This Cowboy’s Goal: Riding Without Pain

By Drew Munhausen

It’s not uncommon for Anthony Thomas to ride through the pain.

The hard-driving professional rodeo cowboy from Australia competed for more than a year and a half with a broken arm, gripping on to his horse using nothing but a leather glove wedged into a piece of rigging shaped like a suitcase handle. No saddle — just Thomas and a strip of solid rawhide.

Even without injury, the force of holding on during a bareback ride can be painfully difficult, the equivalent of strapping your hand to an anvil and tossing it off a building, according to Thomas.

“Mastering bareback riding is to have perfect control of your body in a completely out-of-control situation,” Thomas said. “You’re showing flare and aggression in an all-out fistfight, man versus beast, in perfect synchrony.”

But when he started to lose all feeling below his elbow, Thomas knew something was seriously wrong.

Time to Seek Medical Help

An X-ray and an MRI showed just how extensive his injuries were. More than just a fracture, Thomas had torn ligaments, had signs of repeated hyperextension and more. He needed extensive surgery to repair his arm. Thomas typically competes in 100 or more rodeos a year while training colts in his spare time; surgery would mean valuable time away from the sport.

“Competing in rodeos is a way of life,” Thomas said. “It’s really tough to take a break from competitions when an injury pops up. If I’m not competing, then I’m not making any income. Riding and competing is my way of life.”

Luckily, Thomas found a surgeon who was able to repair the damage.

“This type of surgery could have been career-ending,” Thomas said. “Dr. John Conway did my surgery in Fort Worth and it went really well. I had never done much physical therapy after an operation, but I knew if I wanted to get back to riding that I was going to have to do it this time.”

Learning the Ropes of Sports Rehab

Thomas sought out the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute for therapy on his arm. It was there that he met Brian Duncan, Physical Therapist and Director of Human Performance, and Blaine Schmidt, performance coach.

“We knew that he was going to need specialized care due to the nature of his sport,” Duncan said. “We took it upon ourselves to study the biomechanics of bareback riding, so that we could really understand the demands of the sport and the rehab programming that he would need.”

While some athletes use weights or proper stretching to recover from their injuries, Thomas followed a more unconventional rehabilitation regimen. In one instance, Thomas’ strength and conditioning coach sat on the ground with a set of battle ropes. Thomas held onto the ropes with one hand, as if they were the reins of a horse, while his strength coach, Blaine Schmidt, pulled against the ropes.

Thomas has been attending therapy at The Institute since October 2018. He typically visits five times a week as long as his schedule allows it. Most days, you can find him powering through an individualized workout focused on his specific rehab needs. 

Combining Therapies and Treatments to Boost Recovery

But he also undergoes other rehabilitative treatments, such as dry needling, a technique where thin needles are used to penetrate the skin and help to relieve pain and improve range of motion, or joint manipulation in the neck, back and arm to relieve pain and further improve motion. The therapy has helped him to ease back into riding. Recently, he started travelling again to compete on the weekends between sessions.

Although Thomas has competed in the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo for the past few years, his injuries prevented him from qualifying this year. Still, Thomas vows to be back again soon.

“It gives me even more motivation to keep working and stay healthy so that I can compete next year,” Thomas said. “Even after five months of therapy, I still feel my arm strengthening each day. It’s my faith in God that has motivated me to ride in the first place and keep pushing on through injuries. There is still some work to do. The goal is to be a world champion one day.”

Follow Anthony Thomas’ rodeo journey on Instagram or on Facebook at Anthony Thomas Professional Cowboy.

After a sports injury or corrective surgery, sports physical therapists and kinesiologists at The Institute develop individualized recovery programs to address a host of orthopedic problems including those affecting the shoulder, back, neck, elbow, wrist, hand, hip, knee, ankle or foot. You can find more information on physical therapy services provided at the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute here.

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