Emily Beerstra, 21, has always loved the rodeo. “I love watching it and I always wanted to try it.” So she made a weekend trip to Millarville Rodeo School in Alberta where they teach both teens and adults how to ride bucking horses. They don’t see many girls there, but Emily needs to learn the trade to compete in bronc riding with the boys. 

As it turns out sitting on top of an angry, bucking horse or bull is as dangerous as it looks.

In 2007, Dale Butterwick, a sports epidemiologist with the University of Calgary, created the first rodeo injury database to gather information about the sport.  His numbers showed that bull riders are ten times as likely as football players to be seriously injured. According to his numbers, between 2007-2009 20 out of every 100,000 rodeo contestants suffered a catastrophic injury (either died or had their life altered in a specific way).

Ross Kruetzer, a retired champion bronc rider and instructor at the school. “You’re going to get hurt, how bad? You might break an arm or something, but it’s going to happen.”

Out of all rodeo events, bull riding is the most dangerous — accounting for about half of all injuries. Most serious injuries happen when the rider is stomped on the chest or back by the bull. The rest are in ‘rough stock' events like steer riding, saddle bronc and bareback riding. Knee and shoulder injuries are most common — an alarming nine per cent are caused by head injuries.

Emily climbs on the horse. “I remember thinking — crap, I’m going over his head — face flat in the mud. But that was by far the best ride ever.”  Fortunately, there are trained medics at the school to check out injuries and teach the riders about prevention and how to monitor concussions properly. 

Emily and most of the riders are outfitted with flak jackets which protect against glancing blows but aren’t much help against a direct stomp on the chest. So far, there aren’t any manufacturing safety standards for rodeo equipment.

But most cowboys are still reluctant to swap the cowboy hat for a safety helmet, although the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association has made jackets, helmets and masks mandatory for child riders.

Despite the rough landing, it was an unforgettable experience for Emily. “It was great fun — hands down the best weekend of my life.” She hopes to return for another weekend next year.

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