FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – Nearly eight seconds into the ride at a rodeo this month, a wildly bucking, 1,400-pound bull named Bruiser thrust a horn toward Justin Koon's face and tossed him into the air. He hit the ground head first — but walked away with only minor cuts.
Almost a decade ago, a similar spill left Koon with a fractured skull and in a coma. After that, he traded his cowboy hat for a protective helmet.
"I would never put one on because I wanted to look like a cowboy, with my boots, long-sleeved shirt and cowboy hat," said Koon, now 24, said at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. "Now I don't think I'd get on without one."
Rodeo, a sport in which the cowboy hat is as much an icon as a bucking bronco, has been reluctant to require its riders to wear helmets. Even for children as young as 5, they remain optional under association rules.
But bull riders, including some of the sport's stars, are increasingly donning their own. Rodeo officials estimate just under 40 percent of adult riders now wear helmets, up from 10 percent five years ago.
Doctors and researchers say it's not enough. Studies show helmets can prevent catastrophic injuries that can end careers in a sport that paid its top bull riders up to $1.8 million last year.
Some medical experts are pushing the sport to encourage adult bull and steer riders to wear helmets, and require them for riders under 18.
"I'm surprised that they haven't gone that route," said Dr. Mark A. Brandenburg, vice chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa.
Among the best-known riders to don the helmets are B.J. Schumacher, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's 2006 world bull-riding champion, and J.B. Mauney, the Professional Bull Riders' 2006 rookie of the year.
Still, more than half of bull riders have resisted. And they say it isn't about preserving the tough image of the Stetson-wearing cowboy.
Some riders complain the helmets are heavy, block their vision or prevent only superficial injuries. A few fear helmets might even boost injury risks by giving riders a false sense of security.
"I'm sure it could save on some dental bills, but I don't think it would feel right," said Luke Haught, 23, of Weatherford, Texas, who won a recent PRCA bull-riding event in Fort Worth. "I like my hat."
No one knows for sure exactly how many rodeo-related injuries and deaths occur each year in the United States and Canada, where the sport is most popular. The University of Calgary only recently began collecting and analyzing data.
But the danger is well-documented, both in medical studies and rodeo lore. At least four riders, including two teenagers, were trampled to death recently in Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas.
One study published last year found bull riders were about 10 times more likely to get hurt than football or hockey players. Another concluded that head trauma accounts for about half of all serious bull riding injuries.
Brandenburg studied head-injury data from 81 cowboys during the 1999 season and found one helmet cut head injuries by half.
Ranging from about $90 to $500, most rodeo helmets are made of hard, lightweight plastic with padding inside and face masks of steel wire or titanium.
Still, medical experts and rodeo officials concede, neither helmets nor other protective equipment such as padded vests can guarantee safety.
"I've had some really good friends die in this sport, but I didn't have to lose friends to understand this sport and how dangerous it is," said Cody Lambert, a former bull-riding and saddle bronc champion. "Just because you have a helmet or vest or a pair of chaps, you can still die out there."
Lambert designed a foam-filled protective vest after his friend Lane Frost, a bullring champion, died in a 1989 rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyo. Today most bull, saddle bronc and bareback riders wear similar vests, designed to reduce the impact of a fall, a kick or the jab of horns.
The vests are required by only one of the two major U.S. rodeo associations. But neither group requires helmets. Neither does the National Little Britches Rodeo Association, for kids as young as age 5, nor the National High School Rodeo Association.
Still, Donna Murphy, a spokeswoman for Little Britches, said more children are wearing helmets anyway "because their parents require it, or bull riders they look up to wear them."
The two largest professional rodeo associations in the U.S. say many cowboys who have long competed without helmets seem uncomfortable wearing them. A better strategy, they say, is to get young riders used to wearing helmets.
One association, the Professional Bull Riders, plans to offer scholarships to youth associations that require helmets, as soon as new ones are made to meet safety standards recently developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials.
And there's another factor that might help convince even the most hardened cowboy to trade his hat for a helmet — money.
As riders wait to compete, sitting atop bulls in what's known as the chute, a rider's head is usually all that's visible, displayed on large arena screens and on camera during televised events.
That makes helmets a potentially lucrative billboard for sponsors. A few already have logos, similar to NASCAR helmets.
On the Net:
Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association: http://www.prorodeo.com
Professional Bull Riders: http://www.pbrnow.com