Life in wheelchair steep price for a short bucking ride to rodeo glory

John Crasti bull riding at a rodeo in Tamworth.
John Crasti bull riding at a rodeo in Tamworth.

BOUND to a wheelchair and largely paralysed from the neck down, John Crasti wouldn't mind one last shot at the novice bull-riding buckle.

The 18-year-old was crushed under a 680-kilogram bull at a rodeo in Orange in country NSW four weeks ago.

But a broken neck, weeks in intensive care and the uncertainty of his recovery have done nothing to dampen his love for what is known as ''the most dangerous eight seconds in sport''.

''I don't think I'd ever ride again,'' Mr Crasti says from a Sydney spinal ward. ''But I'd like to stay in the loop and either go to [rodeo] commentating or judging.''

Bush rodeos have been responsible for crippling injuries and a handful of horrific deaths.

Animal welfare advocates are stepping up their opposition to the sport.

Yet despite steady population declines in the rural towns that host the sport and provide it with its cowboys, the sport appears to be flourishing.

One of the largest rodeo groups in the country, the Australian Professional Rodeo Association (APRA), has seen a steady increase in membership since it was established in 1944.

The group is responsible for about a fifth of the 500-odd rodeos in Australia each year and has more than 20,500 members, up from about 16,000 in 1995.

In some towns, the annual rodeo remains one of the biggest events on the social calendar. On a Saturday night in Tamworth, about 3000 fans sit in an undercover arena awaiting the ''Professional Bull Riders'' event.

Bull riding is the most dangerous event in a rodeo. The cowboys are often under 25 years old and not much bigger than the average jockey. The format is American - a dramatic production summarised by its tagline: ''This is pain … and fear … and blood … and courage … and glory.''

Coloured lights dance across the audience as the cowboys are brought out, among them reigning Australian PBR champion Troy Wilkinson.

To achieve a ''qualified ride'', he must cling, one-handed, for at least eight joint-tearing seconds on a bucking bull.

''I grew up on a farm,'' he says, explaining that he started riding sheep in the shearing shed aged six, and entered his first rodeo at 10.

''It's like any sport. You know you're going to get hurt eventually, but it just depends how much.''

Rodeo administrator Steve Hilton says for every 20,000 annual competitors at APRA events, the association receives just 20 to 30 insurance claims. ''That means from stitches to broken legs,'' he says.

Deaths and paralysing injuries such as Mr Crafti's have forced the rodeo industry to defend its safety record over the years - most recently in 2007 in Ipswich where a bull crushed a 33-year-old rodeo rider to death.

Yet it's not the human toll that motivates anti-rodeo campaigners, but that exacted on the bulls, horses, steers and calves in the arena.

''The public is rightly questioning why we are still treating animals like this in 2012,'' says Lisa Chalk from Animals Australia, which is seeking to ban rodeos entirely in Australia. (The ACT has already outlawed them.)

The organisation's prime target is the calf-roping event - already prohibited in Victoria and South Australia - in which a calf is lassoed and its legs tied.

''The force caused by lassoing and violently jerking them to a halt, then throwing them to the ground, can lead to severe internal injuries including torn ligaments, disc rupture and internal haemorrhaging,'' Ms Chalk says.

The RSPCA is also calling for the events to be banned, or failing that, compulsory registration and licensing that

would remove devices that cause pain.

''In the case of rodeo activities like bull riding, devices such as flank straps, spurs and electric prodders are used to encourage the animal to buck and react,'' RSPCA spokeswoman Elise Meakin says.

APRA says it is pushing for national standards on rodeos' treatment of animals, but that the concern for animal health was often unwarranted.

''Something in pain doesn't perform to its best,'' says Mr Hilton. ''[Standards have] got to a point now where it's pretty good.''

He says the association's figures showed there was one injury for every 1200 times an animal was used in the rodeo arena.

An animal died or was put down for every 8300 animals used.

Back at the bull-riding event in Tamworth, a family night out attended by young couples, retirees and groups of school friends, the crowd ''ohhhhs'' and ''ahhhs'' as riders come close to clashes with horns or hooves.

No one appears to suffer serious injuries, although the pain inflicted on the animals is unknown.

While Mr Wilkinson doesn't do as well as he had hoped - no official placing, but he clung on for the mandatory eight seconds in the first round before being bucked off - he delights in the atmosphere regardless.

He says for some people, the bull-riding arena is their life.

''I don't want [animal rights advocates] to kill the sport. A lot of people make a living out of it.

''We do respect the animals. They are looked after.''

This story Life in wheelchair steep price for a short bucking ride to rodeo glory first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.