Rodeo is a high-energy sport that is as old as the American West, with roots reaching back to the 16th century.
While many people find it thrilling and entertaining as a sport, there is also the very real risk of rodeo injuries for all concerned – the animals, the humans who participate in the sport, and the onlookers who enjoy it.
It is, however, the rodeo athletes or the competitors themselves who face the greatest risk of serious injuries.
According to a comprehensive study conducted by Montana-based Pioneer Medical Specialists, published in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports, bull riding takes the greatest injury toll among rodeo events. However, bareback riding, steer wrestling, and calf roping also carry significant rodeo injury risks, according to the study.
Severe Rodeo Injuries and Lack of Protection
Researchers looked at nearly 2,000 professional rodeo events between 1981 and 2005 and found that half of all injuries occurred during bull riding. Knee and shoulder injuries are most common, but researchers say head injuries are most alarming. Concussions account for nearly 9% of all bull riding injuries.
Other common types of rodeo injuries include finger amputations during calf roping, sprains to the knee, shoulder, or ankle, and chronic problems that develop from such debilitating injuries.
Riders are also in danger of being gored by the animals or stomped after dismounting or being thrown from an animal.
In spite of these occupational hazards and medical experts urging the use of protective headgear, it is rarely used in rodeo because of a culture of “machismo” that is prevalent in the sport, experts say.
Riders, however, are more open to wearing protective vests, which have been found to lower the risk of rib fractures and penetrating chest wounds. However, very few are even open to using headgear, which could save them from major head injuries.
Outside of high school competitions, there is no requirement that competitors who have sustained a concussion get medical clearance before returning to the competition.
Injuries to Rodeo Animals
Animals suffer severe injuries in rodeos, too. The Los Angeles Times reports that since a California law went into effect requiring all rodeos to have a veterinarian in attendance or on call, more than 125 animal injuries have been reported.
No reports were issued in 2001, 2002, 2006, 2009, or 2020, and 20 reports were issued prior to 2010, the Times review states.
The reports document rodeo injuries ranging from superficial scratches as panicked animals ran out of their chutes to more severe injuries such as crushed skulls, broken legs, gored flanks, and snapped spines.
In 35 of the injury reports reviewed by the Times, the animal died immediately or within minutes of the accident, had to be euthanized, or in one case, slaughtered in the following hours or days. In 14 cases, the reports don’t clearly state what fate the severely injured animal suffered.
Rodeo Injury Danger to the Public
There have also been times when animals have escaped the arena and attacked members of the public.
In January 2023, a boy suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after being stomped on the chest at a packed rodeo. In May 2022, several people were injured when a bull jumped a fence and got out of the arena at the Redding Rodeo’s bull riding event, according to a report in The Guardian. The bull ran through a crowd of spectators and across a parking lot before it was captured near a bridge about half a mile from the arena.
At least six people were treated for injuries, including a 15-year-old boy who said the bull’s horn clipped his leg as the animal charged through the VIP section.
At least one member of the public was hurt near the bridge outside the arena, where the animal was caught, placed in a trailer, and returned to its ranch.
Medical Care and Attention
KERA News, based in North Texas, published a feature about Justin Sports Medicine Team, which is present at more than 125 professional rodeos across the country. It staffs clinics at events with hundreds of on-site doctors, physical therapists, and athletic trainers – mostly volunteers – free of charge.
Rodeo athletes are independent contractors, and even though some have sponsors, it is a sport where you do not get paid if you are not competing and winning.
Unlike pro football or baseball players, rodeo athletes don’t have medical teams or doctors to keep them healthy and tend to their injuries. Apart from these vital volunteer medical teams that can treat rodeo injuries at events and give athletes prescriptions for pain medicine, rodeo athletes have few other options.
The Justin clinics say they treat more than 8,000 rodeo athletes each year, giving away 250 miles worth of athletic tape and more than $1.5 million worth of medical care. This is a treatment that rodeo athletes would not be able to afford otherwise. The numbers give us a sense of how widespread injuries are in this sport.
Liability Issues in Rodeo Accidents
If you are an athlete, there may be cases when you may be able to sue the rodeo operator for injuries, damages, and losses you suffered.
For example, if the rodeo operator ran the event with reckless disregard for the safety of participating athletes, those injured as a result of such negligence may be able to seek compensation for their losses.
If you were injured in a rodeo accident as a spectator, it is important that you contact an accident lawyer with experience in personal injury claims and premises liability cases to discuss your legal rights as soon as possible.
Spectators may suffer injuries as a result of being gored or trampled by escaped rodeo animals. They may be trampled by other spectators in a crowded stadium or be injured in a car accident or pedestrian accident in a crowded parking lot.
If it can be proved that a rodeo company or rodeo venue acted negligently and that their negligence was the cause of an injury or fatality, they may be held liable for the rodeo injuries occurring, as well as any damages and losses.
One example is when a rodeo company fails to properly secure their animals, and the animal escapes and injured a spectator as a result. An event operator or venue may also be held liable for wrongful death if their staff members fail to call emergency personnel in a timely manner or if they knowingly allow more spectators into the venue than can be safely accommodated.