Davey Shields Jr. bursts out of the chute with his spurs held high on the shoulders of the bucking and twisting bronco, Time Zone. His hand jammed into the bareback rigging, he holds tight for eight seconds until the horn blows, when Shields lands hard while dismounting.
The sudden pain sends a lightning bolt through his chest but he won't let the Stampede Park crowd see the pain being inflicted by cracked ribs. Instead he smiles and waves his hat. It's the cowboy way: buck up.
The Calgary Stampede Rodeo will wind up 10 days of action with Wildcard Saturday and Showdown Sunday. With $1-million of the more than $2-million total prize money to be awarded on Sunday, contestants will be going for broke and spectators in the grandstand will be groaning as the cowboys get bucked off, trampled by bulls or hung up in stirrups.
The sport and broken bones go hand-in-hand. A study completed in 2000, using data collected at 1,300 rodeos over 20 years, revealed that 24 per cent of riders were treated for reported injuries. At the most egregious, deaths occur. Earlier this month, 18-year-old Makwala Derickson-Hall was killed after being bucked off by a bull and trampled during the annual Valemount Rodeo in B.C.
Bull riders are eight times more likely than a hockey player to endure a spinal injury, according to a recent study by kinesiology researcher Dale Butterwick at the University of Calgary. A previous paper showed that concussions constituted 10.6 per cent of all injuries.
Yet even as the NHL and NFL react to frightening medical data about the long-term effects of concussions, professional rodeo riders are not required to wear helmets. Biceps shear off the bone while arms are hung up in a rigging. Vertebras are compressed after bodies are hurled for a triple cartwheel off a steaming bronc. Yet the cowboys accept it as part of the job, and keep coming back for more.
"I've broken my ankle, had a tendon taken out of my wrist, broken my nose a few times, a bunch of ribs have been snapped, dislocated a shoulder, and after the 10th concussion, I decided a helmet would replace the cowboy hat," said bull rider Beau Hill of Columbia Falls, Mont., who won the Calgary Stampede event in 2003 and has qualified the final round on Sunday.
"I love this sport," Hill said. "We all understand the injuries are part of it and we take it as it comes. It's the cowboy way. If you get hurt, you get over it and get stronger. I stay as fit as I can, so I can handle what comes."
Shields Jr., Canada's only bareback rider to break the $1-million mark in career earnings, has claimed the buckle at the Calgary Stampede three times. His injuries range from ruptured biceps to broken fingers, toes and wrists, to the ribs he cracked in Wednesday's 81.5-point ride. But last June he had that "freaky" ride that left him with a broken leg.
"After 16 years of going to 80 to 100 rodeos a year," Shields said, "I can ride just about anything and the most important thing I've learned is to land properly. But just like any high-performance sport, freaky things happen, like the horse that stumbled and fell down breaking my leg last June. I didn't expect that and it did shake me up a bit. Heck, anyone in this business who says they aren't a bit scared is lying to you."
If you do the math, with Shields in 100 rodeos at eight seconds a ride, that's 100 chances of being hurt in fewer than 14 minutes. That's just while being judged. He still has to get off the horse in one piece.
According to Bob Robinson of Millet, Alta., a member of the Rodeo Hall of Fame, fear, respect and speed kept him out of the emergency room.
"I rode saddle broncs and bulls in the 1950s and made a pretty darn good living at it," Robinson said. "But I didn't ever think I was going to get hurt bad. Oh sure, I got bruises and bumps, but I never, ever let myself think about getting hurt. But I also think they are breeding really tough bulls now."
Shields said sometimes behind the chutes, he's startled by how much tape and binder twine holds some of the other cowboys together.
"I can't decide if they are tough or just plain stupid," he said. "We all have to find a balance and slowly killing yourself for the glory of any sport isn't right."
Retirement will come soon enough without careless mistakes. But with $100,000 ($12,500 a second) waiting at the end of an eight-second ride Sunday, it's the here and now that count.
"I just love the sport," Hill said, "and every time I crawl into a chute and nod my head, I'm looking for that big ride. If I'm trapped under a bull and can feel an injury in the making, I'm just thinking that this better not keep me out too long because I'm ready to get on another one."