calling bs on bull-riding helmets

What’s the point of riding a bull?

I know that bull riding is the big sexy event of the rodeo. I’ve covered more than one rodeo in my sportswriting career and therefore enjoyed using the phrase “this ain’t my first rodeo.” I also know that all the rodeo cowboys are tough guys. I wouldn’t even say bull riders represent the toughest of the tough because I met a steer wrestler one time and that man ranks as the number one person of all time that I wouldn’t mess with. It was a little bit scary just interviewing him.

But I will submit that bull riders are crazy tough. I’ve only known one bull rider, whose name is Andy Rogers. He was gored in the eye while riding a bull. He probably came within centimeters of death, but he recovered. I think he even regained full use of the eye. And he kept riding bulls.

See crazy tough.

As far as I can tell, being crazy tough is the whole reason to ride a bull. I’m not sure if there’s a particular skill in bull riding. In fact, it might be the least skill-specific sport in all of sports. Just hold on and find a way to stay on. But it doesn’t even really matter if a bull rider is a good bull rider or a bad bull rider. The second a man gets on the back of a raging bull and they open the pen, you’re a bull rider and therefore undeniably tough.

So now that I sort of answered my first question, here’s my real question: Does wearing a helmet and protective vest defeat the purpose?

A cowboy hat seems extremely important in this sport. It occurred to me today as I was working the elliptical machine at the gym and bull riding was happening on the television, that this sport owes a lot to aesthetics.

If you’re a bull rider, you need to drive all night in a beat up pick up to reach some small town in Colorado or Montana or Wyoming or Texas or New Mexico for a rodeo. You need to arrive at the rodeo arena in the same faded blue jeans and pearl-snap shirt which you wore on the all night drive. You get to wear chaps and gloves while riding the bull, but other than that your uniform is the aforementioned jeans and shirt, boots and a cowboy hat. Then you leave the arena wearing the same clothes and get back in your pick up.

Do that and you’re a badass. No questions asked. It doesn’t even matter if you win the bull riding or if you don’t make it two seconds. If you ride a beat up pick up and a bull on the same day, then congratulations. Willie Nelson wrote songs about you.

But if you wear a helmet, it doesn’t count.

I realize this is harsh, but I’m going to stand by it. Bull riding is dangerous and that’s the point. It can’t be that much less dangerous with a helmet and vest, though I acknowledge the chances of getting gored in the eye are probably mitigated by the mask. I’m sure the helmets and vests have saved lives.

I don’t want anyone to die or be severely injured riding a bull. But the threat of death or severe injury is what makes this such an exciting sport. Not for the fans; for the participants. That’s why you ride a bull — because it’s extremely dangerous.

You see, all of the events in rodeo come from cowboy life. They’re cowboy skills. Bull riding is the thing the crazy tough guys did because someone dared them to do it. If the first guy that climbed up on the back of a bull was wearing a protective helmet and vest, then they all should be able to do the same. But I guarantee you he didn’t.

Because bull riding isn’t a skill, it’s an act of defiance and bravery. So there’s no reason to make it safer. It’s not safe. You don’t want to get gored or stomped by a bull? Don’t get on the back of a bull.

So cowboy hats. No helmets.

Photo via the Oregon Daily Emerald.


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