June 2017, the Ponoka Stampede in Alberta, Canada. As Luke Branquinho thundered across the arena, everything was going exactly as planned. The world champion steer wrestler leaned out and, gripping the approaching ox’s horns, swung himself off his horse, using his 250-pound body to slow the 500-pound animal down. At that moment, everything else—the crowd, the competition—dropped away.
The pro cowboy knew he was about to knock the animal onto its back, and in record time. He would secure a win and the prize money, which would help him keep competing on the rodeo circuit, in good form for the National Finals Rodeo in December, as well as this month’s Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, one of the biggest events of its kind in North America.
But as he threw his right arm across the back of the steer’s head, there was a crunch and a grinding sound from his right shoulder. The well-muscled limb went limp. Even with one arm useless, Branquinho had the steer on its belly in seconds, but when the pain from his shoulder hit—the force of his joint separating had ripped the capsule, labrum, and rotator cuff from the bone—he let go. “I’d already come back from dislocating the same shoulder six weeks before,” the 37-year-old told Houstonia over the phone in February. “I knew my 2017 season was over.”
Afterward, orthopedic surgeon Tandy Freeman, the Dallas-based sports doctor most professional cowboys swear by, confirmed that Branquinho would not be competing for the rest of the year. In need of at least four months to recover, he went home to his family’s ranch in Los Alamos, California. Still, he wasn’t fazed by the injury.
Rodeo is one of the most dangerous sports in the world, and cowboys risk torn muscles and broken bones every time they enter an arena. Branquinho says he’s learned to be flexible with his plans, because one three-second ride-gone-wrong is all it takes to change everything. He sat out the National Finals Rodeo in Vegas—the world championship for the sport’s top athletes—and decided to focus on Rodeo Houston instead.
Every year, the Bayou City’s rodeo draws the best cowboys from across the globe. “Houston is incredible. When we get there, they treat us like professional athletes. We have places to eat, we have places for our animals. If we need anything they’re always ready to help us out,” Branquinho said. “And aside from that, the pots are huge. If you win Houston, you’re set for the season.”
The rodeo-cowboy life is one of fairly slim margins. Branquinho is a five-time world champion, and he’s earned more than $2 million in winnings since he turned pro and started riding the circuit back in 2000. But in this sport, when you don’t win, you lose the money you’ve spent on travel, entrance fees, and other costs.
Branquinho has been successful enough that missing the 2017 season wasn’t the end of the world, he said, but he went into 2018 intent on making up for lost time. After spending months at home with his wife and three sons, slowly rebuilding his right arm and practicing his sport with motorized steers, he felt ready to get back into the Houston arena.
“Houston offers some of the best competitors in the sport and it’s an honor just to be there, but I’ve won it before and there’s nothing that feels like that. I was the top steer wrestler in 2015 and took home more than $50,000,” he said. “I want that feeling again. I think this could be the year.”
He was sure of this, in fact. Until he was injured again.
Shortly after speaking with Houstonia, Branquinho found himself pounding on horseback after a steer in the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. The animal was running alongside him, and the cowboy reached out for its horns with a fluid motion. But as he wrapped his right arm around the back of the steer’s neck, tugging on the other horn with his left one, he felt a too-familiar sensation: a rip, then the crunch of bone and muscle.
It was his left arm this time. The bicep muscle had torn off the bone. “So I won’t be in Houston this year,” he said in another call the morning after. “I knew it right then.”
But it’s not the end of Branquinho’s 2018 season, he insisted. “I’ll be back on the road by June or July,” he said as he headed to Dallas to get his shoulder repaired once again. “And next year, I’ll be in Houston, and if I have good rides while I’m there, who knows what will happen?”