Bill Zeigler remembers the time a horse dragged a bareback rider around an arena. 

The former trainer for the Texas Rangers saw blood running down the rider’s brow where he’d just been kicked. Zeigler assured the rider he’d help him get out, but to his surprise, the athlete didn’t want to get carried out and insisted on walking.

The experience was one of Ziegler’s first rodeos as a trainer. He is retired now but trekked over to Dickies Arena during the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo to visit his old friends on the Justin Sportsmedicine Team.

The rodeo sports medicine program’s origin is connected to the state’s other famous cowboys.

Walt Garrison, a former Dallas Cowboys player, used to compete in rodeos during the offseason. He asked the team physician Dr. J. Pat Evans, who also worked with the Dallas Mavericks, to accompany him on his rodeo circuit.

Seeing a void in medical care for professional rodeo athletes, Dr. Evans teamed up with an athletic trainer named Don Andrews. Shortly after, in 1981, the Justin Boot Company sponsored the program, which treats athletes for free.

Mike Rich, trainer and executive director of the Justin Sportsmedicine Team, sits on a treatment bed inside Dickies Arena. (Marcheta Fornoff | Fort Worth Report)

Mike Rich is an athletic trainer and the current executive director of the Justin Sportsmedicine Team. A big part of his job is making connections with trauma surgeons, physical therapists, massage therapists, dentists and care providers across the country.  

He has a small traveling staff and a network of volunteers and specialists in each city they visit.

There’s no “typical” night at the rodeo for his team, but Rich said the rodeo athletes are appreciative of everything his team does, even if it’s as simple as putting on a Band-Aid. Of course, many injuries they see require more than that.

Dr. Tandy Freeman is an orthopedic surgeon and the medical director for the program. “The roughstock guys are competing against other athletes, animal athletes, that outweigh them tenfold,” Dr. Freeman explained. “Whereas in other sports, you’re competing against somebody that’s pretty close to your size. I mean, it’s a big deal in a sport like football, if you’ve got a 300-pound lineman and you’ve got a 200-pound running back. Well, here, you’ve got a hundred and fifty pound bull rider and a 1,500-pound bull.”

The team arrives at the arena early and stays as long as they’re needed; many of them sport cowboy hats and freshly pressed jeans.

Even though the Justin team doesn’t charge athletes for their care, deciding how to handle injuries is still a financial decision for many competitors who pay their own travel costs and entry fees for the opportunity to compete.

“Unlike a lot of sports, these athletes are independent contractors. You know, they don’t have guaranteed contracts with a team,” Dr. Freeman said. “Basically, if they don’t compete, they don’t eat.”

A few feet away, Trenten Montero, a professional bareback rider, was doing maintenance care on his shoulder and neck before his next rodeo in St. Paul.

He’s been riding bucking horses since he was a freshman in high school and has been a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association since 2012. 

“I think everyone that rodeos has had injuries where you kind of learn when it’s worth it to compete with an injury and when it’s not,” Montero explained. “If it’s the last month of the season and you’re on the bubble to make the finals, you know, you might have to just put some tape on something and try to get by with it. But, you know, if it’s still early in the season, you’ve got a lot of time later. You need to just let something heal up and you can do that, too. There’s a lot of strategy involved in it, I’d say. And definitely being healthy in the long term is a lot better than trying to ride injured in the short term.”

The 29-year-old has plenty of experience with injuries. He listed off what he described as “a few pretty good concussions,” having a broken arm, breaks and surgeries for both ankles, herniated discs in his back and neck, a torn meniscus in his knee, and separated the AC joint in his shoulder.

But, the injuries have done little to deter him from competing.

“I was fortunate to have a lot of success early on and everything. So, that definitely motivated me knowing that I can do it,” Montero said. “Guys that get hurt before they have any success, it’s a little harder for them because you don’t really have a lot to fall back on. But I had a lot of support from my family, a lot of support from the Justin Sportsmedicine guys. They’re definitely a big reason why I’m still doing this. And, yeah, it’s just got to be in your blood a little bit. I guess you gotta love it enough that you’re willing to take the risk.” 

Nathan Harp, a bullfighter from Oklahoma, received treatment for his back before that night’s rodeo at Dickies Arena. (Marcheta Fornoff | Fort Worth Report)

Bullfighter Nathan Harp laid on another bed in the treatment room. His job is to steer the bull away from riders by distracting them with sound, movement and touch.

Over the years, the 31-year-old from Oklahoma has racked up a few injuries of his own.

“So in 2017, I tore my knee. I had an ACL, MCL, meniscus surgery, broken ribs, had hip surgery a year or two ago, um a broken arm, hand, finger …stuff like that,” Harp detailed. “But I’ve been very fortunate, you know, throughout my career to be healthy. God’s watched over me, for sure.”

When Dr. Jason Mogonye, a primary care sports medicine physician, is at the rodeo, he watches it differently than the average spectator.

“Are they doing what they’re supposed to do, like are they spurring the way they’re supposed to spur? Is their arm moving the way it’s supposed to move? Or are they hurt while they’re on the animal? Or are they injured when they get off?” Mogonye said. “So we still enjoy watching it, but you definitely watch it a different way. You’re always looking for something that’s a little out of sorts.”

Dr. Mogonye competed in rodeos when he was younger and has volunteered with the group for 13 years.

The good news is as long as I’ve been doing it to get to know the contestants really well, there’s a continuity kind of going down the road. You see the same people over and over again. And that works out really well because they see your face. They trust you,” Dr. Mogonye stated. “They know that you’re going to tell them the right things, that you’re going to be honest with them. You’re not going to hold them up for no reason. But if they need to sit out, they understand the importance of that.”

Staff on the Justin Sportsmedicine Team travel to rodeos around the country, and they try to connect athletes with care even when their destinations diverge. 

“So if you get hurt here, but you’re going to San Antonio or you’re going to Oklahoma, I can make a phone call and they will treat you like a professional athlete,” Rich, the program’s executive director, said. “They will slip you in, get you in the next day and take care of you. And that’s what’s unique to the program is referral sources and the connections.

Although his team will sometimes have to send people to the hospital or refer them out for follow-up care, Rich appreciates that the riders can focus on getting care without worrying about costs while they’re at the rodeo.

“Medicine has gotten so convoluted with insurances and co-pays and, you know, authorization checks and all that stuff,” Rich explained. “And the reason doctors love to work with me is because we don’t do that, like, we don’t care. We’re going to sew a guy up or we’re going to get an X-ray. We’re going to do whatever, and it’s the reason we went into medicine.”

Dr. Evans passed away in 2019, but the medical team he built rides on.

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here

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Marcheta Fornoff

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...

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