Local, state and national rodeo officials say bull riders are more likely to die in traveling accidents to and from rodeos than in the arena.
But while the death of Eastern New Mexico University freshman Rolland Ellsworth Jr. — who was thrown and stepped on by a bull at a rodeo last week in Texas — was a rarity, the sport can still be quite hazardous.
The Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association sanctions about 700 rodeos annually in the United States and Canada and the last death occurred during a bull-riding competition in 2001, according to Ann Bleiker, director of public relations for the PRCA. The New Mexico Rodeo Association sanctions about 30 rodeos annually and has never reported a death.
“It’s very rare that we actually have deaths in the arena … because they take so many precautions now wearing the safety vests, wearing the helmets,” Bleiker said.
But PRCA officials say rodeo is an extremely injury-prone sport, especially for bull riders, when compared with other sports.
“One of the doctors we work with … who has done a lot of work in other sports said the injuries that happen in rodeo would be equivalent to like one injury every three plays in football,” PRCA spokesperson Cindy Schonholtz said. “There’s quite a bit of injuries to humans in rodeos, a lot more than other sports — definitely.”
Charles Chambers, ENMU rodeo coach for 26 years until he retired in 1998, said one of his riders in the late ’80s or early ’90s experienced severe blood loss and almost suffocated on his own blood when his head landed on a bull’s head during a rodeo at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.
“If you stay with bull riding long enough you’re going to get hurt,” Chambers said. “It’s not if, it’s when and how bad.”
Safety vests worn to protect the chest are now widely used in rodeo events, and Chambers said they offer great protection. Chambers also said the bull fighters are extremely important in distracting bulls after a rider has been bucked off.