Bull rider Justin Koon of Grapevine, Ark., above, is among a growing number of bull riders who wear safety helmets, although they are not required in what's been called the world's most dangerous organized sport.
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.
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."
...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.
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.