Back in the Saddle
● By Melissa Mendonca
Justin Sports Medicine
A rodeo cowboy cuts a fine figure in the image of the rugged West that Americans love to glorify. Whether of the typically slight build of a bronc or bull rider or the burly stature of a bulldogger, there’s a reason a popular brand of Western wear tagged the line “Long Live Cowboys.”
Covered in dirt and muck from a hard ride in the arena or spiffed up in starched jeans and shirt, there’s something about a cowboy’s presentation that can conjure double-takes. Strength, masculinity, sex appeal—it’s all there.
What many don’t see, and what won’t ever be alluded to by the cowboys themselves, is the scores of injuries covered up by those jeans and button-down shirts.
Rodeo cowboys are in a class of their own in the world of sports. Although recognized as professionals through membership in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), they are free agents on the rodeo trail.
“These athletes pay entry fees,” says Colorado-based Rick Foster, director of the Justin Sports Medicine Team, the official healthcare provider of the PRCA. “In almost every other sport, a sponsor picks up entry fees and traveling expenses. Once at an event, the cowboys aren’t guaranteed any money.”
“If you don’t ride or compete,” says Foster, “You don’t have a chance to make money, to make a living.” Nor do you have a chance to collect the winnings that can propel you to the National Finals Rodeo held each December in Las Vegas, often referred to as the Super Bowl of Rodeo.
This financial incentive to compete at all costs, combined with the fact that rodeo events are often, in Foster’s words, “eight seconds of pure force and high repetition of force,” can create injuries unique in the world of sports medicine.
When a human athlete competes against an animal athlete, as in bull and bronc riding, “the forces that produce injury are so much greater,” says Foster. “The opponent is quite a bit bigger.”
The Justin Sports Medicine Team is often the only healthcare the rodeo cowboys get, and it’s free to them at the elite PRCA rodeos.
When Foster’s team sets up its mobile clinic this month at the Red Bluff Round Up and in May at the Redding Rodeo, they will be in one of three trailers sent out to the 125 PRCA rodeos the Justin Sports Medicine Team ministers to annually. Rodeos are chosen by their ability to attract top athletes.
“Our biggest success is utilizing local talent,” says Foster of the professionals that volunteer at each rodeo. While the Justin team has a staff of eight, it uses a cadre of 500 volunteers across the country to provide the best care.
In the North State, this includes Dr. Rico Dotson and Ed Stroman in Red Bluff and Dr. Paul Schwartz in Redding, among others.
“The biggest and best thing they do,” Schwartz says of the Justin team, “is keep track of the rodeo athletes. They’re able to keep track of injuries they had at the last rodeo when they come to our rodeo.”
While Schwartz may only see a cowboy at local rodeos, he has access to medical records that inform his treatments. He also understands that he needs to create a treatment that, to the best of its ability, will allow a cowboy to continue to compete even though it may not be in the best interest of the body’s ability to heal.
He hones his skills in rodeo-specific treatment annually at a conference held in conjunction with the National Finals. He has presented there as well.
“Cowboys are clearly some of the toughest guys out there,” says Schwartz. “They pretty much don’t let anything stop them in terms of injuries. They don’t have any money. They don’t have any health insurance. And they get hurt all the time. They just sort of suck it up and keep going.”
The Justin Sports Medicine Team has been pulling into the Redding Rodeo grounds for about 15 years, long enough for Cottonwood’s Stephanie Hartman, 29, the daughter of a rodeo director, to grow up around it. As an athletic teenager and part of the rodeo family, she got to know Foster and observe his work. This translated into an interest in sports medicine that propelled her to professional training as a certified athletic trainer with a master’s degree in Health Management.
Today, she is studying at UC Davis to become a physician’s assistant and volunteers with the Justin Sports Medicine team at her hometown rodeos, in Salinas and at the Cow Palace. She considers Foster a mentor.
If you attend the Red Bluff Round Up or Redding Rodeo, try to catch a glimpse of the red sports medicine trailer behind the chutes. That’s where Foster and his team of local volunteers will bear witness to the injuries you likely will never see or hear about.
“Volunteering your time isn’t a big deal when you’re helping people who are so appreciative,” says Hartman. “Plus,” she says of the athletes, “they’re hilarious.” Long live cowboys, indeed.