It's spring, and that means rodeo season is ramping up, especially in the American West. Some professional cowboys will soon be competing almost every night in bull riding, calf roping or steer wrestling.
But along with the trophy buckles and cash prizes, cowboys also bring home injuries — some of them severe. Some rodeo events are more dangerous, and less lucrative, than football and other contact sports.
An Unsteady Paycheck
The 2012 Houston Rodeo begins with a prayer and the national anthem, followed by the first event: calf roping.
But for many cowboys, the rodeo starts several hours before that. Doctors and athletic trainers wait beside a row of massage tables at the rodeo's medical clinic, close to the animal pens. There, Steven Peebles pulls off his boot to show a therapist surgical scars on his right ankle.
"[Broke the] bottom of my tibia off, broke my fibula," Peebles explains. "Dislocated my foot, tore every ligament in there."
Peebles mashed up his leg back at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December. If this were any other professional sport, he'd still be rehabilitating. But Peebles competes in bareback — riding a bucking horse with no saddle for eight seconds.
Peebles is 22 and doing pretty well on the national circuit, but rodeo isn't like other professional sports that pay a steady salary, like football or baseball. He makes money only if he competes.
"It's Houston: big money, big rodeo, good horses. Had to come," he says.
A doctor injects the ankle to numb it, and a therapist massages it. Then athletic trainer Robbie McFarlin steps forward.
"I'm gonna tape you ... up pretty high," McFarlin explains to Peebles. "It'll be fast, don't worry."
'Not Your Average Desk Job'
McFarlin says cowboys get all the sprains and bruises that football players get — and then some.
"Here, you're gonna have more stuff broken, more stuff crushed. Hopefully not. But this is not your average desk job, that's for sure," McFarlin says.
There are no rules requiring cowboys to wear helmets, neck braces or protective vests. And while many competitors do, that equipment is no guarantee against injury. The animals buck, just as they're supposed to. Gravity and chance ultimately have their way.
Competitor Casey Colletti made $155,000 riding bareback last year, but he's paid for it in pain. He lists his injuries, starting at his head. "My neck hurts right now; I got kicked in the face by a horse a couple years ago; I just had a few stitches. They didn't knock no teeth out — very, very fortunate on that," he says. "I got a hernia; LCL [lateral collateral ligament injury in] my knee; I had a horse flip and break my foot. Lower back hurts every day."
Dr. Tandy Freeman is the medical director for Justin Sportsmedicine, which operates free clinics at 125 major rodeos a year. Freeman says a bull rider or bareback rider, when compared with a football or hockey player, is much more likely to get injured each time he competes.
"In bull riding, for instance, we see a new injury every 15 bull rides, on average," Freeman says.
'A Huge Adrenaline Rush'
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association oversees close to 600 rodeos a year, and there are many more events for amateurs, students and even seniors.
The sport has come a long way from its original roots. A working rancher doesn't regularly climb on specially bred bucking bulls that weigh 1,500 pounds, for instance.
Which raises the question: Why compete?
Colletti says his father, a former competitor, tried to warn him off the sport. But Colletti was hooked after his very first bareback ride.
"It's a huge adrenaline rush. I mean, I never done no drugs, but I think I could guess it'd be the closest thing, you could say," Colletti says. "People like riding roller coasters, skydiving, stuff like that. It's kind of the same thing."
Colletti, 26, might compete into his early 30s if he's lucky. After he retires, he plans to return to his native Colorado and build houses.
Only then will he undergo some long-delayed surgeries.
"You can't quit," Colletti says. "I mean, you can't quit doing what you love [just] to heal up. ... I guess we'll see in 20 years if I regret or not. I won't regret it, because I love it."
Ultimately, Colletti earned nothing in three nights of riding in Houston and failed to advance to the semifinals. So he — and hundreds of other cowboys — move on to the next competition.