Danny Halverson pulled into rodeo grounds at Harlowton, Montana the Thursday night before Memorial Day. He put his two horses in a small corral and spent the night in his camper. Slated to judge the high school rodeo on Friday and Saturday, he rose early and tied the horses to his trailer. The morning was chilly and damp with a blustery north wind. He and the other judge set up the barrier and staked out the barrels. While they waited for the contractor to arrive with the identifying numbers for the bucking stock, Danny saddled Deuce, the horse he planned to use for flagging. He had purchased the coal-black gelding the previous February and had already used him at two other high school rodeos. Although he had been a little skittish at the first rodeo, he worked perfectly at the second. Danny noticed a new abrasion on the horse’s back when he curried him off. It was small and it looked like Deuce might have poked himself with a tree branch during the night. He wondered if there might still be a piece of branch under the skin but decided there wasn’t. He saddled the horse, slipped on a Tom Thumb snaffle and climbed into the saddle. Leaving his bay mare tied to the trailer, Danny joined some kids riding in an area of open grass not far away.
He had been riding for ten minutes and was trotting briskly in a big circle. Deuce crowded toward the trailer in the closest part of the arc on each round. This time he also whinnied at the bay mare and Danny jabbed him with a spur. Instantly, the horse dropped his head and began to buck. Although Deuce jerked him hard, Danny who had been riding with a rein in each hand thought sure he could just pull the horse’s head up. But instead, Deuce bucked harder. With each jump, Danny got looser and rose farther out of the saddle. After several jumps, he slammed hard into the saddle horn. He knew immediately that his pelvis was broken and would have been happy to fall off right then. But instead, the cantle caught him on his tailbone and threw him forward into the saddle horn again. Finally, Danny dropped one rein, shoved against the horn and pushed himself free. Hoping that his feet would come loose from the stirrups, he landed on his arm and shoulder. Deuce continued to buck, and Danny struggled to his feet. Although his hips felt like jelly, Danny managed to walk thirty feet before he settled back to the ground. Some one called an ambulance. X-rays showed a three-inch gap in the front of his pelvis. Later that day in a bigger hospital in Billings, doctors used metal plates and screws to fasten him back together.
Pelvis injuries to riders are both more common and more dangerous than most people know. Although a broken pelvis can occur at any age and to either men or women, it seems to happen most frequently to men fifty years old and above. It happens most often to riders of Western saddles. In some ways Danny’s experience was typical. First, the horse bucked unexpectedly and second, Danny fell hard into the saddle horn. Although he had known other men who broke their pelvis on horses, Danny never thought much about it and certainly didn’t know the serious side effects that can accompany such an injury. “I should have never got up,” he says now. “I could have cut off a big blood vessel and done a lot of other damage.”
Don Butler, owner the Custom Cowboy Shop in Sheridan, Wyoming, found out the hard way how dangerous a broken pelvis could be. He got up early to help friends move yearlings into a new pasture near Parkman. He had pulled his groin the week before, so he wrapped two elastic bandages around his hips and between is legs to ease the stress. He rode Cortez, a six-year-old Doc Olena-San Peppy bred gelding that he had been using in ranch roping contests. He and several other cowboys gathered 750 yearling steers out of a brushy pasture. As they moved them up a county right-of-way toward the fresh grass, Don used the opportunity to practice Cortez’s cutting skills. The horse worked well and seemed to be completely relaxed. As the herd strung out across the new pasture, the cowboys rode through it seeking the four steers with foot rot that they had seen earlier. With his rope ready, Don posted as Cortez trotted rapidly among the streaming steers. Suddenly, the horse doubled up, leaping forward and kicking out. The cantle slapped Don hard on his lower back and suddenly his belly felt like it was on fire. Don pulled on the reins, but Cortez continued to buck hard. Although the cantle slapped his back with each jump, Don doesn’t remember jamming into the saddle horn. To Don, the ride continued for a crazy long time. Finally, the horse sucked back, throwing Don out over his right shoulder. On the ground, Don struggled and managed to rise up on his hands and knees. “I didn’t really hurt that bad,” he recalls, “but I couldn’t get either up or down.” The other cowboys helped him to his feet but “things started to get fuzzy” and they laid him back down on the grass. They were thirty miles from town but there was a ranch across the road. It had no electricity but the woman living there owned a cell phone and called an ambulance. The ambulance driver got lost on the way. When the ambulance finally arrived, Don received three shots of morphine. Although he hurt, his pain was bearable. Finally, the hospital in Sheridan X-rays showed a huge gap in the front of the pelvis. A nurse cut the elastic bandages loose. “I just fell apart,” he says. His blood pressure dropped dramatically, and he began to hurt in earnest. The doctor called in air ambulance from one of the hospitals in Billings, Montana.
Don broke his pelvis in two places. With the bandages removed, it gapped as far as six inches in the front. He suffered significant internal bleeding. His urethra was torn and his bladder and prostate were damaged. He spent the next 40 days in the hospital. He too was pieced together with a metal plate and screws. He was off work for a full year and has had several ancillary operations since. If he hadn’t already been wrapped in elastic bandages, he might very well have died from internal bleeding or shock before the ambulance arrived.
In adults, the pelvis is essentially made up of two complex bones. They attach to the lower back in the sacroiliac joints on either side of the spine. They circle around in what is often termed the pelvic girdle and hook together in the front at the pubic joint. This joint is both tied together and cushioned by a thick layer of fibrous cartilage. Typically, in horse accidents, a broken pelvis can be accurately described as separated pubic joint. Although this joint was not designed to move much, early in life, it is fairly flexible. Over time this flexibility diminishes. By the time horsemen are in their fifties, the joint generally becomes brittle and inflexible.
The hips and leg muscles attach to the pelvis. Important nerves, large blood vessels, plus digestive and reproductive organs all fit inside the pelvic girdle. Damage to the pelvis itself is frequently accompanied by damage to the nearby organs. Often what people self diagnose as painful groin-muscle pulls are really minor injuries to the pubic joint. Nationally, by far, most broken pelvises result from automobile or motorcycle wrecks, but in areas where horses are ridden with Western saddles, horse accidents cause a significant portion of pelvic injuries. Dr. Michelle Donaldson, an orthopedic surgeon, practicing in Livingston, Montana sees several people each year who have broken their pelvis in a horse wreck—sometimes from bucking horses, but also from falling horses that mash the rider. Emergency room doctors in the western United States see many injuries from horse mishaps including plenty of broken pelvises.
Red was the only horse Wayne Jarrett could catch that early May morning at the family ranch near Big Timber, Montana. Although he belonged to Wayne’s son and hadn’t been ridden in quite a while, he moved out easily on a loose rein. About a mile from the house, Red hesitated near the top of a steep slope into a small draw. When he tried to grab a mouthful of new grass, Wayne kicked him. Red lunged forward beneath some low hanging bushes and dropped sharply down the bank. As Wayne threw an arm across his eyes to protect them from the scratching limbs, he catapulted forward, high above the saddle. Red landed first and rose into a second jump catching his rider in mid-fall. Pain shot through Wayne as his pelvis collided with the front of the saddle. Red reared and jumped several times before Wayne gathered up the reins and got him stopped. “I shouldn’t have gotten off, but I was hurting so awful bad,” Wayne says. “I probably could have ridden home.” Unable to remount, he tied the reins to the saddle horn and sent the horse home. Because the reins were not dragging, it didn’t occur to his wife, Lonnie, that Wayne might be in trouble. Meanwhile, internal bleeding was creating pressure in Wayne’s lower abdomen, and he began to feel lightheaded. He managed to crawl up out of the draw where he hoped someone would see him. Wayne is thankful that it was a warm day because Lonnie didn’t come looking for six hours. He spent several days in the hospital to get the swelling down so that doctors could insert a metal plate to stabilize his pelvis.
A colt that Roland Moore was breaking didn’t buck very hard, but he continued for a long time. Before he quit, Roland thought he might have pulled a groin muscle. He stayed sore for a long time. Later that summer, he put on a small horsemanship clinic near Kalispell, Montana. He rode his own perfectly gentle horse. At the end of the clinic, he dropped the reins briefly on his horse’s neck and used both hands to undo the microphone around his neck. When the horse drifted toward another horse, Roland surprised him with a spur to direct him back. The horse barely jumped, once; Roland barely moved. But suddenly pain cut up through his middle. Roland could walk but a doctor who had attended the clinic insisted that he go to the emergency room. X-rays showed a minor separation that Roland calls a sprained pelvis.
I’ve tried to analyze these incidents and think of things these men might have done differently to avoid breaking their pelvis.
Common sense rule #1: warm up your horse before getting on. Although Danny Halverson knew his horse to be gentle, it was a cool morning and Deuce did have a fresh sore on his back. Danny might have taken a couple of minutes to warm him up on the ground before he got on. The older ranch cowboys I grew up around always led their horse through a tight turn or two before they climbed aboard. Current techniques are more sophisticated. Jeff Griffith, Mike Beck and other clinicians teach students how to work their horses on the end of the halter rope to prepare them to be ridden and those techniques work well. A good warm up is no guarantee that a horse won’t buck but certainly makes the prospect less likely.
Another commonsense rule: Never surprise your horse. Both Danny Halverson and Roland Moore spurred at a time when their horses did not expect it, or at least did not expect to be spurred so hard. And did so immediately before the trouble started.
A third common sense rule: When a horse bucks, grab hold of the saddle if you can. My dad always told me that one of the two reasons saddles have horns is so that you will have something to hang onto if your horse bucks. Danny has always preferred to hang onto the Cheyenne roll on the cantle instead of the horn, but he didn’t grab either one. He’d been riding with a rein in each hand and no doubt did not want to drop one long enough to reach for the saddle. On a bucking horse, I prefer to take hold of the top of the horn so that your fingers curl under the front lip and the heel of your hand is snug against the back. That way, you can pull yourself forward as the horse jumps ahead and push yourself back when his front feet jam into the ground. You might be able to hold yourself back from falling hard into the front of the saddle. Easier said than done—it’s hard to think clearly when you unexpectedly find your horse bucking.
No one really knows what caused Don Butler’s horse to shift from a free-wheeling trot to violent bucking with no warning. He never did it before and hasn’t since. He had certainly been warmed up and Don didn’t surprise him, but maybe something else did. Don suspects that the passing steers disturbed a bee or wasp and it stung Cortez. Don got hurt on the first jump. He was helpless before he could do anything. There are just some things that you can’t control.
Two of these men had what they believed to be pulled groins before the incidents when they were hurt. They may have already damaged their pubic joint sometime earlier and were especially vulnerable to further injury. If Don Butler’s pubic joint was already partially torn, that would help explain why he split open almost instantly in front from a blow to his lower back. If you’re a rider, you need to take a groin pull seriously and recognize that it could be a symptom of pelvic damage. If you are over 50 and think you pulled your groin, it would be prudent to have the injury examined by a competent doctor before continuing to ride.
It makes sense to take reasonable precautions before and during a ride. But nothing about riding is foolproof. You should understand that you are taking a significant risk when you climb on a horse and be ready to deal with the consequences.
EPILOGUE: Danny Halverson has quit shoeing horses for a living and now makes hand forged iron products under the name of Bunkhouse Originals. He has been riding Deuce again without further problems. Don Butler is now back at work in his saddle shop. He sold his young horses and purchased two foolproof horses—both teenagers. Both Don and Danny had recurrent infections and had to have the screws and plates that held their pelvises together while they healed removed. The first time Wayne Jarrett rode after healing up, his horse ducked, throwing him against the front of the saddle breaking the metal plate. However, the pelvis held. He continues to operate the ranch. Roland Moore followed doctor’s orders and stayed off horses for three months to give it time to heal up. He is back ranching and riding colts.
Versions of this article appeared in Western Horseman and the Prairie Star in about 2005.
Copyright 2005 Jim Overstreet