Bull Riding & Bodywork

Rodeo Pros Cowboy Up to the Massage Table

By Rebecca Jones

Cody Nance first climbed aboard a bull when he was 14 years old. He was so energized by the experience he wound up riding three bulls that night, and by the end of the evening he’d decided to abandon his other sport—football—to concentrate on rodeo.

The 23-year-old has been climbing onto bulls ever since. He eventually turned pro and was the 2009 Rookie of the Year on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) circuit, bringing in more than $160,000 in winnings that year.

If Nance, a native of Paris, Tennessee, cowboys up and is lucky, he’ll stay on a bull for eight seconds. That’s eight seconds of getting tossed, jostled, twisted, pounded, thrashed, and pummeled. If he’s extremely lucky, he won’t break, dislocate, or strain anything.

But no matter what he does, by the next day, he’s going to be stiff and sore. That’s just in the job description of those in Nance’s line of work.

Meet massage therapist Stacie Michael. She’s Nance’s secret weapon, and one of the keys to his success as a bull rider, as far as he’s concerned.

Michael lives in Edmond, Oklahoma. During the week, she practices sports massage and works at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Edmond.

But on the weekends, she hits the road to go where the bull riders are. She travels the country, sets up her massage table at bull-riding events, and offers to work out cowboys’ kinks. And there’s a definite need for these young men who spend their days clinging to the backs of one-ton, ornery bulls.

“It’s not your 8-to-5 job,” says Michael, 40. “Every guy you work on is different. There’s a lot of lower back and sciatic work. A lot of pulled groins. A lot of hamstrings and quads. But mostly, it’s backs, shoulders, necks, and arms.”

For Nance—who aspires to a career in chiropractic medicine once his bull-riding days are over—it’s his right hip that’s giving him problems. “My lower back gets out of place and my hips wind up getting out of alignment,” he says. “I can get a massage on my lower back and my hips, and I ride better afterward. It makes me a lot more loose. I think it even helps my reflexes.”

Nance is not alone in appreciating the value of massage therapy for bull riders. Mike Rich, the executive director of Justin Sportsmedicine Team, an organization tasked with the ringside medical care of bull riders and other rodeo athletes, recommends massage to every cowboy. Rich is an athletic trainer and physical therapy assistant.

“It greatly benefits them to get in and get everything to relax,” Rich says. “It may not feel so good, but it gets good results. They don’t want to tighten up. After a ride, it’s important to get some blood moving. These guys get jerked around, and then they get in a car and ride for eight hours to the next place. So you see a lot of guys with lower-back pain. You see guys in their 20s who feel like they’re in their 40s and 50s. But because they’re still young, their tissue is more pliable. They’re responsive to massage.”

Rich finds that the more successful the bull rider, the likelier it is he will seek out massage therapy to help him stay in top physical condition.

“These are pretty tough guys,” he says. “Things we would whine about, they just go on with it. But at the highest level of the sport, they really try to take care of themselves. They’re more like other professional athletes. You don’t just tough it out and hope it goes away.”

Emotional Toughness

Ryan McConnel, 24, from Colgate, Oklahoma, was ranked among the Top 10 bull riders in the country last year, and he’s on track to repeat his success in 2011. Count him, too, among the bull riders committed to regular massage.

“I love to get a massage around my shoulder blades to let everything get loose again,” McConnel says. “My shoulders are in bad shape, and I tend to get real tight back there because I’m always holding them close to me.

“Everybody says ‘Just stretch,’” McConnel says. “But even when you stretch out, you still have spots that don’t get stretched. Massage just relaxes you and lets you be your best. When everything is working at its fullest, that has a huge impact on your riding.”

TJ Quinn, a massage therapist in Brighton, Colorado, met McConnel through her husband, a chiropractor. McConnel said Quinn’s massages quickly became just as important to him as the chiropractic adjustments.

“We’ve seen huge results with Ryan, and with other bull riders,” Quinn says. “We’re just able to make them more comfortable.”

Quinn says bull riders typically have a lot of holding patterns in their bodies because of the monotonous stress of bull riding. Deep-tissue massage, trigger-point release, and myofascial release all help reduce those holding patterns, she says. “If someone has a shoulder injury, he won’t move it freely and other muscles compensate, so he stops moving in a balanced way. So a shoulder injury can then create neck issues and back issues and hip issues. It’s a ricochet effect all the way down the body,” she says.

She typically does effleurage and petrissage strokes on stiff muscles, followed by trigger-point therapy. But she’s careful not to go too deeply into the muscle too quickly. “Being bull riders, they’re ready for pain all the time,” Quinn says. “You have to make them feel comfortable. You have to get through that emotional toughness.”

Far From Glamorous

The word tough doesn’t begin to describe the life of a professional bull rider. While a few do earn huge prize winnings—the world champion gets a $1 million bonus at the end of the year—many live hand-to-mouth, living out of their vehicles, traveling the rodeo and bull-riding circuits.

It’s far from a glamorous life for most participants in what is easily the world’s most dangerous professional sport. A 2007 statistical comparison of injury rates found that bull riders suffer 1,440 injuries for every 1,000 hours spent on (or almost on) a bull. That’s 10 times the injury rate for football players, 13 times the injury rate for hockey players, and 1.5 times the rate for boxers.

Rightly called “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports,” bull riders also bear the lion’s share of injuries among rodeo athletes, accounting for half the rodeo injuries reported between 1981 and 2005. Bareback riding accounted for another 22 percent, and saddle bronc riding accounted for 16 percent.

Concussions, dislocations, and fractures are the most-often reported severe injuries, usually incurred when the rider is struck by the bull’s head, stepped on, or thrown to the ground. Shoulders and elbows can get dislocated when the rider’s hand is still wrapped in the bull rope after he gets thrown off the bucking bull.

Since 1980, the Justin Sports-medicine Team has provided physicians, orthopedists, athletic trainers, and physical therapists to tend to the medical needs of injured rodeo contestants. Indeed, other health-care professionals are better equipped to deal with that sort of carnage than massage therapists.

But for every severe injury, there are twice as many minor sprains and bruises. And even injury-free rides can leave bull riders stiff and sore. The cowboy code is not to complain about it.

“You can work on them, and they say ‘I feel great!’ and then they go ride a bull and get knocked off, and there goes all your work,” Michael says. “But they just get up and wink at you and say ‘See you tomorrow.’ These are the toughest guys I know. Some ride with broken ribs, with casts on broken arms. It’s crazy. They get beat up every night. But that’s their job. They just want a massage to make them feel better and not be so ‘cripped up,’ as they would say.”

In Canada, massage therapists are included as part of the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sports Medicine Team, which provides medical services at about a hundred rodeo and bull-riding events every year. But in the United States, while some of the specialists on the Justin Sportsmedicine Team may be cross-trained in massage therapy, the emphasis is on caring for injuries, not on preventive maintenance.

Michael would love to be part of the official team that travels to PBR events, but so far that hasn’t happened. She has to cover her own costs to attend the events, and the economics of the situation restrict the number of events she attends.

“Two years ago, I could have flown to Albuquerque for $140,” she says. “This year, it was $325. On a good weekend, it takes 12 to 15 massages to make it financially worthwhile for me. It’s hard, because you never know what you’ll make, and I do have a family, so being away on the weekends is tough.”

Michael, the daughter of a college basketball coach, fell into rodeo massage almost by accident. She has a degree in physical education and went to massage school intending to work with basketball players. But when she came up short in required internship hours, she looked around for a substitute. She has a long-standing interest in rodeo, so she decided she would pair the two.

“We had a rodeo in Oklahoma City, and I called up those guys and said, ‘This is what I’m doing. Would you be interested?’ And they said, ‘Heck, yeah!’ So I brought my table down to the hotel where everyone was staying, and I was the most popular person there. That’s how it started,” she says.

She doesn’t try to displace the athletic trainers who already work with the bull riders. She simply tries to provide a different kind of massage that bull riders will find beneficial when they can squeeze it into their schedules.

A lot of riders simply can’t afford the luxury of an $85 massage. But McConnel says he’ll go out of his way to get one, even if it’s just 15 minutes in a massage chair at a mall. “This may not have been the thing to do 10 or 15 years ago, but now I think more and more bull riders are experiencing it. I know I’m not gonna stop,” he says.

The Stars of the Show

Of course, bull riders aren’t the only athletes in the ring who may wind up with sore muscles the next day. The bulls themselves exert tremendous energy, and some of the bulls radiate star power as well. PBR and rodeo officials invest considerable time and resources in keeping their bovine stars healthy, too.

A one-day, bull-riding event requires about 60 bulls, a two-day event requires 90, and a three-day event requires 110. Bulls are ridden—or, more often, attempted to be ridden without success—no more than once a day. Statistically, a bull will suffer a minor injury such as a muscle pull or scratch once in every eight events, PBR officials say.

Unlike their human costars, injured bulls aren’t allowed to compete until they heal. They don’t return to the chute until a vet determines they’re fully healed. The few who suffer career-ending injuries retire to life on a stud farm, where they go about the business of creating the next generation of bucking bulls. Most PBR bulls come from elite breeding programs, designed specifically to produce good buckers.

Some bulls do receive bodywork, usually from chiropractors specially trained to work on large animals. Sadly, no bull is known to have experienced the pleasure of massage therapy—yet.

“I know there are equine massage therapists who work on rodeo horses, but I don’t know about bull massage,” Michael says. “I wouldn’t want to be on the side of the cow kick when you hit a trigger point on a bull. That’s not a field I would want to get into.”

 Rebecca Jones is a Denver-area freelancer. Contact her at killarneyrose@comcast.net.