Bull riding has become an increasingly popular sport among rodeo riders with 2956 bull riding events in the 2009 Australian professional rodeo season. The increased participation in the bull-riding events is mirrored by the increase of bull riding-related injury presentations to the hospital in the 2008 season and onwards compared to pre- 2008 statistics. Rodeo bull riding has been reported as the most dangerous sporting activity of the modern era,5
and the incidence of injury associated with bull riding has been shown to be two times higher than other major rodeo events, such as bareback bronc riding, steer or calf wrestling or barrel racing.6
One of the larger North American cohort studies reported 94 injuries out of 3882 individual exposures or a composite injury rate of 2.3 per 100 competitive exposures.7
Our data shows 38 hospital admissions from bull-related injuries over a six-year period, which is actually less than the numbers reported in other studies. This may be attributed to a substantial number of injuries that are not treated in a hospital setting, with riders either presenting to their local medical centre, or failing to report their injuries altogether. This suggestion has been corroborated by preliminary survey data of rodeo riders that the authors have been collecting as a follow-up to this study.
Our data identified limb injuries in 21 people (52%) as the most frequent injury site. These injuries usually resulted from a fall or being caught in the strapping. According to research papers from Canada and America, knee injury is the most common type of injury among bull riders, followed by a head injury.7
In this study, head injury was the third most common injury, and only one knee injury was recorded. The infection rate for open wounds was 50% even with toileting and antibiotics, which is not surprising considering the potential for contamination in a bull arena. This complication often required the patient to remain in hospital for several days longer than expected. With the evidence collated in this study, it is now standard practice in the hospital to wash out all open wounds caused by bull riding in the operating theatre, and administer 24 hours of IV antibiotics prior to discharge.
It must be noted that riders are educated in safe dismounting techniques, but given the nature of the animal they are riding, it is not always possible in practice. Arguably, the most dangerous situation is getting ‘hung-up’, where a rider who loses control of the ride, is unable to free his riding hand from the rope or catches his spurs in the saddle and cannot dismount from the bull. ‘Hang-ups’ are extremely dangerous and can prove deadly.5
However, even after a cowboy frees himself from the rope, he is still at risk of grave injury, both from the impact of a high-speed fall and from the unrestrained bull. Distraction by the rodeo clown and containment of the bull by the pick-up rider are paramount. One article recommends that a rider, who has lost control of his ride and is accelerating towards the ground, shields the vulnerable areas of the body by putting his hands over his head and curling into a ball.8
Other strategies that may help absorb a potential hit from an attacking bull include minimising the impact of a fall by falling on the side, and crawling away from the bull instead of running.8
Standard protective wear for the rodeo bull riders include a vest, chaps, helmet and a mouthguard. Full protective gear is mandatory for participants aged 18 years and younger. For mature riders, protective equipment is optional. Most cowboys wear a vest and chaps, but many omit the helmet and the mouthguard.
A bull rider’s vest resembles a military style Kevlar vest, and is intended to dissipate the impact of direct hits to the torso. Worldwide, there has been significant technological advancement in bull riders’ vest design, with a move away from Kevlar to high-density foams and Spectra Shield ballistic materials. The Spectra Shield™ vest is made of unidirectional layers of fibres that are held together by resins, and claims to be 10 times stronger than steel. A bull rider’s helmet resembles a hockey helmet, consisting of a foam liner and titanium face guard. The efficacy and reliability of helmets has been the basis of several papers, most concluding that protective headwear decreases the incidence of head injuries. 9
Helmets are unpopular among bull riders because of their negative effect on performance and on the image of the cowboy.17
According to one recent study, 69% of cowboys never wear a helmet;5
in our study, only 54% wore one. However, modern cowboys are better educated about the dangers of head injuries, and are more likely to wear a helmet, especially designated bull-riding helmets such as BullTough™, which are lightweight and allow for the chin tuck position without distraction of the bottom bar.6
The increasing popularity of bull riding and injuries, associated with it, has prompted many rodeo associations to re-evaluate their rules for protective gear, and it may become mandatory in the future.
In our study, all head injuries occurred in patients wearing helmets. Interestingly, the 18 riders who failed to wear helmets did not report any head injuries (47%). One potential explanation for this discrepancy might be that a helmet gives a rider a false sense of confidence making him more susceptible to head injury. Nevertheless, according to the previous studies, wearing a helmet appears to diminish the severity of such injuries.6
The results of this study have shown that protective gear does not eliminate the risk of injury despite improvements in protective wear design, which can be explained by the mechanism of injury. In this study, the cause of a severe injury was not a fall from the bull, but a result of the animal kicking or trampling the rider. The injuries that occurred by this mechanism included pneumothorax, splenic laceration and intra-cranial bleed. In cases where injury is suspected but not proven, transport to the nearest appropriate treating facility for further evaluation and close observation is warranted, as some serious injuries, such as splenic rupture, may have delayed the onset of symptoms. The remote areas where rodeo events are often held, present a unique challenge because administration of treatment is often delayed by transport to the treating facility. Four injured bull riders in our study required the assistance of retrieval teams (10%), and two people needed an urgent transfer to a tertiary centre for specialist review (5%).
In most sports, conditioning and experience would normally help decrease the likelihood of injury. This has not been shown to be the case with bull riders.12
One Paper showed that an experienced rider is even more susceptible to injury than a novice.14
However, the most experienced competitors also usually ride the most aggressive bulls, whereas in amateur rodeos the bulls are allocated to riders randomly and not according to the length of riding experience. An alternative interpretation of this finding is that the unpredictability of the sport is such that even the most seasoned and physically fit competitors cannot predict the behaviour of the bull and prevent injury.
It is believed that the true incidence of bull riding injury is under-reported.16