When a bull rider enters the chute at a rodeo and grips his legs around a snorting, penned-up bull, the rider is essentially an NFL quarterback lining up in street clothes and a soft-padded vest facing defensive linemen weighing 1,800 pounds -- each.
Rodeo athletes get injured or die at a higher rate than athletes in any sport. Over the past two decades, bull riders -- the most injury-prone of any rodeo competitors -- have added helmets and protective vests for their rides in an effort to compete more safely. But it's unknown whether the vests, while almost universally worn, have any protective effects in reducing catastrophic or fatal injuries, a study released last month shows.
From 1989 to 2009, 16 bull or steer riders died from thoracic compression injuries -- blows to the chest. Of those, nearly all were wearing protective vests. None of the five rodeo contestants who died of head injuries -- including two bull riders -- were wearing helmets.
"I think it says vests could stand further investigation and need to be improved," said Dale Butterwick, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary in Alberta and the study's primary author. He said he believes that rodeo vests -- while helpful in preventing certain injuries -- fail to prevent the blows that most often lead to death, when a bull stomps on a bull rider's chest.
Even though some companies tout vests that resist collapse and protect riders against direct blows, Butterwick doubts those claims because he said he's never seen any proof. And there are no manufacturing safety standards for rodeo vests as there are for other types of protective sports equipment.
"To the best of my knowledge, if you took any current rodeo vest, laid it on the ground, zipped it up, put an egg between the back part and the front part and stepped on it, that egg would break. Well, the egg's your heart and any other vital organs. And so we're not there yet," he said.
Today's vests aren't much different than the ones introduced to the sport almost 20 years ago, said Cody Lambert, a retired bull rider and the Professional Bull Riders' livestock director. He should know. Lambert designed the first vest introduced into professional bull riding, a few years after his friend, legendary bull rider Lane Frost, was killed in 1989 when a bull's horn struck him in the side.
Lambert got the vest idea from those worn by his younger brother, a jockey who rode race horses. He modified a jockey vest to be worn on the outside of riders' clothing, be easily removed, be flexible and to have a Western look. He came out with the first prototype in 1993. The vests protected riders from puncture wounds, but he said that wasn't their main purpose.
"It's about spreading out the blow, the blunt trauma, and absorbing that, and the vest really did that and kind of slowed down the blow," he said. "As far as the protection level, I don't think they offer that much more protection today."
Researcher: A better vest could save lives
As a prominent athletic therapist and a fan of rodeo for more than 25 years, Butterwick said his phone would often ring whenever a death or serious injury in rodeo made headlines around Calgary. People asked questions about whether such incidents were common and what role protective gear might have had on the outcome. Data on rodeo injuries were scattered and incomplete, so Butterwick set out to create a comprehensive rodeo injuries database.
After four years, Butterwick had enough material to issue a report with his initial findings. The study showed that from 1989 to 2009, there were 49 catastrophic injuries, of which 21 were fatal. Of those deaths, 11 were bull riders, seven were junior bull or steer riders, two were female barrel racers and one was a saddle bronc rider. The ages of those injured or killed ranged from 9 to 49; about one-third were under 18. Nearly 78 percent of all catastrophic injuries occurred during bull- or steer-riding events.
Butterwick's study drew the interest of colleague Darren Stefanyshyn, a professor of physical engineering at the University of Calgary who analyzes motion in sports and tests the force of impact on sports equipment. Stefanyshyn said a bull can come down with a force that exceeds five tons.
"The impact energy associated with a bull stepping on a rider, for example, is on the order of five to 10 times greater than a tackle that's tackling a quarterback, or it's on the order of 50 to 100 times greater than a pitcher being hit by a line drive," he said. "It's an incredible amount of force and an incredible amount of energy, which can do an incredible amount of damage."
Butterwick contends that the 16 chest-related fatalities in his research likely could have been prevented with a better vest. He knows some people disagree with his conclusions because they know of cases in which a vest saved someone from serious injury.
"I think that when that happens they're more likely to have been hit when the body is free to move. So maybe they're standing and they get hit, or they're hung up on the bull and the bull swings his head and hits him with his horn in the thorax," he said.
"And I think the vests are really good at that kind of a mechanism, but when you're not free to move, when you're lying on the ground and the bull stomps on you, I don't like the odds of the vest doing anything substantial."
Corinne Derickson believed that her 18-year-old son, Makwala Derickson-Hall, was well-protected when he got on a bull. "He wore the helmet and the vest right from the beginning," she said.
But on July 9, 2010, Derickson-Hall was less than two weeks away from competing in the National High School Finals Rodeo in Wyoming when he was killed by a bull's hoof that came down on his chest during a ride at a rodeo in Valemount, British Columbia.
The bull had bucked the young man off and stomped on his chest just under his arm. Derickson-Hall jumped up and ran to the chute.
"He made it to the top of the chute. He had a seizure and fell off," Derickson's cousin Chad Eneas said. Paramedics weren't able to revive him.
"It doesn't make sense at all. Sometimes I am living with the fact that some things just don't make sense," Derickson's mother said. "People can ride for 20 years and retire being a bull rider and nothing can happen to them."
'It's just the nature of the sport'
Dr. Tandy Freeman attends to injured rodeo athletes at about 120 events a year as the medical director for the Professional Bull Riders and the Justin Sportsmedicine Team, which serves the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
The Dallas orthopedic surgeon said he feels that the number of chest injuries has gone down as vests have become more popular. Many major U.S. and Canadian pro- and youth-rodeo associations require vests. And they were commonly used during most of Butterwick's study period, Dr. Freeman said, so it's hard to know whether there would have been more injuries and deaths if riders had not been wearing vests.
Dr. Freeman agrees with Butterwick in that he'd like to see vests improved.
"There's not much of anything that we can't make better if we have better tools to work with, and vests, right now some of the issues have to do with the quality of the padding," he said.
The vest Becky Jackson ordered online for her son Peyton back in 2007 had about a half-inch of foam padding and a quarter-inch of bendable plastic covered by leather.
"I know that in a serious accident it's going to be minimal protection. And it's just the nature of the sport," she said.
At first she thought her 15-year-old son would quickly tire of bull riding and move on to something else, but she soon realized he had a passion for the sport. The first time she saw him compete -- Jan. 12, 2008 -- would be the last. His father, Tom Jackson, pulled the rope to open the chute.
"He did make a ride that night, and when he bucked off, the bull spun around and both of his hind feet landed on Peyton's chest," Tom Jackson said. Peyton got up, took two steps, then fell. Paramedics told the Jacksons their son had no pulse.
He died of blunt force trauma; his vest slashed through on the upper left side where one of the hooves had struck him.
"I wish it would've been enough to save him," Becky said. "But it wasn't."
Vest manufacturer sees hope in new equipment
David Pearson believes he has a vest that provides enough protection. Pearson is president of the Frank Stubbs Company in Oxnard, Calif., which makes the Rodeo Tech vest. It uses a honeycomb-like silicon material called Deflexion, invented by Dow Corning.
"Anything that you can do to help you if get hit, to help disperse that type of impact, the better off you're going to be," he said. "It could extend your career. If you're injured and you're a professional bull rider, you're not making any money."
Pearson commissioned third-party impact studies that he says show the Rodeo Tech vests disperse energy up to 40 percent better than other vests on the market.
In designing the Rodeo Tech vest, Pearson faced the same problem Lambert did 20 years ago: how to make the vest flexible and comfortable enough so bull riders can still twist, bend and turn while wearing it.
"Multiple layers of our material would provide even more protection than what we have, but the problem you run into there is the added weight," he said. "You have a rider getting thrown around on a bull, and now you're weighting him down more with a piece of armor."
Pearson is quick to point out that even the Rodeo Tech vest will not prevent a bull rider from being killed if he suffers a direct blow.
"There's not a product that can prevent it. I can't even tell him he's not going to be injured. All's I can tell you is that the impact material does a better job than what's available today, that's all I can tell him," he said. "There might be a new material coming down tomorrow that's going to be better. But right now, I feel this is the best thing I can offer them, and we're always looking for something that's going to be an advancement."
There are materials currently available that wouldn't collapse under pressure, but they're too limiting for a bull rider.
"You could wrap the athletes in concrete. You could wrap them in some type of metal. There's no question you could prevent [compression]," Stefanyshyn said. "But then how are they going to ride a bull?"
But he and others are confident that further impact studies, video analysis of injuries and testing, and modification of materials such as carbon fibers and titanium will yield a better vest.
Professional bull rider Kanin Asay upgraded to a Rodeo Tech vest and started wearing a helmet after a bull stomped on his chest during a Fourth of July weekend ride in 2008 in St. Paul, Ore. He suffered multiple fractures, broken ribs and a ruptured spleen that doctors had to remove. His recovery surpassed doctors' expectations, but he was still out of commission for two months.
Asay, who has qualified for four Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association National Finals Rodeo competitions and won the event in 2009, says he believes that helmets, along with better vests, can actually help reduce fatal chest injuries by preventing a rider from being knocked unconscious. If the rider is still awake and alert when he hits the ground, he can try to roll out of the way of the whirling bull, he said. Of the 16 bull or steer riders cited in Butterwick's study who died due to a blow to the chest, four of them had first sustained severe head or facial trauma.
Asay has had champion bull riders come up to him and commend him for wearing a helmet, but there's still that stigma about style.
"There's still comments by some of the older gentlemen about the helmets. You know, you're not a cowboy if you wear a helmet or anything," he said. "Well then, you can go through the injury that I went through or pay the doctor bills I had to pay from it."
Many rodeo helmets are just a modified hockey helmet and face cage, but a few companies are making helmets specific to rodeo. Lambert supports the trend, especially among the younger riders, who can grow up wearing them.
"I think it's getting to the point where just a few years from now you won't see a rider riding bulls without a helmet," he said.
But Lambert said no amount of protective gear will ever make bull riders impervious to injury, especially in a sport where danger is part of the allure for the fans.
"Anyone that ever gets on a bull needs to understand you can die doing this. This sport is very, very dangerous," he said. "That's the first thing I tell people. This sport is not safe, and it's not gonna be safe. If you want to be safe in bull riding, don't get in the arena. Don't get on the bull."
"I hope nobody gets hurt, but I know somebody will."
Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines." She can be reached at email@example.com