Rodeo athletes play through the pain because they can’t afford not to

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (CIRCA) — Rodeo athletes are basically freelance workers. They have no guaranteed salaries and no health insurance. There’s no governing body like in other major sports, which means there’s no regulations when it comes to the kinds of injuries athletes can and cannot compete with, including concussions.


For cowboys competing in the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, dislocated elbows, broken bones and concussions are just part of the job. That’s what makes rodeo athletes some of the riskiest clientele for insurance companies.

“I’ve basically destroyed my body for 15 years doing what I love,” says Tyler Scales, a 32-year-old cowboy. Tyler’s list of injuries includes 27 staples in his head, a torn labrum, multiple broken bones and surgeries.

“I’ve got some other guy’s ligaments in my foot,” he said. “Twelve-hundred (dollars) a month (is my insurance premium) — and that don’t cover anything,” he laments.


Ryan Eskalis
Cowboys suffer dozens of injuries over their careers, and they don’t get paid a lot of money for their efforts.

Helping athletes avoid medical bankruptcy

In 1990, the Justin Boot Company in partnership with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) created The Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund (JCCF) to help athletes pay for medical treatment and ease the financial burden that comes with serious injury.

“With no guaranteed salaries or injured reserve provisions in the sport of rodeo, these professional athletes are often left with no place to turn when faced with serious, sidelining injuries and the accompanying financial hardship,” Julie Jutten, executive director of the JCCF, wrote in a statement posted on the foundation’s website.

The only insurance option provided to rodeo athletes by the PRCA is a $1,000 deductible and $17,500 of coverage per accident. Athletes are responsible for the first $1,000 and 20 percent of all charges up to $17,500. To put this in perspective, under the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, each player has a $600 deductible and unlike rodeo, 100 percent of all in-network medical costs are covered.

The JCCF has awarded nearly $8 million in need-based financial assistance to almost 1,100 injured rodeo athletes and their families.


Ryan Eskalis/Circa
Cowboys pay to compete in rodeos and will thus go into debt if they don’t place high up in a spot that takes home some prize money.

Cowboy up

According to a study released in May 2018, rodeo is one of the most dangerous sports in the world. And bull riding is the most dangerous event in rodeo, according to a study by a University of Calgary researcher.

Claudio Feler, chief of neurosurgery at Cheyenne Hospital, says part of what makes treating rodeo athletes so difficult is the fact that they’re all cowboys and by nature, adrenaline junkies who are less than forthcoming on health issues.

“These athletes compete up to three times a week and travel thousands of miles between venues every year,” Feler said. “Most of them aren’t going to stop unless the pain is so severe they can’t move, or they’re on the brink of death. They’ll push themselves to the edge.”

Pay to play

“I mean this is how I make a living, this is my job. Well today, I didn’t get paid,” explains bull rider Gray Essary. “Just like with your job, you’re not very happy when you don’t get paid. I’m not very happy either.”

Cowboys pay to compete, so losing means not only losing out on income, but also going into debt. Essary left Cheyenne without injury, but he also left with less money than when he started after failing to reach the top three.

For Nic Lica, things are a little less stressful thanks to support from his family.

“Luckily my wife has — she works for a business, and we have insurance through them,” he said. “But a lot of these guys, including myself for a long time, don’t really have insurance. You don’t think about that kind of stuff. The goal in mind when you show up is to ride your bulls, and if you do that, more times than not, they’re going to pay you, and if you do that more times than not, you’re going to stay healthy. If you’re worried about going to get hurt, you’re going to get hurt.”

So with the inevitable risk of serious injury, coupled with the lack of access to affordable insurance, what makes these athletes continue to compete day in and day out?

As he finished wrapping his bruised body again for what felt like the thousandth time, Scales looked up with a smile and explained.

“When you make a good ride at a big rodeo, there’s no other feeling in the world,” he said.