For bull riders, serious injuries come with the occupation. Still, doctors, riders, and researchers are quickly becoming concerned about just how prevalent brain injuries are within the sport.
The Professional Bull Riders’ circuit made several steps over a decade ago to try to limit the number of brain injuries experienced in the sport but many associated say concussions remain the most common injury among riders.
Under the current PBR rules, riders are given access to countless health specialists, riders born after 1994 are mandated to wear helmets, and concussed riders are required to pass a test before hopping back in the saddle, but many are afraid these limits aren’t enough.
The lead medical staffer for the PBR says he hasn’t seen a drop in the number of brain injuries within the sport despite the widespread adoption of helmets. Even more concerning, there are no safety nets to allow riders to properly heal before rushing back to the arena.
In the professional bull riding circuit, there are no multi-million dollar contracts or unions to protect riders. If you want to get paid, you have to ride. The majority of riders don’t have the extra money to adequately prepare for injury and being out of competition. In the rider’s eyes, the only options are to force themselves to ride or not eat.
This issue is made even worse because there is very little research or data available to analyze the rate of concussions in the sport. The largest available data set was collected from 1981 through 2005 at almost 2,000 Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association-sanctioned events and recorded 859 concussions during various competitions such as calf roping, bareback riding, and bull riding.
According to the study, brain injuries accounted for 52.1 percent of all major injuries, and “anecdotally, the vast majority of them were bull riders,” according to Don Andrews, a retired athletic trainer who established the first sports medicine program in rodeo and assembled the data.
Perhaps the biggest concern for the sport is the lack of effective helmets. The league only requires riders born before 1994 to wear head protection, but many riders have adopted helmets over the years. Unfortunately, they appear to have any effect in preventing concussions.
“What I can tell you is that there does not appear to be a statistically significant difference between riders with helmets versus without helmets in the number of concussions received yet,” Dr. Tandy Freeman, long-time head of PBR’s medical team, told Mercury News.
The best tool Freeman says the league currently has is the ability to gather baseline cognitive data at the beginning of the season, this way medical teams can accurately check for concussions later in the season.
“About 16 percent of the injuries we deal with are concussions then from there everything is broken up pretty much into thirds,” Freeman said.