Substance Abuse Among Bull Riders?

A recent post by Shannon brings up an issue which seems to have been swept under the rug in the sport of bull riding—until the heroin/cocaine overdose death of 21-year-old PRCA bull rider Bryan J. Guthrie last December.

In the majority of other sports, some athletes use steroids, have alcohol or drug problems, or become addicted to painkillers prescribed for their injuries. (In the PBR, it was the bulls who were using steroids.) Bull riders seemed to be immune to such problems…or we just didn’t hear about them, because the Powers That Be make sure that bull riding is perceived as an All-American Wholesome Sport and bull riders are All-American (and Brazilian and Canadian and Mexican and Australian) Wholesome Good Boys.

The odds are, that can’t be true. Besides, plenty of All American guys get hooked on alcohol or drugs, and they still think they’re invincible. Now, nobody in his right mind would get on a bull drunk or stoned unless he had a serious death wish…but what about after the 8 seconds? Going drinking after a big event? No big deal—although maybe that’s why the cowboys were flying every which way at the last New Orleans event, while the bulls were rock steady. Obviously the bulls can hold their liquor better. That’s not what I’m talking about.

What about after a rider is out of the limelight? When he retires, or gives up, and lives with chronic pain or recurrent physical problems for the rest of his life? The PBR and PRCA have funds to help with a rider’s medical expenses—but what if he has an addiction? Needs therapy or rehab (not the physical kind)? If those needs are covered, the issue itself is hush-hush.

I hadn’t heard any talk of alcohol or drug abuse in bull riding, but I figured that was because getting on a bull blasted would be a sure way to die, and getting busted would mean the end of a career in the PBR. But prescription drug abuse is even more insidious, because those are legal drugs, and painkillers are the most popular.

I’m quoting Shannon here:

“As for your remarks on what they go through physically, first off, I agree. Secondly, I can’t begin to imagine how many of them must have arthritis settling in much earlier than other people would. I have a friend who runs a recovery book store and she’s seen many a rodeo cowboy in there. Seems that they have a high rate of prescription drug addiction, which makes sense. I was proud when I heard Paulo say once that he’d stopped taking the pain meds after a couple of weeks and was just dealing with the pain by using aspirin or Tylenol. You really have to stay strong and keep your brains about you.

These particular cowboys weren’t famous, just some guys who were doing something nearby and found her store by searching online or asking around. It would make sense, though, if there are quite a few out there who have secret addictions that they are trying to hide…I can’t imagine how a bull rider feels at the age of 30 after doing when he’s done most of his life!”

I hope those cowboys who wandered into her friend’s shop find their way to Narcotics Anonymous. All that “cowboy up” stuff about being tough and independent is exactly what they don’t need when they’ve got an addiction.

Injuries aren’t the only reason for substance abuse, though. According to his obituary, Bryan Guthrie was the 2003 National Junior Bull Riding Champion, and in 2008 was ranked No. 1 in the PRCA world standings. The next March, a serious injury took him out of action for four months, and on his return to riding he was seriously injured again. No riding, no income, no backup plan, and no working riders to hang out with: the road to serious depression.

Like so many kids stuck in their home town after their dreams crash and burn, with no future they can see, Guthrie tried to kill the pain. He hung around with a failed rider who was addicted to prescription painkillers, thought he could “save” him, and ended up joining him instead. Then he upped the ante: heroin killed the pain, all right; it does a good job of keeping someone from thinking. Mix smack and coke in a speedball, and your heart will break. Literally.

In a sport where mindless “toughness” is the most prized quality, a guy who rides 1800-pound animals isn’t likely to talk about being depressed, afraid, hurting, or anything other than tough. After enough years of wearing that mask in public, it gets stuck on; out of the arena, drinking and brawling are considered nearly part of the job. Bull riders are mostly done in their early 30s at the latest; if you’re not a big earner who socked it away and bought a ranch and livestock, or got a TV commentator gig, what’s your next act?

I’ll bet there are a lot of unsung retired bull riders (PRCA, PBR, and SEBRA) hiding a substance abuse problem, and feeling totally alone with it, because in “the toughest sport on earth,” addiction is seen as “weakness.” Being brave enough to get on a bucking bull’s back seems easy enough for hundreds of men—what about being brave enough to talk about alcohol or drug dependency? They could help a lot of young riders become aware of the pitfalls of “cowboying up.”


About Bull Riding Marketing

Creative services, marketing and public relations professional from entertainment industry background. Published in magazines and newspapers worldwide. I believe bull riders are the new rock stars.
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7 Responses to Substance Abuse Among Bull Riders?

  1. Dana Green says:

    I just read this article and really hoping you can help me. My brother is a team roper and has turned to alcohol to relieve his depression and pain. Nothing seems to be helping and so I thought I would see if you could. I know this was written in 2010 but if there are people who can help ex rodeo people I would greatly love to know more.


    • I think I have someone who may be willing to talk, but I have to talk to him first. If he’s willing, I will put you in touch.

      Also, Frank Newsom, bullfighter for the PBR, has talked freely about his alcoholism.


    • Hi, Dana–
      I don’t know if the link is still valid, but it’s worth a try. (I’m not pushing religion as a solution; everyone finds their own, but I do know that AA works.)
      RUNNING ON FAITH: Frank Newsom relied on faith and courage to overcome years of addiction and has become one of the all-time great bullfighters in the 20-year history of the PBR.



  2. Nikki says:

    Not too mention trying to stay awake and alert long hours on the rode driving from rodeo to rodeo, it’s very sad and very tough, I’ve seen cousins go through it.


    • Nikki, you’ve given me an idea. Do you think your cousins would be willing to say something about their experience–without using their names, of course, and making sure to change the details so their anonymity would be safe? I think it would be a valuable contribution to a realistic picture of the world of bull riding, and might help other riders who are having the same struggle.

      They could post their comments on my blog, and not have to identify themselves. I wouldn’t identify them as your cousins, either. What do you think?


  3. Shannon says:

    Ugh. Is “secondly” even a word? I swear I’m an educated woman who was once very good at writing and grammar, but I think you tend to loose it after many years of not doing it consistently.

    Anyway, I didn’t know about Bryan Guthrie. That’s so sad. I’ve been clean and sober for 19 years now and I know how hard it can be to admit your problems not only to yourself, but to your friends and family. Too bad he didn’t have anyone in his life who could help him (of course, he’d have had to want help).

    You bring up many good points here. I wonder how lonely life must be for those who only manage to get by on their paychecks because they never make it into the elite few who make near or over a million dollars. It must be be so tough.

    All of this makes me wonder about Nick Landreneau (the one who quit in the middle of an event). I’m not implying that there’s anything shady/serious going on with him. I’m just hoping it’s nothing more than he didn’t have the heart for it anymore and that he’s found another, decent, satisfying path to follow.


    • Well, I think if “firstly” and “thirdly” are words, then “secondly” is, too. I know what you mean about losing it–I’m going to be teaching three college English courses soon, and I’ll have to review grammar before I try teaching it.

      The big issue with getting help for a serious problem is the same old same old:
      “Men aren’t supposed to cry,” “Cowboy up,” etc. There’s no outplacement agency for ex-bull riders (like ex-rock stars), and without an education or fallback trade, they’re ripe for trouble. Feeling like crap makes people gravitate to crap, drugs kill the pain, guys usually think they’re invincible, they don’t believe in shrinks, they don’t know what the hell a 12 Step program is, don’t want to end up in the drunk tank or state looney bin, can’t afford some high-priced rehab, don’t realize that there’s actually a medical condition called “depression,” and that changing careers isn’t the end of the world. But when you’re 21, you think it is. I knew a 21-year-old, brilliant musician who committed suicide because he couldn’t see around the corner. Alcohol, drugs, gun, the end. Now his music (with his old band) is floating around the internet getting all kinds of praise from all over the world as being the forerunner of psychedelic pop or some such label.

      I think Landreneau finally admitted to himself that he was being a bull rider to live up to his father’s expectations or his own youthful fantasies, and that it wasn’t worth facing the stress and potential death if your heart isn’t in it. You gotta love it to do it. I hope he knows he made a smart decision and has the rest of his life ahead of him to do anything he wants.

      Now you’ve given me an idea for another subject: After the ball is over, what do you do for your next act, if you’re a bull rider? Stay tuned…


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