Why Do Some Bull Riders Prefer to Wear a Hat Instead of a Helmet

Professional Bull Riders Championship round in St. Louis

If one were to think of the most vivid icon of the modern West, it would likely be the rodeo rider.

While football players can be entertaining with their bulky pads and helmets, cowboys are out there nearly every night wrestling to stay atop a bucking bull or bronc, wearing not much more than their shirt, pants and hat.

Though a few top riders can take home a big purse for a few seconds of hanging on real tight, most of the guys and girls coming up are riding for not much more than the love of the sport. They may hurt themselves now and then, but that’s the name of the game.

Unfortunately, according to rodeo statistics, rodeo is actually more dangerous that riders make it out to be.

Dale Butterwick from the University of Calgary found that there were 49 catastrophic injuries at rodeos from 1989 to 2009 which led to 21 deaths. (1) Riders, especially bull riders, get injured or die at a higher rate than athletes in any sport, and a rider can be compared to a mostly unprotected quarterback facing an 1,800-pound lineman.

With all the risks, why aren’t riders better protected?

Maybe about 40 percent are, according to a 2008 USA Today article that describes a gradual trend of riders wearing padded vests or helmets. (2) But safety equipment is still voluntary for major rodeo associations, and some conclude that they may hinder, rather than help, safety.

The current thinking against safety equipment includes the following opinions:

Tradition. A tough cowboy pitting himself against a tougher animal is what rodeo is all about. A helmet will ruin this image. In a 2011 ESPN piece, champion rider Kanin Asay said he started wearing a helmet after suffering traumatic injuries. Many modern riders commend him for taking precautions but older riders tell him he isn’t a true cowboy if he’s not wearing a hat. (3) True rodeo riders know the risks.

No requirements. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association continues to make helmet-wearing optional, even for riders under age 18. Other riding groups concur.

Different fit. Riders who have made a decent career out of rodeo wearing only their lucky hat have said that a helmet would just feel different and may even change their balance or range of vision.

No proof of safety. The USA Today piece included comments from riders saying that having a helmet may give riders a false sense of security and encourage them to take more risks. Plus it won’t prevent all damage from occurring.

Butterwick’s study showed that riders more often get kicked in the chest, and a vest may not even prevent this damage.

Of the 21 reported fatalities, he said 16 were due to riders being kicked in the chest, and only two had severe head injuries – and no helmets.

Overall, it does seem like a combination of younger riders and veteran riders who have been injured and want to keep riding are beginning to take helmets seriously. But they are also trying to buck more than a century of rodeo tradition and the nearly ironclad ‘cowboy way.’

But rodeo may not be the only sport to adapt – early football players wore simple leather helmets. As injuries increased, players grew stronger and more safety equipment was developed, players added shoulder pads, full head helmets and other protection. Injuries still take place, but likely are less prevalent.

It may just take a combination of time as more riders grow used to wearing helmets, equipment improves, and perhaps sponsors offer to pay to put their logo on certain riders’ helmets. For more Info about bull riding helmets check out Eight Second Rider.

This is a guest post by Ken Tabor a bull riding fan and Internet entrepreneur.

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