Often referred to as the “most dangerous eight seconds in sport,” and with good cause, rodeo bull riding is one of those unique, daredevil activities that defies explanation or understanding for people who have never climbed on the back of an angry animal and exploded out of the gate.
It is eight seconds of breakneck action quite unlike any other.
Unfortunately, that adjective can often be closer to a literal than a figurative description of what can happen when one is thrown from a raging bull.
This past weekend, Brian Curtis, a young rodeo bull rider from Belle Fourche, was seriously injured, sustaining severe head and facial injuries while competing in a PRCA bull-riding event in Cedar City, Utah.
And although the prognosis for recovery seems optimistic, much surgery and a lengthy period of recuperation certainly awaits.
And then what? Will Curtis hang up his bull-riding spurs and perhaps move on to a less hazardous occupation? Most likely not. When it comes down to doing something they love, and doing it to pay the bill, personal well-being doesn't seem to matter much.
“A lot of people talk about the adrenaline rush associated with riding a bull, and there is certainly some of that,” says Chance Smart, a Mississippi bull rider who was seriously injured while competing in the Black Hills Stock Show Rodeo in Rapid City in 2008. “But it’s not necessarily the adrenaline rush in my mind; it’s more along the lines of a love of the game. The completeness of feeling victorious over an animal that is 10 times your size and 10 times stronger than you are. And considering the risk involved when you step off on a bull that just bucked harder than any bull in the world ever bucked, there is nothing that could feel greater. You could never replace that feeling with anything else.”
Given the nature of a sport in which the question of injury has to do with when, not if, and is responsible for nearly half of all rodeo injuries, according to a study conducted by Justin Sports Medicine – a Justin Boots sponsored medicine team that travels to more than 125 PRCA events each year — how does a young cowboy choose to become a bull rider?
“I just grew up doing it, and I was pretty good at it and thought and it was a lot of fun,” said Jesse Bail, a Camp Crook South Dakota all-around cowboy who competes in both bull riding and saddle bronc and is ranked eighth in the PRCA in the latter. “I always enjoyed riding them, and it’s just something I do. It’s a pretty good rush when you’re 90 points on a bucker, a just awesome feeling. Also, it’s tough to do, and it’s something different every time you go out there. Bull riding is pretty hard to explain. It’s kind of addictive, I guess.”
Bail doesn’t wear a helmet — they’re not required by the PRCA, unlike the mandatory protective vests — though he does see the possible benefits.
“I haven’t ever been hurt bad enough to have to wear one,” he said. I grew up without it, and I just have never used one. It’s a good idea for young guys starting out though.”
Bail believes the PRCA has pretty much done all it can to make bull riding as safe as possible. And the quick response by the Justin team, the official health care provider for the PRCA, can often mean the difference between life and death.
“They are there all the time and they have darn sure kept me going,” Bail said. “If it weren’t for them and what they do, I’d probably be done already.”
As to the wearing of protective helmets, Smart has a little different take on their importance ever since his emergency trip to Rapid City Regional in 2008.
“I do now,” he said with a chuckle when asked whether he valued the apparatus. “I had actually thought about going to a helmet before that, but I thought I was riding good and had just finished
second in the world, so why would I want to change anything? I think soon everybody will be wearing them. A lot of times in the high school ranks, riders are required to wear helmets. Look at the National Finals Rodeo; of the 15 bull riders this year, only five of them didn’t wear helmets.”
Rick Foster, program director for Justin Sports Medicine, points out that helmets are not presently required simply because a helmet specifically designed for rodeo has not yet been developed.
“So does a rider wear a lacrosse helmet, or is a hockey style helmet better?” Foster said. “Obviously they all can provide some help, but what works the best? There are a couple of companies working on a true rodeo style helmet, though whether it will help bull riders remains to be seen. (Curtis was not wearing a helmet). So we are proponents of helmets, but we can’t force that or say that one helmet is better than any other helmet.”