their findings bull riding, bareback and saddle bronc riding recorded the highest number of injuries respectively. And as alluded to previously, injuries in rodeo are not confined to rodeo contestants. The Justin Sportsmedicine Program (1996) reported that rodeo clowns/bullfighters were the most frequently injured non-contestants (77.4%): an outcome which could be anticipated in light of the occupational hazards required to distract and detour agitated and unpredictable livestock.

The anatomical sites of injury, like causes, are many. However, certain areas appear to be more predisposed to injury because of the nature of the sport. Over a 15-year period (1981-1995) the anatomical site most susceptible to injury was the spine (i.e., lumbar, cervical and thoracic), followed by the knee and shoulder respectively (Justin, 1996). This finding substantiates earlier research conducted by Meyers et al. (1990), which reported the incidence of upper body injuries. Concussion was reported to be the most frequent major injury, which has increased since the first five years (2.3% in 1981-1985 to 3.5% in 1991-1995) of the Justin study. It accounted for over 61% of the major injuries sustained by rodeo cowboys during 1995. Other frequently injured anatomical sites as a result of rodeo competition include head/face, thigh/groin, ankle, elbow, hand/fingers, wrist, and chest/ribs.

Knee injuries frequently viewed as the "Achilles heel" in many amateur and professional sports holds true for rodeo as well. Over the past 15 years the knee was the leading anatomical injury site in three of the six rodeo event categories, and second and third in bull riding and calf roping (Justin, 1996). The elbow, once reported to be the most injurious anatomical site (Griffin et al., 1987, 1989), and the thigh/groin are still predisposed to injury. However, according to the data, their incidence of injury has declined over the last five years (1991-1995).

The nature of the rodeo event invariably impacts both the incidence of injury and the anatomical site(s) effected. In the roughstock events the high incidence of injury is well documented (Bullerwick, Nelson, La Fave, & Meeuwisse, 1996; Griffin et al., 1987; Justin, 1996; Long, 1995; Meyers etal., 1990; Nebergall et al., 1992). Yet other rodeo events are injurious as well. It can be speculated that roughstock events require the strength and flexibility of youth to be competitive; whereas the finesse or timed events are based upon long years of practice and experience and are thus characterized by older contestants (Bushy, 1990; Griffin et al., 1987). In any event, in rodeo, age and experience are intimately linked. It appears that those committed to the sport and lifestyle of rodeo may begin their careers in the more injury prone events, but shift to less physically demanding events as age and accumulated injuries dictate or simply retire from those events.

Questions have been raised with regard to the physical, mental and emotional well-being of the rodeo cowboy in relation to incidence of injury (Meyers, LeUnes, & Bourgeois, 1996; Meyers, LeUnes, Elledge, Tolson, & Sterling, 1992). Although casual observers of the sport question the "athletic status" of rodeo cowboys, research suggests that both collegiate and professional competitors share many of the same attributes and characteristics of other elite athletes (McGill, Hall, Ratliff, & Moss, 1986; Meyers, Sterling, & LeUnes, 1988; Meyers, Sterling, LeUnes, Elledge, & Tolson, 1990; Meyers et al., 1992; Rainey, Amunategui, Agocs, & Larick, 1992). According to Meyers et al. college rodeo athletes have similar aerobic capacities as athletes in other intermittent activity sports, and body compositions which may be best suited for specific events. Rainey et al. (1992) found similarities between collegiate rodeo athletes and other college athletes when Zuckerman's Sensation Seeking Scales (SSS) and Martens' Sport C ompetition Anxiety Test (SCAT) were employed to examine sensation seeking and competitive trait anxiety.

As the literature suggests, the rodeo cowboy appears to be quite similar to traditional athletes. Yet, when found statistically different on psychological indices the differences were believed to be a function of cognitive skills required for human versus animal competition unique to rodeo (Meyers et al., 1996).

Like other sports the frequency of participation invariably impacts the incidence of injury. In rodeo, athletes must compete in a designated number of competitions to be eligible for professional status. This entry level requirement, in addition to the athlete's need to compete for the sake of visibility, renders him susceptible to injury. Unlike other mainstream sport forms, which maintain active rosters and promote participants, the vast majority of rodeo cowboys engage in self-promotion through frequent rodeo entry. In their quest to make a name for themselves in the sport they must compete on a regular basis, so as to move up in the standings in order to make the National Finals. Many rodeo cowboys will compete in 125 or more rodeos and log approximately 100,000 miles traveling to competitions in the United States and Canada during the year (The Cowboy Sport, 1996). Fredriksson (1985) discussed the enormous risks of injury through extensive rodeo competition:

A cowboy who competes on a full-time basis may enter as many as 150 rodeos a year and may, whether he works the timed or the riding events, handle 450 or more animals within that year and compete for a total of only ninety minutes. However, during that brief time he has 450 chances of getting hurt, 450 chances of getting killed. The cowboy can become injured even after a successful ride or run. (p. 121)

The extensive travel schedule alone can lead to fatigue, which may manifest itself in carelessness en route and/or injury in the arena (Bushy, 1990). The rodeo season, for the most part, never ends even though the pinnacle of the season is the National Finals Rodeo held annually in Las Vegas. Competitions are held continuously year round.

The compensatory structure of rodeo also appears to contribute to the risk factors endemic within the sport. Unlike other sports that pay athletes for merely appearing ("game check") or compensate them when they are unable to compete, rodeo athletes compete without financial assurances. For the vast majority of these athletes each competition only provides an opportunity to earn money and points in the standings. Sands (1990) noted that it is not to the benefit of rodeo cowboys to acknowledge injury, for if they cannot compete they cannot earn money. Swift (1993) compared and analyzed contemporary rodeo and baseball during its developing years:

Cowboys don't cry. It's like this rule. Baseball players didn't either, until they became multi-millionaires and began to remove themselves from the lineup every time they felt a little stiffness in a shoulder. To a rodeo cowboy a little stiffness means he's wearing a cast. What baseball was in the days of train travel, skinflint owners, winter jobs, Gehrig, Musial and Campanella, rodeo is now. (p. 46)

Swift's analogy underscores the point that rodeo athletes do not get paid unless they are in the lineup. Contrary to mainstream team sport athletes (i.e., football, baseball and basketball), who appear to play through pain and rarely admit to physical setbacks only during contract renegotiating years, the rodeo athlete approaches each competition in this manner. Thus, he enters each rodeo competition like a free agent vying for a contract: for the rodeo athlete does not get paid unless he reaches a prescribed level of performance.

As previously noted each rodeo event leads to specific, and oftentimes, predictable injuries. Based upon data collected by the Justin Sportsmedicine Program (1996) for the PRCA, the following description of some of the most common events and injuries reported is quite revealing.

Bull Riding

The bulls generally used in competition can weigh in excess of 2000 pounds (P. Asay, personal communication, November 6, 1996) and are extremely fast and agile animals in spite of their size. This event has the highest injury rate characterized by thigh/groin and knee injuries. Other injuries minor in nature, and less often reported, occur to the arm. Strained ligaments, pulled muscles, hyperextensions and bone chips in the elbow occur during rides as a result of the tremendous forces transmitted through the arm and shoulder (Griffin, Peterson, Halseth, & Reynolds, 1987, 1989).

Bareback Riding

Injuries in bareback riding can be sustained during the ride as well as when the athlete is bucked off. Although horses used in bareback competition are much lighter than bulls, they will usually weigh approximately 1200 pounds (P. Asay, personal communication, November 6, 1996). Three of the more common sites of injury associated with this event are the elbow, lower back (lumbar region) and hand.

Saddle Bronc Riding

This is perhaps the one event most individuals have seen portrayed in Western movies. Common injuries in this event are to the knee, lumbar area of the lower back, shoulder, thigh/ groin area and ankle. It is evident that anatomical injury sites among roughstock event competitors are often similar due to commonalities within the events.

Lower back trauma in roughstock events may be attributed to leg placement and spurring techniques required in competition (Fredriksson, 1985; Meyers et al., 1990). Roughstock competitors also incur minor injuries when they are bucked off of mounts and land on an outstretched arm, or the back of the neck (Fredriksson, 1985; Griffin et al., 1989).

Steer Wrestling

Frequent injury sites in steer wrestling are the knee and ankle. Injuries to these sites are likely to occur when the cowboy dismounts from his horse while simultaneously stopping the animal to wrestle it to the ground. During the wrestling phase of the activity the shoulders, lumbar and cervical areas of the spine are common sites of injury.

Calf Roping

In calf roping injuries to the thigh/groin area are frequently sustained when dismounting, while the knee, shoulder and ankle are at risk during the tie. Lower back injuries are often sustained when the cowboy is flanking the calf.

Steer Roping

Steer roping is very similar to calf roping. However, in this event there is no particular pattern of injury detectable.

Team Roping

Consistent with other timed events, team roping tends to have comparatively low injury rates. In this event, as with calf and steer roping, the most likely injuries are those associated with riding the fast moving, nimble, and quick turning horse.


This study rests upon an extensive review of the literature supplemented by a reexamination of data compiled by the Justin Sportsmedicine Program, in conjunction with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). In addition qualitative social research methods (Lofland & Lofland, 1984) were also employed in the form of unstructured and semi-structured interviews (individual and group), phone interviews and on-site nonparticipant observations.

One group of those interviewed was chosen because they were felt to be "key informants:" those with special insight into the nature of rodeo injuries. In this group were physicians, osteopaths and chiropractors who routinely volunteer their professional skills at rodeos. Additionally, we interviewed a range of other health care professionals who volunteer their services through

the Justin Heeler Program. This group included athletic trainers, EMTs and physical therapists. The initial informant was the Justin Heeler with whom we spent over 40 hours in interviews and observations. He facilitated contact with other knowledgeable about rodeo injuries. We also held semi-structured interviews with promoters, stock handlers, timers, judges, announcers and several members of the staff of the PRCA and Professional Bull Riders Association (PBRA).

Interviews with 27 rodeo contestants at various skill levels were conducted. Those interviewed were derived from a "snow ball" sampling plan. This scheme enabled the researchers to interview rodeo contestants in the "Top Twenty," as well as lesser-known minority cowboys who frequently ride in local unsanctioned rodeos. No claims of representativeness are made about either the rodeos attended or those interviewed.

Data reported were collected from over 150 hours of observations made at rodeos in Texas, Colorado and Wyoming. Data were supplemented through the examination and analysis of numerous hours viewing videocassettes of rodeo competitions. In this form of content analysis we examined and scored the video on the basis of common factors involved in injuries.

The largest rodeo where data were collected was the HLSR, which runs 17 days. The smallest rodeo observed took place in Lufkin, Texas. Most of the rodeo events were sanctioned by the PRCA. Additional data were collected at college and county rodeos. Several trips were made to the Home of Champions Rodeo in Mesquite, Texas, where rodeos are held virtually every weekend and from which a regularly aired television sport program is filmed.

Periodic visits were also made to some of the unsanctioned, predominantly ethnic rodeos held in the Houston area. The Bull Riders Only rodeo competition, held in Houston, was also attended.

At several of the rodeos it was possible to make crude physical measurements and drawings of arena configurations. In addition, often it was possible to measure the range of motion of chute gates using a protractor to determine the degrees of angle of the gate opening. A steel spike 1/4-inch in diameter and 12 inches in length was used in an attempt to determine firmness of the arena floor. The spike was inserted into the soil with the force of 160 pounds (the weight of one of the researchers) at several places around the arena floor. The depth of penetration was then recorded in inches. These attempts at measurement are admittedly imprecise, in part, because they were made very hastily since access to the arena floor is usually strictly controlled.


In the reanalysis and reexamination of the Justin Sportsmedicine Program/PRCA 15-year study data it must be kept clearly in mind that these data were only collected at selected PRCA sanctioned rodeos: sites that may have been chosen because of their proximity to one of the offices of the Justin Sportsmedicine Program and/or the visibility and fan appeal of the particular rodeo. In the years under consideration, the roughstock events account for substantially more injuries than the timed events and that bull riding account for the largest percentage of roughstock events. Among the timed events the percentage of injuries is much smaller for the roping events. Steer wrestling was the most injurious timed event. These data are based upon all contestants diagnosed as sustaining "major injury" at the selected rodeos. It should be noted that the designation "major injury" may have been made by a physician, a chiropractor associated with the Wrangler Chiropractic Program, or a sports trainer (e.g., Justin Heeler). N o control group exists which would permit a comparison between injured and non-injured athletes in the same event, at the same rodeo, during the same performance. Likewise, the denominator is unknown in these data making the calculation of incidence impossible. However, we can compare relative risk rates of injury between different events at the same rodeo and occurring during the same time period because this procedure makes no assumptions about the denominator. Thus, the relative risk of each event can be calculated (see Table 1).

Although we would like to be able to compare the incidence rate of those injured, for example, in bull riding with those not injured while bull riding this is impossible with the present data. We can, however, compare the risk of those injured in bull riding with those injured in other events at the same rodeo (see Table 2).

From these data it can be seen that during the period under study, bull riders invariably were subjected to the highest relative risk of major injury. Bareback riding has remained the second most injurious event followed by saddle bronc riding. For the 15-year period investigated, the relative risk for bull riders was .5304, compared to .2703 for bare back riders: a relative risk nearly twice as high. For saddle bronc riders with a relative risk of .1944, bull riders are at nearly three times the risk. Over this time period bull fighters/clowns ran a 10 percent risk of injury when compared to those actually competing in the roughstock events. Although there was considerable variation from year to year in rodeo injuries during the study period, overall there was a 9% risk of major injury at every rodeo performance.

Table 3 presents Kendall's Tau b correlation coefficients for the relative risk over the 15-year period in which data were collected. Kendall's Tau b was chosen because it is a nonparametric alternative to the Pearson product-moment coefficient. The correlation matrix includes year, relative risk of major/performance, and relative risk by roughstock event.

As the calculations indicate there are statistically significant correlations between time (in years) and relative risk for both bull riders and bare back riders. The relationship is positive for the bull riders with increasing risk by year and negative for bare back riders with a negative correlation. This may suggest that over the 15-year period bull riding has become more risky while bareback riding has become less so.

Examining the correlations between specific events for the 15-year period, highly statistically significant negative correlations are found between bull riding and both bare back and saddle bronc riding. If competing in the roughstock events were becoming progressively risky for all events it could be argued that some systematic factors were operating to increase the risk in this sport. If, for example, bull fighter/clown injuries increased significantly over time while the risk to bull riders decreased overtime, it could be argued that bull fighters are doing a better job of protecting the bull rider at the expense of their own well-being. This, however, is not the case. Viewed another way, if the sport, in general, was becoming more dangerous over time as its popularity increased one would expect to find a significant correlation between the relative risk of major injury per performance, but this is not apparent in the data.

Figure 1 displays in graphic fashion the substantial variability of relative risk over the 15-year period for each event. Furthermore, an examination of the means and standard deviations of relative risk (not shown) by event indicates that there is marked variation in all events from one year to the next. This further suggests that some yet to be known factor(s) may be influencing the risk of injury within rodeo. Our observations, both in person as well as through videocassettes, coupled with the data collected from key informants and a snowball sample of contestants, lead us to suggest that several uncontrolled risk factors contribute significantly to rodeo injuries.


Rodeo is probably more like other sport forms than different, in that a myriad of factors contributes to the incidence of injury. Notwithstanding, the athlete, animal, arena, lifestyle and evolutionary nature of the sport all contribute significantly to the potential for injury. The minimum requirements for professional rodeo participation, traditionally viewed as a salient attribute because of its accessibility, under closer examination may contribute to the injury potential. Presently no precompetition physicals or screenings are required. As a result, existing maladies that could aggravate impending injuries are not detected: nor are drugs, alcohol and performance enhancing substances. Akin to athletes in other physically combative sports injuries are viewed as part of the job and lifestyle, not afflictions on which to dwell, but as constant and expected barriers to be overcome and controlled. In this regard, rodeo cowboys approach job related injuries like other members of the working class (Fredriksson, 1985; Smith, 1981). They take complete personal responsibility for both the onset and management of injuries (Curry, 1992). Even though rodeo cowboys are well aware of the risks and injurious nature of the sport, they apparently achieve immense satisfaction through their active engagement with unpredictable livestock. Swift (1994) stated that many rodeo cowboys and experts alike agree that if you're in rodeo long enough you will get hurt. The acceptance of risks and willingness to endure excessive pain manifests itself in the form of "fanatical bravado" and machismo: a symbolic form of cultural identification with what might be perceived as the "Old West Cowboy." Many rodeo cowboys simply overlook the pain and discomfort through injury denial (Long, 1995). For a cowboy to admit and succumb to pain could be viewed as an assault on the "macho" image of the rodeo cowboy and adversely effect his earning potential. Meyers et al. (1990) found that even when prescribed drugs may have minimized pain and enhanced per formance, rodeo cowboys opted to forego them because of perceived interference with performance. The literature is unclear as to whether this mentality speaks to the pain threshold and tolerance of rodeo cowboys or their lack of knowledge pertaining to the therapeutic effect of prescription drugs (Meyers et al., 1990).

Athlete As Risk Factor

At the elite level of the sport financial compensation and product endorsements are viable inducements for athletes who endure travail and discomfort. Yet, for the majority of rodeo cowboys there is far more risk than financial remuneration. Errington (1990) concluded that basically rodeo cowboys compete in dangerous activities that do not pay well, in light of the risks, which have no practical or pragmatic value. Hibdon (1989) asserted that a three-tier hierarchy exists in rodeo based upon the skill level of the contestants. This de facto hierarchy of competition alluded to can be perceived as a risk factor which impacts the rodeo cowboy's potential for injury. Rodeo cowboys in the lower tiers are relegated to competitions primarily on the weekends due to employment obligations. As a result, they are usually restricted to those contests to which they can drive. Clearly they may drive from the time they finish working until the time they sign in for the competition. Hibdon (1989) noted that the lower tier c ontestants were more likely to compete in smaller rodeos with smaller purses. Another reality of the smaller rodeos is the marginal quality of the roughstock. Thus, the cowboy athlete who draws an inferior animal is faced with several dismal alternatives. He may "turn the animal out" (forfeit his turn) and take his chances later. By turning the animal out the athlete could forfeit his entrance fee, thereby wasting the trip to the rodeo. Another alternative might be to extend himself to the maximum to compensate for an expected lackluster performance (score) by the animal. The risk taking of the cowboy increases his potential for injury.

At the upper tier of the sport several advantages exist. Although entrance fees are costlier, purses are higher as well as the quality of roughstock. At this level competition is frequently sanctioned, thereby restricting participation to those holding active PRCA membership. Some of these cowboy athletes will fly into town to compete. As a result, they arrive rested and with time to acclimate themselves to the rodeo environment. Another salient benefit of participation at this level involves the roughstock. Because of the superior quality of roughstock the animal can make up for a mediocre ride by the athlete. The reputation and notoriety of some of the roughstock through their bucking prowess and unruly demeanor make them the most difficult and dangerous, yet optimum, to ride.

Animal As Risk Factor

The emergence of rodeo from a hazardous festival pastime to a multimillion dollar industry has conceivably contributed to the injury potential within the sport. As promoters seek the most aggressive roughstock for competition through various incentives, inducements and perks stock contractors and breeders attempt to locate such animals. The Black Velvet Trophy and the Copenhagen/Skoal Pro Rodeo awards are some of the rewards given to stock contractors for locating the most recalcitrant livestock. According to the PRCA top bulls are conservatively estimated to be worth as much as $20,000 and bucking horses $10,000 (Media Guide, 1996). Without question there is a great deal of money to be made in supplying quality roughstock for rodeo competition. This has led to careful breeding practices, which have produced more powerful, if not necessarily larger animals, more aggressive animals, and animals more naturally inclined to buck off the rider. In this regard it is probably safe to say that more time, effort and expense are invested in securing, breeding and raising quality animals, than in the training of the rodeo cowboy. Since one-half of the contestant's total score in a roughstock event depends upon the animal's performance, the luck of the draw is a crucial factor in victory as well as potential injury.

Interestingly only recently have rodeo cowboys, in the roughstock events, begun to engage in training regimens and programs to enhance performance and minimize injury (Banks, 1996). In the past actual competition was the mechanism primarily relied on for honing skills (Meyers et al., 1992). As a result of some of the recent industry developments, the skills of the rodeo cowboy may lag behind the selection, breeding and overall care of the animals he competes with and against. The rodeo cowboy's shortcomings may be due, in part, to the lack of formalized training opportunities and technical advances, in comparison to livestock breeding techniques and selection criteria currently employed.

Arena As Risk Factor

The facilities where the rodeo cowboy competes frequently offers challenges that may further complicate the task of riding and/or roping an animal. As in other sports where the playing surface and arena configuration varies from site to site, rodeo facilities are likewise and vary considerably. Surface compositions, arena dimensions, chute, gate, and pen operations, as well as accommodations for athletes influence performance and contribute to injury. Due to the lack of standardized conditions rodeo cowboys often find themselves competing against the animals and facilities. When arenas are viewed as "uncontrolled" risk factors they may appear somewhat innocuous, but when combined with existing hazards can play a significant role in the incidence of injury within rodeo. Although rodeo has adapted well to the diverse settings and venues it has been privy to, but in some respects it still appears to share common elements with traveling circuses and carnivals. Arena surfaces have what might be referred to as a d ichotomous effect on rodeo cowboys with regard to injuries. They can serve as both hazards and safeguards (Swift, 1994). Surfaces can be soft and pliable to cushion falls, but can also inhibit movement. When surfaces are packed hard falls are more painful, but footing is more secure to elude animals.

During the course of this study, where circumstances permitted, a steel spike was inserted into the arena surface and the depth of penetration measured. At one facility, which happened to be a working livestock auction site, the spike could not penetrate the arena surface. This "brick hard" surface was due in part to the countless pounding of livestock hoofs. At another facility, where a county fairground had been reconfigured for rodeo competition, the spike penetrated the arena surface approximately one-half inch. Yet, at the HLSR the spike penetrated over one and one-half inches. These measurements, although crude, confirmed the variability among arena surfaces.

Since no sanctioning body requires that arenas meet prescribed specifications, there is considerable variation from one rodeo to the next. For example, the HLSR transports soil to the facility and spreads it over the existing floor. This surface is sprinkled and smoothed after each performance. This not only enhances the appearance of the facility, in which each night after the rodeo competition major figures from the music industry perform, but contributes to some degree of uniformity from one night's competition to the next. Other rodeos are held out-of-doors where it is impossible to control the surface of the arena. At several rodeos that are held under a roof the facility is an active operating auction facility. The surface on which the competition takes place is not prepared in any special manner. As trivial as it may seem, the nature of the arena surface is capable of making substantial differences in the risk of injury for the contestants. Much like the ongoing debate regarding artificial surfaces (A stroturf) and grass, incidence of injury can be influenced by playing surfaces (Nixon & Frey, 1996).

The physical dimensions of the arena are also important in their influence of injury rates. Clearly in timed events the longer the distance from the gate to the opposite fence the more time the animal and rider have to pick up speed, should the contestant not catch or rope the animal right out of the gate. Furthermore, it could be hypothesized that a narrow arena might influence the animals to take a more direct path out of the chute while a wider arena influences the animal to take a different track such as some oblique angle out of the chute. The previous statement is plausible in light of the drastic spatial differences between the HLSR and some of the county rodeo sites. Whereas the HLSR has a rodeo surface of approximately four acres, several of the county rodeo sites have surface areas measured to be roughly 9300 square feet.

The configuration of chutes and gates is another physical characteristic of the facility within the rodeo arena that may impact rates of injury. By direct measurement it was found that some gates at rodeo arenas, where roughstock events are held, swing open a full 180 degrees. Whereas at other sites, gates were measured to have opened far less. The smallest gate opening was measured to be less than 100 degrees. On the basis of this observation it is argued that to the extent that the gate opens to a lesser angle there is a higher probability that riders will be injured by striking the gate at the beginning of their ride.

Banners and other forms of visual advertising adorn many rodeo arenas around the country. However, the placement of banners, advertisements and other decorations in the arena can predispose those involved in the sport to hazardous conditions. Although these adornments are means of promoting and underwriting event costs, they also create major risk factors. Unfortunately promotional banners and decorations can obstruct the position of fence rails from the view of those on the arena surface: contestants, bull fighters, announcers and stock handlers. On several occasions in this study the researchers observed members from the aforementioned groups, usually a thrown rider or stock handler, jump for the fence only to find that his foot did not locate the rail behind the banner. In most instances they merely fell back to the arena floor. However, on a few occasions the slip enabled the bull to over take the fallen rider. In one particular instance the bull rider missed his step while trying to climb from the arena ; the animal subsequently pinned the contestant to the fence with his head breaking several of the cowboy's ribs.

Rodeo Lifestyle As Risk Factor

For the vast majority of rodeo contestants vying for professional status and those who simply compete on a regular basis, the rodeo circuit offers a nomadic existence: an existence that predisposes them to injury. The rodeo lifestyle is one that offers few comforts and amenities unlike contemporaries in high profile professional team and individual sports. According to Errington (1990), because of the nature of the sport and professional status requirements rodeo cowboys may compete in several rodeos during the same weekend. As a result there is increased travel, little sleep and less time to fully recuperate from previously aggravated injuries. Bushy (1990) maintained that the extensive traveling on the rodeo circuit caused fatigue, which led to carelessness and eventually injury. Even when contestants arrive at the rodeo site the accommodations for changing, sleeping and other necessities may be Spartan at best.

Considerable variability in accommodations and amenities exist even at PRCA sanctioned competitions. For example, at the HLSR held at the Astrodome, available locker room facilities are off-limits to rodeo contestants. They are instead used as dressing rooms for the entertainers. Thus, many cowboys change into their competition attire in the back of a pickup truck or a public restroom. Others may seek the semi-privacy of a mobile sports medicine facility (trailer) provided by one of the rodeo's corporate sponsors if it is available. Some cowboys freely admitted that they routinely used the sports medicine trailer because it was one of the few sources where iced water, tape, band aides, and aspirin were free and available, as well as a place to change clothes.

At the smaller rodeos even fewer amenities exist. Those contestants with limited funds often drive to the rodeo after finishing their regular job, sleep in their vehicle, and survive on "midway" food. Others take advantage of a travel sharing plan sponsored by the PRCA, and car pool and lodge together. Air travel from one rodeo to another and lodging in posh hotels or motels is limited to a minuscule number of rodeo cowboys who are "in the money." In many respects the plight of the local high school athlete, who rides a school bus to and from an athletic contest in uniform, is appreciably better than that of the rodeo cowboy. Without question the lack of sleep, questionable diet, unpredictable accommodations and amenities place many rodeo cowboys in jeopardy prior to the competition.

Rodeo has always attracted fans from small towns and rural communities in the southern and western regions of the United States. As would be expected, most rodeos are held in such areas. Unfortunately, in some of the more remote sites access to quality health care facilities or specially trained physicians may be miles away. Therefore, the availability of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) with the ability to triage cases and make appropriate referrals can help facilitate the treatment and recuperation process. However, if no such personnel are available and trauma and/or orthopedic facilities are too distant, injury complications are more likely to be extensive and the recuperation period longer. Additional medical support has emerged through corporate involvement. The Justin Heeler, sponsored by the Justin Boot Company's Sportsmedicine Program, and the Wrangler Chiropractic Program are two medical support teams involved in secondary prevention through prompt assessment and treatment of rodeo injuries.

Researchers tend to agree that rodeo is a unique blend of cultural tradition and "quasiathletic" competition (Bushy, 1990; Errington, 1990; Fredriksson, 1985; Hibdon, I 989; Lawrence, 1982). Today it is as much a lifestyle as professional sport. The rugged persona of the rodeo cowboy, as well as the macho image depicted through both print and visual medias have contributed to a laissez-faire approach to mandated safeguards. However, according to Meyers et al. (1990), rodeo cowboys have recently begun to utilize precompetition conditioning, weight training regimens, and proactive injury prevention techniques (e.g., taping). Institutionally few safeguards in the form of protective equipment, personnel or training have been required by the sport's governing body.

Evolutionary Nature of Rodeo As Risk Factor

Presently there is an increasing priority accorded to protective equipment by rodeo cowboys. Although overt protective equipment in the form of helmets, face masks and extensive padding are viewed with considerable disdain, "flack jackets" and western cut safety vests are being worn much more frequently than in the past (Antosh, 1996; Banks, 1996; Griffin, et al., 1987; Swift, 1988). The acceptance of flack jackets and safety vests by competitors and spectators is much more palatable because of their unrecognizability. Athletes employing more detectable protective equipment are frequently scrutinized and quite possibly received less well by rodeo fans because of the macho image and surreal cultural status held by rodeo cowboys. Antosh (1996) quoted a former professional bull rider as saying: "Wearing protective headgear goes against an unwritten rodeo 'code'" (p. 1). Griffin et al. (1987) conveyed a similar perspective. They contended that headgear should be worn by rodeo cowboys, but rodeo tradition frowns on the use of such gear. At the collegiate level protective headgear is defined as a helmet or cowboy hat (National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, 1995).

The ambivalence to move away from tradition in an attempt to minimize injuries through various mandated safeguards is not new to collegiate and professional sports. Similar equipment mandates have occurred in hockey, baseball and football within the past 40 years (LaPrade et al., 1995). There is little doubt that the increased growth and development of the sport will bring about significant changes. Although few mandated safeguards have been implemented in professional rodeo it does appear that today's rodeo cowboys are coming to the sport with a better understanding of training regimens and injury prevention techniques than in the past (Fredriksson, 1985; Meyers et al., 1990). It is not uncommon for rodeo cowboys to use mouth guards, athletic support cups, elbow and kneepads as well as tape. However, it is not the common rule of thumb.

Bullfighters, formerly known as rodeo clowns, are both members of the support team, hired by the rodeo to distract and detour livestock away from competing contestants, and on other occasions are competitors. Frequently viewed as a high risk, thankless and altruistic occupation bullfighters incur the highest rate of injuries among non-contestants (Justin, 1996). Nearly 8 of 10(77.4%) of all non-contestant rodeo injuries from 1981-1995 were incurred by bullfighters. Their role in the sport is invaluable: for were it not for their skills and antics the rate of injury among rodeo contestants would be considerably higher.

Other support personnel involved in the sport, in an injury prevention capacity, in addition to local health care professionals are corporate sports medicine teams. Two are particularly noteworthy: the Justin Boot Company, which sponsors the Justin Mobile Sportsmedicine Centers; and the Wrangler Jean Company, sponsor of the Wrangler Chiropractic Team. These two corporate sponsors have attempted to provide precompetition treatment as well as immediate care for rodeo contestants should such support be necessary via mobile units. Because of the rural and nomadic nature of rodeo quality health care facilities and trauma centers have not always been accessible; therefore, support staff with the ability to stabilize and provide ambulatory care have been of considerable benefit. The Justin Boot Company's mobile treatment center is an elaborately equipped truck/trailer unit furnished and stocked with state of the art medical equipment, supplies, and treatment facilities. Two vehicles are currently in use. At those r odeos where they are in attendance approximately 70 rodeo contestants and support staff are treated at the Justin Mobile Sportsmedicine Center. In addition to basic treatment, rehabilitation and preventive information are provided as well as the coordination of services with local health care providers. According to Don Andrews, program director for Mobile Sports Medicine Systems Inc., the mobile units maintain a travel schedule that includes over 150 rodeos each year (D. Andrews, personal communication, February 11, 1997).


Referred to as a "fool hearted act" (The Cowboy Sport, 1996), rodeo without question is a de facto high collision sport with immense risks. Long (1995) noted that the potential for injury and death were greater than most every contemporary sport, with the exception of auto racing. The organizational structure of rodeo that allows individuals to compete professionally in sanctioned and unsanctioned competitions without comprehensive safeguards and regulatory agents may predispose athletes to injuries. Although injury is endemic to all athletic competition efforts to minimize the potential and severity must be of paramount concern, as well as the recuperative period. Currently the corporate sponsored sports medicine teams, volunteer health care professionals and innovative training camps/schools for rodeo participants have begun to attempt to fill this void.

Other activities, in the form of recommendations, which may also reduce the incidence and severity of injuries include: (a) semiannual or perhaps quarterly precompetition physicals (and screenings) in order to detect physical maladies and/or performance altering substances; (b) mandated safeguards in the form of protective vests, mouth guards and headgear; (c) protective padding for knees and elbows; (d) wrist and elbow taping; (e) weight training and precompetition stretching; (f) removal of camouflaging banners and advertisements from arena fence rails; (g) designation of safety zones in arenas for athletes' protection; (h) facility research and development pertaining to surface composition, arena design and spatial considerations; (i) recommendations regarding precompetition nutrition and diet; and (j) protective cervical collars for neck support in roughstock events. The suggested recommendations are based on data collected by the Justin Sportsmedicine Program, extensive fieldwork conducted by the resear chers, and a thorough review of the literature. It is our premise that if implemented both the incidence and severity of rodeo related injuries will decline. These thoughts and recommendations are made with the full understanding that the health and physical well-being of each contestant is currently viewed by the industry as an individual responsibility. Yet, in light of the continual evolution of rodeo it will become increasingly important for it to enact additional safeguards to adequately protect its principle resource -- the rodeo cowboy. If not, in the words of Eitzen (1996), "Social Darwinism" will continue to exist and manifest itself in the form of "survival-of-the-fittest" or luckiest.

Address Correspondence To: Demetrius W. Pearson, Ed. D., Department of Health and Human Performance, University of Houston, Central Campus, Houston, TX 77204-5331.

C. Allen Haney, Ph.D., M.P.H., Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Houston.

Demetrius W. Pearson, Ed. D., Assistant Professor, Department of Health and Human Performance, University of Houston.

The authors would like to express their thanks to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, Mobile Sports Medicine Systems Inc., and the Justin Boot Company for assistance in obtaining the data reported in this paper. Additional thanks are extended to the informants who participated in the study.


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 Major Injury Relative Risk Calculation Model For Rodeo
 Injured Not Injured Total
Participated In P1 P2 P1+P2
Did Not Participate P3 P4 P3+P4
Total P1+P3 P2+P4
 Relative Risk of Injury by Event for Each Year [1]
 Rodeo Injuries
Year Saddle Bronc Bull Riding Bare Back Bull Fighting/ Major/
 Riding Riding Clowns [2] Performance
1981 .2133 .4533 .3200 .0267 .1454
1982 .2268 .4021 .3711 .1856 .1856
1983 .2213 .4713 .3774 .1066 .1286
1984 .2414 .4690 .2897 .0896 .0552
1985 .1822 .5156 .3022 .1422 .0711
1986 .1875 .5573 .2552 .1562 .0338
1987 .1818 .5454 .2727 .2803 .0474
1988 .2623 .4344 .3033 .2828 .0576
1989 .2198 .4341 .2660 .1241 .1303
1990 .1937 .5704 .2359 .1056 .0806
1991 .2006 .5298 .2696 .0878 .1149
1992 .1230 .5861 .2910 .1352 .0855
1993 .1794 .5794 .2412 .1000 .0818
1994 .1939 .5578 .2483 .0884 .0707
1995 .2000 .5806 .2194 .0613 .1033
Totals .1994 .5304 .2703 .1225 .0901

(1.)Those injured in timed events were omitted from these calculations. These data were extracted from the Justin Sportsmedicine Program. Rodeo Injury Report; 15 Year PRCA Injury Study; 1996.

(2.)This ratio was calculated by determining the proportion of bull fighters/clowns injured relative to the total number of rough stock contestants injured for each time period. It should be noted that the original data listed injuries among this group as non-contestant injuries.
 Kendall's Tau b Correlations Between Relative Risk Ratios by Year,
 Major Injuries/Performance, and Roughstock Event
Subscale 1 2 3 4 5 6
Cases (n = 15)
1. Year ---- -.0857 -.2762 .5429 [*] -.5810 [*] -.3333
2. Major Injuries/Performance ---- .2381 -.2000 .2000 -.3524
3. Saddle Bronc Rider ---- -.5810 [*] .2762 .1048
4. Bull Rider ---- -.5429 [*] -.2571
5. Bare Back Rider ---- .2571
6. Bull Fighter/Clown ----
(*.)p [less than] .005
Note. From the Rodeo Injury Report, Justin Sportsmedicine Program.
Rodeo Injury Report; 15 Year PRCA Injury Study; 1996.
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Author:Haney, C. Allen; Pearson, Demetrius W.
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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