Pushing Through the Pain
You get hurt. You get better. Back to work.
The perfect bulldogging run.
It begins with a nod and a start so fast your horse’s chest stretches the barrier nearly to breaking. You lean and grab the steer’s horns, control the head, slide out of the stirrups—left horn in your left pocket, right horn almost brushing your cheek. Land in a crouch, feet shoulder width, left leg staggered back. The steer slows, turns. You hook his nose and let his momentum finish him flat and fast, stopping the timer just north of three seconds.
As any steer wrestler will tell you, perfect runs almost never happen.
Your steer gets strung out wide and away from you. Or he stops and jerks your arm. Or you land on him wrong.
You're forced to hustle into position and try to finish him. Now, you're contending with a quarter-ton of momentum working against you. I turned 37 last September, and I know without thinking when I’m out of position, because if it’s not correct, it’s gonna hurt.
During the past two decades, I’ve had my share of injuries. Some guys bust up their knees. My problem area is my shoulder. In 1998, I tore my pectoral muscle and fractured the rotator cuff in my right shoulder. In 2005, the year following my first PRCA World Championship, I ripped my right pectoralis tendon off the bone.
In 2014, at the California Rodeo Salinas, I tore another shoulder tendon—my right latissimus dorsi. My surgeon told me to take six months off, but after four months of intense rehab, I was in prime condition. When the NFR rolled around, I still had a spot in the top 15, so I took it, placing in eight of the ten rounds and winning my fifth World Championship.
This year, I wasn’t so lucky. Last May, I was ranked third in the PRCA standings going into the Helldorado Days rodeo in Las Vegas. I leaned out to grab a steer, and he stopped and stepped behind my hazer. I had one hand on his horn and got spun around. My elbow hit the ground, and I dislocated my shoulder.
After six weeks of rehab, I was back and feeling good to go when I entered the Ponoka Stampede in Alberta. It was right around July 4th, and I drew a really good steer. I got slicked up his back and had control of his head. I planted my feet. Would this be a perfect run?
I started to hook up his horn and felt something tear in my shoulder. I could hear the crunching and grinding. Even before the pain hit, my shoulder gave out. My right arm lost all strength. I got the steer on his belly and tried to roll him, but that’s when the pain kicked in, my body telling my brain I better let go.
It’s physics, plain and simple: Bigger steers absorb more of a bulldogger’s body weight. Smaller cattle can bring the pain.
Think about it. You have a lightweight steer and a 250-pound man jumping on it off a fast-moving horse. If the steer crumples, you’re hitting the ground going 15 to 20 miles per hour. Something’s got to give, and if it isn’t the animal, it’s the cowboy.
Since my rookie year, in 2000, I’ve definitely noticed more smaller cattle. In steer wrestling, the required minimum is a 450-pound animal with nine-inch horns. They make a fair pairing. But I’ve run 400-pound steers with six-inch horns. Sometimes smaller. At the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo one year, I saw a bulldogger pick a steer up and lay him on his side, like a tie-down roper flanking a calf.
Part of it is the growing popularity of team roping. That’s driven up the demand for cattle. Steers seem to be shipping at a younger age, before they have time to fill out and grow longer horns. I’m not saying we don’t run big cattle. Take a place like Cheyenne. Lee Lancaster does a great job providing big, framey steers with long horns. Other contractors do the same. But 15 years ago, if you had a hundred steers, the majority would be full size. Today, you might find 20 framey cattle out of a hundred. You can watch old videos on YouTube to see what I mean.
I don’t want to come off like I’m complaining or laying blame, because I still love steer wrestling. And all of us bulldoggers draw from the same pen. It’s not like I’m the only one running little steers—or that the other guys are running big, framey ones. It’s just an observation, one that I think is worth sharing.
When I draw a lighter-weight steer, I rely on techniques I learned when I was little and just starting to bulldog. Without much bulk, I used my feet for better control. Now that I’m big, if I lean too much into a smaller steer’s head, he’ll crumple. Instead, in the head catch, I shift my weight onto the balls of my feet, which helps me slide and control my weight. For a big guy like me, staying on the balls of my feet is tough. It takes a lot of core strength. And I widen my base to help distribute my weight more evenly.
By now, everything I do in the few seconds it takes to wrestle a steer is muscle memory. It happens automatically, in a flash of instinct. Back in Ponoka, as I heard and felt my shoulder separate, before I could even conjure a thought, I knew in my gut that the 2017 season was over.
The surgeon who put me back together, Dr. Tandy Freeman from the Justin Sports Medicine Team, confirmed my suspicion. The capsule, labrum and rotator cuff, he said, had ripped from the bone as my shoulder joint dislocated. I needed at least six months of full-time rehabilitation. Unlike in 2014, I decided to use the full recovery period to get strong and healthy for 2018.
Sitting out the 2017 NFR was a hard pill to swallow. But I have three young boys and a wife at home. They give me great support. You’ve got us, they told me, Everything’s going to be fine. I also have a ranch to look after.
I’ve been doing as much physical therapy as I can and trying to maintain a healthy diet. The ranch chores—doctoring cows, pulling calves, feeding 10 or 20 bales of hay daily, moving panels, carrying pipe, fixing fence—is better than a gym workout.
Eating well is especially important for proper healing. For most of my life, I’ve been dealing with Type 1 diabetes. My body doesn’t produce insulin. If my sugar levels get out of whack, I feel terrible. Worse, my body might shut down. I literally weigh out food for each of my meals. A typical dinner is eight ounces of lean meat, seven ounces of a clean starch—potato without butter, or rice without soy sauce—and four ounces of fresh vegetables. I miss cheese and butter and ice cream. But your body is your engine. If you don’t take care of it, it’s going to quit running.
During my recovery, I’ve also been putting on steer-wrestling clinics at the ranch. As somebody who loves rodeo, I want to promote steer wrestling as much as I can. I give kids how-to and safety lessons. I help them get better so they don’t get discouraged. We had 50 students at my clinic back in November, including 15 young kids who chute-dogged and a bunch of other who jumped off horses.
I’m looking forward to rodeoing again in 2018. I view injuries like any other athlete: You get hurt. You get better. You go back to it. You roll with the punches. Don’t get me wrong. I take injuries seriously and work extra hard at recovery. But when you start worrying about injuries, you’re kind of done.
And, partner, I’m far from done.