The Most Dangerous Sport in the World?


A Bull Tamer in Australian Rodeo Event. Photo: Amcilrick


“Sweetheart of the Rodeo”

I’ll confess I don’t know much about rodeo.  To the extent the word triggers a response in my mind, I think of Gram Parsons and the Byrds:  “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” Click on the link and take a listen:  it’s a great album!

Back to sport….it’s my own cultural myopia that overlooks rodeo when I think of the word ‘sport.’ I didn’t grow up participating in it, and in central Ohio I have not attended to any rodeo injuries (equestrian, yes; bull riding, no). I imagine my situation would be different if I practiced in Wyoming or Alberta…..or parts of Mexico, Argentina, and Australia (rodeo is truly international).

As I grow older, I delight in learning more about other sports; my involvement with CJSM certainly has expanded my horizons. Last year, for instance, I wrote (and learned) about the ice sport of ringette after the journal published a study on the injury epidemiology of this largely Canadian activity. I had previously never heard of rignette. Shame on me.

I was reading the New Yorker earlier this week when I came across this tantalizing entry: “The Ride of Their Lives: Children Prepare for the World’s Most Dangerous Organized Sport.”  The focus of the article is a particular event in rodeo, bull riding, and the kids and families who participate in this sport….which is, indeed, very dangerous.   “It’s not if you’re gonna get hurt; it’s when,” one parent is quoted.  As a pediatric sports medicine physician, I was bound to be hooked.

I was delighted to see the New Yorker author use the work of Dale Butterwick as one of his chief sources for the article’s epidemiologic data. Mr. Butterwick is a faculty member of the University of Calgary, Alberta, and has written extensively on injury patterns in rodeo.  Among his more important works is the CJSM 2011 study, “Rodeo Catastrophic Injuries and Registry:  Initial Retrospective and Prospective Report,” which reported on 20 years of data collected by the only, international registry for catastrophic injury in rodeo, which he maintains.

Among the important findings in that study and discussed at length in this article on bull taming: the greatest number of catastrophic injuries had occurred during either bull riding or junior bull riding/steer riding events (38 of 49; 77.5%).  Moreover, 29% of the catastrophic injuries occurred in individuals less than 17 years old.

The New Yorker author notes that the last two years of reported data in the CJSM Butterwick study show a marked upward spike in the rate of catastrophic injury.  The incidence rate of fatality from 1989 to 2009 was 4.05 per 100 000 (21/518 286), while the incidence rate of fatality for the 2007-2009 study period was 7.29 per 100 000 (7/95 892); the increase was statistically significant.

The bulk of the article goes on to look at what may be the attributable cause for this:  “The quality of the stock just keeps getting better….”  In other words, the steers are being selectively bred to be bigger and more ill-tempered.  Whether this is true or not would require on-going analysis of the data beyond 2009, I think, but it is an interesting proposition.

I was pleased to see some of the youth camps profiled in this article ‘played it safe by rodeo standards’ and required the boys to wear helmets and vests when riding.  The Butterwick study noted “It is unknown whether rodeo protective vests have a protective effect in reducing catastrophic and fatal injuries. On the contrary, helmet use in bull riding and rodeo events seems to have a protective effect in reducing both catastrophic injury and fatality.”

I’m always delighted to see when primary scientific studies coming from this and other sports medicine journals are dealt with in-depth in the popular media.  Too often, the data and discussions from these studies are reduced to sound bites which lack a nuanced appreciation for what is being reported.  The CJSM study and the New Yorker article both make excellent reading, and I commend them to you.

And please, let us know your thoughts, most especially if you are someone with interest or expertise in this exciting sport. Is rodeo ‘the most dangerous sport in the world?’  Let us know!





About sportingjim
I work at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio USA, where I am a specialist in pediatric sports medicine. My academic appointment as an Associate Professor of Pediatrics is through Ohio State University. I am a public health advocate for kids' health and safety. I am also the Deputy Editor for the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

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