Helmets replacing cowboy hats at the Stampede
BY THANDI FLETCHER, THE OTTAWA CITIZEN JULY 9, 2012 6:01 PM
Helmets are replacing cowboy hats as the head gear of choice for many rodeo athletes, but without adequate safety testing, experts are questioning their effectiveness in the incredibly rough sport.
“The testing standards are woefully inadequate for what we need,” said rodeo sport medic Mark Lafave, a Mount Royal University professor who tracks data for the Rodeo Catastrophic Injury Registry, a database on rodeo-related injuries.
Competitors in rodeo— a sport in which cowboys compete in events such as bull riding, roping calves and steer wrestling— get injured or die at a higher rate than athletes in any other sport, said Lafave.
From 1989 to 2009, there were 21 deaths out of 518,286 reported injuries. Rodeo athletes aged 17 and under accounted for 33 per cent of all deaths.
During the same time period, five rodeo contestants died after suffering head injuries. None were wearing helmets.
Of the 16 that died from thoracic injuries, 11 were known to be wearing protective vests.
Aside from sprains and broken bones, concussions and head injuries are the third most common rodeo injuries, especially for bull riders, said Lafave.
“A lot of that can be prevented, we think, with appropriate helmet use, and a helmet that would actually work well,” he said.
Many rodeo athletes have started wearing helmets. Lafave estimates more than 50 per cent now wear the protective headgear.
However, safety testing methods for helmets aren’t always able to accurately re-create the real-life situation a rodeo athlete would encounter, for example, when on the back of a bucking bull, Lafave said.
“Helmets are designed to be tested in one specific way, in what they call a linear fashion, which just means that they drop it from a height on a rail so it goes in a vertical pattern straight down,” explained Lafave. “Clearly, that’s not a re-enactment of what actually happens in . . . bull riding.”
Currently, Lafave said there is only one helmet on the market approved for rodeo use by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), although he doesn’t think many rodeo athletes wear it.
“Right now, they basically wear hockey helmets and face masks,” he said.
While any helmet is “better than nothing,” Lafave said, there is a need for more rigorous testing standards.
At the 1st Canadian Sport Safety Symposium recently held at Canada Olympic Park, Lafave said several experts proposed creating a safety lab at Canada Olympic Park where helmets could be tested in more dynamic ways.
Vests have also become standard rodeo dress since the early 1990s, but their effectiveness is also questionable, said Lafave.
The amount of force unleashed through a single kick from a large bull can be as high as 106 kilonewtons, he said.
“It’s a tremendous amount of force,” said Lafave. “If you take an egg and you put it inside of the vest, you could take a very small and light hammer, tap it on the vest and the egg will break.”
While rodeo vests, made of leather and high-density foam, may help to prevent puncture wounds to the athlete’s torso, Lafave said the gear doesn’t offer much protection against crushing injuries.
Dale Butterwick, a kinesiology professor at the University of Calgary who also helps run the Rodeo Catastrophic Injury Registry, agreed the vests need to be improved.
“I know that some health-care people think the rodeo vest helps to protect the abdomen in some ways,” said Butterwick. “What I know is, people still get killed wearing the vests.”
Kynan Vine, rodeo administrator for the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association, said helmets are now mandatory for rodeo athletes under 18.
The move to make helmets mandatory is promising, he said, as many of those athletes continue to wear them after they graduate to the professional circuit.
“They’re used to it,” said Vine. “It’s a good thing.”
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