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Athletic Therapy on the Prairies

Mount Royal University athletic therapy graduates let their rural roots shine through 

Summit 2015 Cover - Prairie Therapy
MRU alumni Brandon Thome and John Reinbolt own and operate Prairie Therapy, an athletic therapy business serving the needs of athletes based in rural areas. ~Photo by Colin Way

By Lisa Kadane
Summit magazine

The noonday sun beats down on a hot July day and a bead of sweat trickles from Brandon Thome’s forehead to his chin as he deftly wraps a bullfighter’s ankle with tape.

“We tape their ankles every performance, so they don’t roll them over,” explains Thome, an athletic therapist and volunteer with the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sport Medicine Team (CPRSMT), as he tightly winds the bandage.

His patient, Scott Byrne, a rodeo veteran of 19 years, doesn’t seem to mind the snug ankle support — the taping is a precautionary measure to prevent injury while Byrne distracts an angry bull so the rider can get away after dismounting.

“These people here are pretty crucial to what we do,” says Byrne, nodding toward Thome. “Without them, my career would’ve been a lot shorter.”

Inside the infield building, just behind the chutes, athletic therapist John Reinbolt confers with a massage therapist who is flushing Luke Butterfield’s knee. The saddle-bronc rider’s right knee was scoped 12 days ago following a meniscus tear from riding on June 14. Butterfield needs the swelling to go down so he’ll have better mobility in the saddle today. Before the rodeo even starts, more then 30 riders, steer wrestlers, calf ropers and bullfighters will have been adjusted, massaged and taped to prepare them for the spills that inevitably come in their line of work.

It’s just another day behind the scenes at a rodeo — in this case, the world-famous Calgary Stampede — for athletic therapists Thome and Reinbolt. Both men earned their Advanced Certificates in Athletic Therapy from Mount Royal University as part of a degree program through the University of Calgary.

Now, Thome and Reinbolt work together, bringing their skills to athletes in Calgary and the rural communities of Rocky Mountain House and Sundre, AB. through their athletic therapy business, Prairie Therapy. They credit Mount Royal with helping them gain the practical and business experience that is crucial to starting their own athletic therapy practice.

Summit 2015 - Brandon Thom & Scott Byrne
Thome and Reinbolt - cowboys in their own right - take a break from duties tending to athletes at the 2014 Calgary Stampede Rodeo as volunteers for the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sport Medicine Team (CPRSMT). ~Photo by  Colin Way

The pair spend their weeks helping figure skaters, hockey players, skiers and farmers, among others, get back in the sport or out into the field after an injury. Then, instead of collapsing on the couch come Saturday, they dedicate their weekends between May and November to helping out at rodeos like this one as volunteers for the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sport Medicine Team, an organization that has been providing medical and therapy support to Canada’s pro rodeo competitors for 30 years.

Thome and Reinbolt were both recruited as CPRSMT volunteers by Mark LaFave, PhD, one of their Mount Royal athletic therapy professors.

“Because we teach students in the Athletic Therapy program, we look to recruit them into rodeo,” says LaFave, who himself has been volunteering with the CPRSMT since 1994 and is one of its past-presidents.

“Brandon and John have this passion to give back to rural-based communities,” he says. “They’re both rural kids ranch kids that moved to the big city.”

Reinbolt grew up on a ranch near Fox Valley, Sask., where he learned to rope calves, while Thome was raised just outside of Medicine Hat, AB. Though located in different provinces, the two towns are just 115 kilometres apart, and in that slice of prairie, rodeo culture is alive and well.

Summit 2015 - Prairie Therapy Cowboy Silhouette
A cowboy awaits his turn at the chutes. ~Photo by Colin Way

LaFave is impressed his former students have grown Prairie Therapy to include offices in Rocky Mountain House and Sundre, two examples of small towns where there is a dearth of therapy services.

He’s doubly impressed Thome and Reinbolt then spend their weekends helping rodeo athletes get back in the saddle, so to speak. In fact, LaFave nominated Thome and Reinbolt for the 2014 Mount Royal University Horizon Award based on the pair’s dedication to helping others.

But which came first, their love of rodeo, or the desire to be athletic therapists?

“We do the Prairie Therapy thing to support our rodeo habit,” jokes Thome. In reality, the two passions are nearly inseparable.

During the 2014 rodeo season Thome and Reinbolt will drive close to 22,000 kilometres around Western Canada, hauling a mobile treatment trailer stocked with two treatment tables, braces, bandages, tape, wound care, medicine and other supplies, as volunteers with the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sport Medicine Team.

Rodeo By The Numbers

• Bull riding and bareback riding are the 2 most dangerous events with the most traumatic injuries
• The most injured body parts for rodeo competitors are these 3: head, shoulders, and knees
• The average number of rodeos in Western Canada this season was 30, with 138 total performances
• The average number of competitors or support workers seen per day at a rodeo for treatment before or after, plus any care needed in the arena is 35
• There are 2,000+ man hours required by the CPRSMT to
coordinate practitioners for each rodeo, travel to the events
and work at this performance

Once on site at a rodeo they’re available to triage injuries, as well as teach injury prevention or help cowboys ride with existing injures. Two athletic therapists attend every rodeo, in addition to a chiropractor and a massage therapist. Thome and Reinbolt rarely attend events together, instead alternating rodeos; they also volunteer as service managers and medical coordinators for the CPRSMT, as well as hands-on athletic therapists.

“We cover 130 rodeos a year,” says Reinbolt. “Competitors come to us and say, ‘I’m going to ride today. What should I do?’”

Sometimes they just need to tape arms or ankles, other times they might refer the competitor for a massage or a chiropractic adjustment. If the injury is serious enough, Thome or Reinbolt can put the cowboy in touch with a sport medicine doctor who can order further screening. You could say the CPRSMT is like MASH, for cowboys.

As if to prove this point, the Calgary Stampede delivers an injury not 30 minutes into today’s rodeo. The crowd watches in horror as a bareback rider gets “caught up” trying to dismount his horse. He’s dragged along the ground hanging by his thumb for an agonizing minute or more while the pick-up riders try to slow down his horse. Eventually the rider is able to get his hand free and walks off the field to a chorus of cheers.

Fortunately, rodeo injuries aren’t always that dramatic, says Reinbolt. Instead, he and Thome see a lot of repetitive strain injuries — shoulders from too much lassoing, thumbs and wrists from holding on to a bull or bronc — as well as their share of blown-out knees, broken ankles and concussions.

“If a bull rider falls off a bull and gets stomped, he’s going to get hurt. But that’s few and far between,” says Reinbolt.

He recounts a story of a 14-year-old steer rider whose ride stepped on his back giving him two broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a lacerated spleen. As the boy was lying inside the ambulance he asked his father, “Dad, when can I ride again?”

To say that the cowboys Reinbolt and Thome work with are “tough” is an understatement. There aren’t many other athletes who would ride a bronc 12 days after having their knee scoped (and then manage to stay on their ride for the full eight seconds, like Butterfield). Basically, Thome and Reinbolt and all the volunteers with the CPRSMT understand rodeo culture and help these boys and men “cowboy up” for the next competition. But rather than letting them suffer in silence, which used to be the cowboy way, the team helps relieve their pain, or gently suggests they don’t ride.

“If they tell me to sit out, I sit out,” confirms Butterfield.

Following Thome and Reinbolt around at the Calgary Stampede, it’s easy to see the appeal of helping these athletes rural kids who started roping or riding at age three, and grew up on the back of a horse. The rodeo competitors love what they do, and are driven to get back in the saddle or on the bare back of a bull as soon as possible.

It’s exciting to watch them compete in adrenalin-fuelled events, but it’s apparent that what draws Reinbolt and Thome to rodeo is the way of life, the small town community spirit of knowing your neighbours and helping others.

“It’s the people, not the events. It’s an adrenalin-junkie sport, but it’s also a lifestyle,” says Reinbolt. “I love that we get to know the competitors and their families.”

It’s also incredibly rewarding work, because the patients are so completely appreciative, he says. It means a lot to Reinbolt and Thome to help these men maintain a lifestyle, and livelihood.

At the end of the performance, no one is seriously injured. Some of the riders have been knocked around a little bit, but they’ve been taped and treated by the CPRSMT. And when the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth wraps up after its 10-day run, Thome and Reinbolt will pack up the mobile treatment trailer and drive it to the next rodeo.

Summit magazine is published in the fall and spring each year. Its pages introduce readers to the exceptional students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters of Mount Royal University who are, together, helping to change the face of education in Canada.

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