WHEN ROPERS watch a head horse duck out, or see a heeler trying to stop his rope from running on the horn, their heart always sinks a bit thinking about the possibility of them finishing their run with fewer fingers than they started with. But it’s not always the “wrecks waiting to happen” that cost ropers their fingers. And, it seems coils are equal opportunity maimers—regardless of ropers’ ages, genders, or numbers, if they rope long enough, there is a good chance they will experience some kind of finger injury. The question will be: how bad is it? And then, do you try to have the finger reattached, or do you simply “let it go”?
Regardless of the path ropers choose, there are pros and cons of each. For Dakota Kirchenschlager, leaving his thumb off was the only option when he needed to be able to rope at his third WNFR a month and a half after the accident. For Rhen Richard, a 75-percent chance of a successful reattachment was good enough for the all-around hand who needed his thumb for the calf roping. And, team roper and rodeo athletic trainer JD Smith actually underwent both choices by default.
Rodeo sports medicine doctor, orthopedic surgeon, and team roper himself, Dr. Chris Miller with the Kansas Orthopaedic Center in Wichita, Kansas, said regardless of the decision ropers make, the likelihood of having zero lasting side effects from a finger injury is slim due to the circumstances.
How Do Ropers Cut Their Thumbs Off?
When a knife cuts off a finger, there is a good chance a hand surgeon can reattach it. Usually, this type of injury involves a clean cut by a clean object with no crushing or pulling action involved. But, when a coil cuts off a finger or a finger is caught in a dally, the chances of successful reattachment are not as good according to Dr. Miller, who is the official sports medicine doctor of the National High School Rodeo Association and the National High School Finals Rodeo.
“A lot of finger detachments are caused from a coil being sucked down over the finger (usually the thumb),” Dr. Miller said. “Well, that coil is 3/8-inch in diameter, as compared to a knife blade, so the rope creates a crushing injury that is far greater than it is in a knife injury.”
So, in roping injuries, the “crush zone” is at least 3/8 of an inch wide and Dr. Miller said usually even greater because of the additional damage caused by the rope coming tight around the finger and then eventually pulling it off.
“The rope does a lot of damage because it crushes the finger and then there is pulling and twisting after that, so it is not a clean cut. You lose sections of vessels, nerves, bone and tendon and then you have a big gap to bridge, which makes reattachment really difficult,” Dr. Miller said.
What if the Finger or Thumb is Still Partially Attached?
Now, if there is anything still attached after the glove is pulled back, that can make a big difference in the success of reattaching the finger.
“In the eyes of a surgeon, there is a big difference between cutting a finger completely off while you are roping or severely injuring it. If the finger has blood vessels and nerves still intact, that really does improve your chances of successfully putting it back on,” Dr. Miller said.
This was the case for Richard, whose thumb was held on by a small piece of skin. Although it didn’t look like much, it gave his surgeon something to work with.
“When I cut my thumb off, it was just a total freak accident. I was just making some easy, practice runs on a young horse of Rich Skelton’s and I roped the steer and intended to just bump him a little and not even really completely dally and when I did, a coil came down around my thumb,” Richard said.
He was medevaced to Baylor University Medical Center and his hand surgeon told him he thought there was a 75-percent chance he could successfully reattach the thumb.
“Because I really felt like I needed it to keep calf roping, a 75-percent chance was sure worth a shot to me, so I went in for surgery,” Richard said.
The surgery was successful, but the real challenge came during the recovery period. Richard was basically restricted to the couch for four long months.
“I had three big pins sticking out of my thumb, so that pretty well halted my cowboy life,” he said.
After his long lay-up, Richard was finally able to pick up a rope again, but he did not regain full function of his thumb.
“The thumb itself is a little shorter than it used to be and there are some parts of it I can’t feel anymore,” he said. “I also don’t have as much joint mobility. But I still think what I was able to regain is better than not having a thumb at all.”
If he had it all to do over again, the only thing Richard would have done differently is to grab a better rope out of his bag that day. He said the rope he was using was old and had a kink in one of the coils, which he thought might have caused the accident.
As Richard experienced, just because the finger can be reattached, doesn’t mean it is the easiest path in terms of the surgery itself and the recovery period.
What Should Ropers Expect After Cutting Off a Finger?
The hand and fingers are very intricate appendages and reattaching a severed digit from a roping injury is not easy or without side effects. The outcome greatly varies from case to case, but here are some general potential outcomes Dr. Miller said ropers can expect with finger reattachment.
- Several days in the hospital post-surgery
- Possibility of multiple surgeries
- Greater risk of infection (as compared to closing the wound and leaving the finger off)
- Unsuccessful reattachment
- Months of rehabilitation
- Four months to a year out of the arena
- Some loss of function
- Lasting side effects such as: Sensitivity, stiffness, swelling, reduced circulation and pain
A few years ago, JD Smith, who is one of Dr. Miller’s colleagues and the athletic trainer for many of the pro and college rodeos in the Midwest, actually cut his thumb off while roping at Dr. Miller’s arena.
“I have been roping my whole life and have made this run a million times, but for whatever reason, my rope slid about a foot on my horn and a coil came down around my thumb,” Smith said.
Smith was taken right to surgery and because he had some skin, a tendon and a nerve, as well as feeling and blood supply, he was hopeful the surgeons would be able to save his thumb. Unfortunately, Smith was allergic to many of the medications he needed, which he said caused him to have a lack of oxygen in his blood supply. After three surgeries trying to reattach the thumb, the surgical staff and Smith decided to have the thumb removed.
“I really wanted to keep the thumb because I wasn’t sure how badly I would need it to keep doing my job,” Smith said. “But now that I am used to going without it, I don’t really miss it much. There are some procedures I can’t do, but for the most part I am able to do everything I did before.”
“The harsh reality is if your thumb gets pulled off in a roping accident, 95 percent of the time, my advice is going to be to let it go. When JD cut his thumb off, I certainly understood why he wanted to save it. We were hopeful because he was in a best-case scenario with it happening right here at my place and us getting him right into surgery within three hours, but the thumb still didn’t take,” Dr. Miller said.
Let It Go
When Kirchenschlager cut his thumb off in the practice pen on October 13, 2016, he had less than two months to get back in the saddle for the 2016 WNFR. If he had undergone reattachment surgery, his chance in Las Vegas would have been given to someone else.
“I was just practicing at a friend’s house for fun and I came around the corner and heeled the steer and just let go of my rope, I didn’t even try to dally,” Kirchenschlager said.
The tail of his rope ended up wrapping around his thumb and pulled it off with such force the rope and thumb ended up shooting more than 50 feet across the arena and wrapping around the fence. Not only did the rope take his thumb, but it also pulled tendons out of his arm.
“Because the rope pulled tendons from my arm, reattaching the finger would have been an extensive surgery and recovery time. The surgeon told me I would be off a horse for six to eight months and that I would never regain full function again,” he said. “Roping is how I support my family, so not working for six months was just not an option for me and made my decision clear.”
The surgeon closed up the wound and within a few days of being home from the hospital, Kirchenschlager said he got out his “Cowboy Toy” dummy and started swinging and throwing a play rope from the couch. As you can imagine, the pain was excruciating, not only in his thumb, but his arm and shoulder too. But, he pushed through and just 10 days post-surgery he was back on a horse with a rope in his hand.
“I had some slow Jerseys at the house and I spent all day and some nights on a horse re-learning how to swing my rope and place my loop leading up to the NFR. It hurt so bad, but I needed every minute I had to re-learn how to rope,” he said.
His grit paid off when he and his header, Tyler Wade, managed to bring home nearly $50,000 from the 2016 WNFR.
Although his recovery time was shorter, Kirchenschlager also has residual side effects because of the injury.
“Still to this day I will have pain in my shoulder and thumb, more than a year later. I’ve also noticed I don’t have the ability to really reach out and rope one anymore. I have to be in almost perfect position and really place my rope just right to catch two feet now. Hopefully, as time passes, I will get back to where I used to be,” he said.
Kirchenschlager had a bigger battle because of the amount of tendon damage, but his results are not totally out of the norm. According to Dr. Miller, if the roper and surgeon decide to let the injured finger go, here is what to expect.
What to Expect When You Cut Off Your Thumb Roping
- Surgeon will shorten finger, cover wound with healthy skin and stitch shut
- Six to eight weeks out of the arena
- Lasting side effects such as sensitivity, phantom pain, and tendon sensitivity in the hand
Depending on the injury, Dr. Miller said surgeons might go to greater lengths to save an index or pinky finger because they have greater functionality than a middle or ring finger, but they are not any less complicated to reattach.
“I know a lot more team ropers who have decided to simply have their wound closed and let their fingers go who are happy with the choice they made, than I do people who have decided to reattach the finger,” Dr. Miller said.
What Should You Do If You Cut Your Thumb Off Roping?
God forbid the day comes when this kind of injury happens, but Dr. Miller advises ropers to weigh their options now, just in case they ever find themselves as the one the flagger is coming to check on.
“I know it can be hard to think about letting a finger go, especially in a high-stress situation. But maybe reading an article like this one ahead of time will allow ropers to think through and prepare for what is really just part of the sport we love,” Miller said.
Creating a Best-Case Scenario
There are things ropers can do to create a best-case scenario for finger injuries in the roping pen.
For a completely severed finger:
- Run clean water over the finger and handÑjust enough to remove any debris. Do not scrub.
- Place finger in air-tight, plastic bag (like a Ziploc) and put on top of ice in a small coolerÑkeep it cool, not frozen. Do not put water or ice in the bag.
- If finger can’t be found quickly, go to the hospital without it.
For a partially severed finger:
- Run cold water over the injured hand to remove debris.
- Do not scrub.
- Wrap hand in a clean cloth or towel. It does not have to be sterile—just clean.
Regardless of whether the finger is severed or still somewhat attached, Dr. Miller said if at all possible, try and find a hospital that has a doctor specifically trained in hand surgery. However, time is of the essence. Go to the nearest emergency room for assistance in finding a facility with a hand surgeon and to care for you in the interim.