Bull riders risk major injuries at state finals

Thursday, June 14, 2012 | 10:57 p.m. CDT
Bull riders kneel to pray during the opening of the 2012 Missouri High School State Rodeo Finals on Thursday at the Boone County Fairgrounds.

COLUMBIA — A pink scar is a constant reminder of the dangers Justin Smith faces during competition.

The mark below Smith’s ear is the result of a bull trampling on the left side of his neck.

Smith, 16, of Columbia, is a bull rider in this year’s Missouri High School Rodeo State Finals at the Boone County Fairgrounds.

Smith and other high school riders face serious dangers every time they hop on the back of a bull, but they say the adrenaline rush makes the dangers and injuries worthwhile. Smith says he has never considered not getting back on the bull.

“If you get hurt playing football, they go right back out there, and that’s how we do it,” Smith said.

Smith, who began riding sheep at age 4, has suffered many injuries from the sport. He has separated his shoulder, broken his collarbone and been knocked out, resulting in concussions.

“There’s no way to prevent injuries,” Smith said.

But the riders take precautions.

They wear a helmet with a mask, a shock-absorbing vest, a mouthpiece and leather to protect their legs.

Phyllis Smith, Justin Smith’s mother, travels with her son every weekend to different rodeos. Even though she has witnessed his injuries, she still supports her son’s passion.

"He knows what to do to be safe," Phyllis Smith said. "You can't always be safe, but we do everything to keep him safe."

Nate Warthen, a 17-year-old from Joplin, is another bull rider who understands the risks. He says he used to be scared, but now he accepts there’s a chance he may get injured.

“When you’re going against a creature so powerful and you’re competing against it, the adrenaline rush is an awesome feeling,” Warthen said.

Bull riding takes more than physical strength and flexibility. To demonstrate bull riding's demands, only one of the riders in Thursday night's competition stayed on for the eight seconds required to receive a score.

“It’s mostly a mental game,” said Cole Bass from Jonesburg. “If you think too much, you’ll forget to do something and get bucked off.”

No matter what strategies they use, the riders can all agree that bull riding is a passion just like any other sport.

“If it’s something I enjoy so much,” Warthen said, “Why stop?"

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Claire Vinet June 17, 2012 | 5:14 p.m.

Yes, bull riding is dangerous - dangerous for the riders and dangerous for the bulls. The difference is the riders get medical attention when they're hurt. The bulls just have to endure the pain of injury until they're slaughtered. Rarely are they euthanized. That would ruin the meat, and the stock contractors want to ring every last cent out of them.

The other difference between the riders and the bulls is that the riders are willing participants. I don't think we should get too carried away in glorifying them.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 17, 2012 | 7:11 p.m.

It you find fault with rodeo treatment of animals I assume you would go ballistic over bull fighting.

While working in Monterrey, Mexico in the 1970s I would occasionally go to Sunday afternoon bull fights with friends.

The bull cannot win. Even in the event a bull should gore a toreador fatally, the bull doesn't get a pass to go back to pasture.

Bull fighting is clearly a ritual (ritual killing); it cannot be called a sporting event.

A program consisted of six bulls and three toreadors; each toreador fighting two bulls. Successful toreadors have the status of rock stars. One, in the 1970s, fought under the name "La Photographica" (The Photograph); he had been a classmate of one of my Mexican associates at National University in Mexico City, and both of them had degrees in Chemical Engineering.

My friend's observation was that dispatching bulls paid a damned site better than Chemical Engineering. :)

That's all the bull for this evening.

(Report Comment)

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