YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Helmet's On

The cowboy hat is still a staple in bull riding, but a few of the tour's best are donning headgear that could set a trend

October 21, 2006|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

Earlier this year in Anaheim, Mike Lee gingerly lowered himself onto a four-legged instrument of the pain, locked his hand on a rope around the one-ton beast, then withstood eight seconds of hell.

When Lee finally dismounted from the snorting, high-kicking bull named Sheep Dip -- on his terms, not the bull's -- he was not wearing a cowboy hat as he soaked in the applause he'd generated by winning the Professional Bull Riders event. Instead, he wore a modified hockey helmet with a face mask made of 3/16ths-inch titanium.

When it comes to the test of ultimate cowboy manhood, bull riding, an icon of the American West looks a lot different than it did in your granddaddy's day.

"I'm not going to deny that a picture looks better when a cowboy has a cowboy hat on," said Wiley Petersen, who has won four times this season and ranks eighth in the standings of the PBR's premier Built Ford Tough Series. "[But] I'm not riding bulls to get cool pictures, I'm riding bulls to make a living."

Helmeted riders such as Lee and Petersen may be in the minority, but plans are afoot to make the helmet more widely used, although Randy Bernard, PBR chief executive, says he will never take the cowboy hat out of the company's bull-rider logo.

"Seventy percent of bull riders will tell you they're not putting a helmet on because 'Cowboys don't wear helmets,' " Bernard said. "Those that do, they say it's the smartest thing they ever did."

Still, the PBR-backed development of a bull-riding helmet, to replace the modified hockey helmet, was begun about 20 months ago, and Bernard hopes to roll out the prototype by March. He had hoped to unveil it at the PBR World Finals, which begin Friday in Las Vegas and extend through Nov. 5.

He also is encouraging junior, high school and college rodeo organizations to implement rules making helmets mandatory.

He adds, though, that mandatory helmets on the professional circuit are not right around the corner.

"There are too many people who feel they can't ride with them," Bernard says.

Many riders, because of previous injuries, wear helmets by mandate of the PBR's Dr. Tandy Freeman. If riders don't ride, they don't get paychecks. That's why so many compete even if they're banged up. Freeman says about 20% of competitors wear helmets on a given weekend, but less than 10% without having to be told.

Petersen is in that minority. He considers himself more a self-employed bull-riding specialist than cowboy. He figures the helmet will extend his career, that being a mangled traditionalist doesn't make business sense.

So he and Lee leave their cowboy hats in the care of colleagues when they lower themselves onto Mossy Oak Mudslinger, Smokeless War Dance or Reindeer Dippin' and take their livelihoods -- and their lives -- into their own hands.

One of every 15 rides results in an injury to the rider requiring medical care, Freeman said. Bumps, bruises and scrapes don't count, and neither do aggravations of previous injuries.

It's a tough way to make a living and Petersen sees no shame in trying to keep his head intact.

Lee, the 2004 champion -- he's third in the standings this year -- has had his head broken open twice from ear to ear, even though he was wearing a helmet, which dispersed enough energy for him to survive.

Two years ago, he required brain surgery after a bull named Chili split open his skull.

"Used to be, it wasn't the cowboy thing to do, maybe you were scared to wear a helmet," said Lee, 23, who is in his fifth professional season. "It's the smart thing to do. It's not a dorky thing anymore."

Not dorky, but ... The concern of critics is the helmet's weight and how it affects the balance of the rider and increases his chances of wrecking. A Bull Tough helmet and face guard, the kind favored by most who wear helmets, weighs a little more than two pounds.

Justin McBride, the 2005 PBR champion, is a helmet holdout.

"No helmet for me," he said. "I don't wear a cowboy hat because I'm a bull rider, I wear a cowboy hat because I'm a cowboy. I started out with a cowboy hat, and I'll finish my career with a cowboy hat."

Older riders tend to agree. J.W. Hart, 31, said he would end his 12-year professional career if the helmet became mandatory.

It won't, but research and development are underway for a helmet that will effectively disperse the impact of the head, horns and hoofs of a 2,000-pound bucking bull.

Bernard plans to offer scholarships and sponsorships to junior, high school and college associations that require helmets.

If that works out, he should be able to count on many more helmeted riders within five years.

"I don't want to implement a rule like we did with the [protective] vest, because it's unfair for cowboys that don't currently wear helmets," Bernard said.

But if younger athletes grow up wearing the helmet, "by the time they get to PBR, the riders would feel naked without it," Bernard added. "Any time you can save a life, it's doing your sport a favor."

Los Angeles Times Articles