Originally designed to train would-be rodeo stars, mechanical bulls gained prominence as an activity for adults, usually at country-western bars, after the success of the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy.
But in recent years, modified smaller bulls — surrounded by a cushioned area — have become popular attractions at birthday parties and other events for children. However, new research conducted by Dr. Suresh Magge, board-certified pediatric neurosurgeon and co-medical director of CHOC Neuroscience Institute, and colleagues suggests mechanical bull riding can pose significant dangers for children.
“We noticed a pattern of kids falling off mechanical bull rides and sustaining serious head injuries,” Dr. Magge says. “Surprisingly, we found that most of the injuries were not due to the fall itself, due to significant padding on the ground. Instead, the injury often took place when the child didn’t get out of the way in time before the mechanical bull spun back around and hit the child in the head.”
Study details severe injuries
Dr. Magge and co-authors Drs. Jordan Wu, David Gibbs, James Cappon and William Loudon, and Amy Waunch and Anthony Vargas published their findings in a paper titled, “No More Bull: Pediatric Head Injuries as a Result of Mechanical Bull Rides,” which is the cover article for the June issue of Child’s Nervous System.
“The severity of these injuries is extremely concerning,” Dr. Magge says. “As a neurosurgeon, I am used to seeing many children with head injuries and nondisplaced skull fractures from falls. The difference here was that we saw a number of kids with significantly depressed skull fractures, some of whom required surgery.”
The nine patients who participated in the study ranged from ages 4 to 14. Six had skull fractures from being hit by the bull swinging around. Another patient suffered a ruptured tympanic membrane, and an eighth had a seizure after a head injury from the bull. A ninth patient fractured an elbow. Five of the patients required surgery.
A lack of research around mechanical bulls
Surprisingly, when he started looking into existing literature, Dr. Magge found little clinical research regarding children injured by mechanical bulls.
“These are serious injuries that need to be taken into account, and when you look at the websites of some of the companies that rent out these machines, I don’t see discussions of these types of injuries or even age limitations,” Dr. Magge says.
Dr. Magge hopes this study will prompt more research from pediatric specialists across the country, especially in areas where mechanical bull riding is popular. Dr. Gibbs, director of trauma services at CHOC and a co-author of the paper, is already working on additional research on pediatric bodily injuries that are a result of mechanical bulls, which will be published separately, possibly later this year.
Mechanical bull riding is an important public safety issue
Dr. Magge says he hopes his research will spark a discussion on the safety of mechanical bull riding for children.
“We need to have better awareness of the risks associated with these rides,” Dr. Magge says.
“I hope that better safety measures can be instituted, such as age restrictions for children, helmet requirements, and automatic mechanisms to shut off the machine once a rider has fallen. These are only potential ideas, but we need to have this conversation.”
Adds Dr. Magge: “These are preventable injuries, and I hope we can figure out ways of working with both regulating authorities and the companies who design the mechanical bulls to create safer rides.”
CHOC Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2022-23 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the neurology/neurosurgery specialty.