In rodeo, every part of a rider's body has an opportunity to become injured. Arms and legs can get broken; organs can be ruptured; brains can be concussed.
That forces members of the sports medicine crew at the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo to remain ready at all times to help a cowboy or cowgirl if any of those things happen — before, during or after the heat of competition.
The small group of local medical professionals who oversee care at the stock show see staying busy behind the scenes doing preventive medicine as a good thing. They look upon staying out of the arena during competition, when serious injury can occur, as the best possible outcome.
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Clark Duchene and athletic trainer Paul Richter of the Black Hills Orthopedic and Spine Center work with Justin Sports Medicine to help provide medical coverage for the annual rodeo, which includes everything from prevention and rehabilitation, to treatment of all types of injuries, including anything catastrophic.
Richter, who also serves as the athletic trainer at Rapid City Stevens High School, said the intensity of the sport keeps the doctors on edge. Anytime an unpredictable 2,000-pound bull or out-of-control bronc is involved in the equation, Richter said he and his colleagues must stay constantly vigilant.
“The intensity compared to basketball or wrestling -- they are all thrilling in their own way -- but the rodeo athlete seems to be a little more intense,” Richter said. “They have to get themselves ready physically as well as mentally to get on this animal.”
Hoping for boredom
Duchene is the captain of the medical crew in the rodeo ring. He said he enjoys sports and sports medicine and early in his career there was a rush in rodeo that got him jazzed up. Now, he said there is nothing he likes better than being at a rodeo and not having anything serious to do.
“But you are there if they need you,” Duchene said.
The most common injuries they deal with involve the knee and shoulder, though head and facial injuries, and cuts and lacerations are also frequent. On a daily basis they deal with sprains, strains, bumps, bruises, stiffness and sore backs. Rodeo riders get jerked around, thrown about and sometimes dumped on their heads.
As an athletic trainer, Richter said one of his jobs is to help the cowboy or cowgirl loosen up for the next ride, as well as add tape or braces. Their goal is not just to survive the ride, but remain healthy enough to ride again, either that night or even in a rodeo in another town.
“You try to give them a few tricks of the trade to help them along so maybe they are not quite so stiff and sore for the next rodeo,” Richter said.
Most of the rodeo athletes are pretty self sufficient and will tape themselves, Richter said, but they also get them ready with hot packs, stretching and massage. Some will also come in and need a few stitches if a cut breaks open.
“You never know what happens with their travels,” Richter said. “The doc will occasionally work on them if their shoulder or knee is sore with some injections or something like that. We don’t do a lot of those, we usually just get them loosened up and stretched out.”
Duchene often works with fractures, ligaments, dislocations, lacerations and facial injuries. Some can be managed at the arena, but some cannot. With head, chest and abdominal injuries, he said they typically have to send them to the hospital for more definitive care.
“There are some nights when you feel like you never get a break; you are always out in the arena or someone is coming off injured for whatever level of injury,” Duchene said. “Usually there is at least one injury a performance that requires some type of attention. Fortunately, in most cases, it is not serious enough where we have to send them by ambulance to the hospital. Most of the time it is dealing with them just getting banged up.”
Head injuries the worst
When cowboy collides with bull, the intensity picks up for the sports medicine crew and doctors. Often the head-to-head contact can knock them out cold. That’s when the real trouble begins.
“When a bull rider comes out and chooses not to wear a helmet, that always heightens my sense of awareness; it always gets my attention,” Duchene said. “The thing that makes me the most nervous is when there is a cowboy down unconscious in the arena."
Typically, it takes a minute or so to get the bull cleared from the ring, so medical care is delayed during that time. "So they lay out there unattended for some time. You have to get them off and get them evaluated," Duchene said. "The other things that can make you nervous are serious injuries, like getting stepped on or spinal cord or abdominal injuries.”
In all sports, injuries seem to come in spurts. Richter said that he has worked plenty of rodeos where they never went out in the arena. But when it rains, it pours, he said.
“When you have a busy year, it all happens at once,” said Richter, who has been working the Black Hills Stock Show since 1998 and has been working with Justin Sports Medicine for roughly the past decade.
The intensity, the thrill and the thought that they are helping people keep them coming back. They also feel close to the cowboys and cowgirls they work with.
“As far as professional athletes go, the rodeo athlete is different than others,” said Duchene, who has been working the Black Hills Stock Show for the past seven or eight years. “They are pretty down-to-earth folks. A lot of times they have to compete injured because if they don’t compete, they’re not going to get paid. It’s rewarding in that sense to try to help these guys and gals keep competing.”