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Sports and recreation
The Reno Rodeo began with ranch hands competing against one another as a way to bring the community together after WWI. It has transformed into a juggernaut event for the area, celebrating everything western. The 100-year history of the Reno Rodeo is rich and sometimes complicated, which has left a lasting impact on Northern Nevada. What has the rodeo looked like in the past? What are the attitudes on animal care and riders’ safety now? Does the Reno Rodeo still have a place in modern Nevada culture? Find out more through our series, “Spurs and Mud: A Century of Rodeo.”

Rodeo Injuries Persist Long After Competing

A man in a red shirt and cowboy hat is grabbing surgical bandages.
Holly Hutchings
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The Justin Sportsmedicine Team is on hand to help injured riders at rodeos.

The Reno Rodeo has ended, and some of the athletes are already headed to their next competitions. Injuries from these events can leave riders with lasting impacts, physically and emotionally, as they move forward. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck has more.

Inside the bright red Justin Sportsmedicine trailer, a mobile rodeo clinic, is organized chaos bustling with a tight-knit group of specialized medics. Propped up on one bed is the Reno Rodeo’s new barrelman and clown, John Harrison. He’s getting his ankled wrapped in white surgical tape.

A man in a cowboy hat is holding a man's leg as he lies on a bed.
Credit Holly Hutchings
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Tony Marek is slowly straightening and bending bull rider J.W. Harris' leg so he can compete again.

Bull rider J.W. Harris, is across the aisle. He traveled from Texas to compete and medics believe he was either hit by the bull’s horn or stepped on.

“Nothing a little tape won't fix,” Harris commented.

Harris remains calm as athletic trainer Tony Marek tries to straighten and bend his leg.

“One of the ways that they stay on these bulls is with their legs, and if he can't squeeze with that leg, it's going to be difficult to stay on the bull,” Marek said.

Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. Travis Kieckbusch is also in the trailer and has been treating patients at the Reno Rodeo for over a decade.

A man smiles in front of the camera wearing a cowboy hat.
Credit Holly Hutchings
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Dr. Travis Kieckbusch dressed in Western gear in the Justin Sportsmedicine Team's trailer.

“It's a very underserved population, medically, because they're difficult guys to take care of. They travel a lot, they’re not in one place for a long time, so they don't get necessarily the same medical care that other professional athletes get,” Kieckbusch said.

These athletes can be on the road for a majority of their career, going from one rodeo to the next.

“Rodeo athletes are not on a salary, so if you are not winning and competing in Rodeo, you're not getting paid. It's not like a professional football player who can go on injured reserve and take three weeks off and heal up. These guys have to continue or they can't pay their bills, basically. They don't stop for much,” Kieckbusch said.

That used to be a reality for a retired professional bull rider named Kanin Asay from Wyoming. Early on in his career, he never wore a helmet until 2008 when he suffered injuries to his skull, ribs, knee and spleen. After that, he started wearing protective headgear, even though it’s not required to compete. But at the Reno Rodeo in 2015, Asay got another head injury. This time, his kids were in the stands.

A facebook post with a photo of a man with his ear in bandages holding a little girl.
Credit Justin Sportsmedicine
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A photo of Kanin Asay with his daughter, posted on the Justin Sportsmedicine Team's Facebook page after his injury.

“It was kind of traumatic to them. They actually thought I had died. Their most vivid image of me in Reno,” Asay explains, “They didn't know what happened because they had wrapped the side of my face up because my ear was barely attached. It took over 250 stitches to reattach to my right year.”

It took one more injury, a dislocated shoulder, before Asay finally retired three years ago.

“My little boy, he started kindergarten that year and I didn't want to be gone all the time. To make money rodeoing, you've got to be gone a lot. We decided that it was time for me to stay home and take care of the ranch and do my best to not be stuck in the hospital anymore,” Asay said.

Robin Williams is another rodeo athlete who has endured a severe head injury. While barrel racing in Las Vegas, she lost her balance and was flung from her horse, which ultimately caused bleeding in her brain. In addition to physical effects, Williams feels other impacts, too.

A woman riders her horse in an arena.
Credit Robin Williams
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Robin Williams barrel racing on her horse Ray seconds before her injury.

“I was angry because I didn't feel right, my balance was off. And always before, the only place I ever felt completely okay, balanced, was when I was on a horse and that got taken away from me," Williams said.

Despite her family’s concern, Williams has competed in the same barrel race every year since. She considers it a demon she must conquer and actually began riding again before she was cleared by her doctor. It can be a real challenge convincing rodeo athletes to stay off their animals for an extended period of time. Dr. Travis Kieckbusch, the orthopedic surgeon we heard from earlier, explains.

“They're going to push the limit. I'm at the point now where I feel comfortable just telling them, ‘Look, here's your options and if you go back early, you take these risks,’ and if they understand those things, then that's their decision. They’re not the type of people who you’re going to say, ‘Don’t do this for four months,’ and they’re going to listen to you," Kieckbusch said.

According to the Justin Sportsmedicine Team, this year at the Reno Rodeo the organization provided nearly 400 medical treatments. 63 of those were for new injuries, which haven’t been previously recorded; however, it is unknown how many of those happened at the Reno Rodeo versus other competitions.

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