SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Kasey Hayes hopped on the bovine beast trapped in the narrow holding pen like he’d done hundreds of times. He adjusted a tight rope on his left hand, found his balance and signaled he was ready to dominate the bull for the next eight seconds.
The red metal gate swung open. The bull’s spine rolled; the animal charged forward and stood on its rear legs. After 3.72 seconds, Hayes lost control, hit the ground and got his head stomped on by the 1,600-pound bull named Shaft. His hockey-like helmet split in two. The arena fell silent.
“Come on Kasey. Come on son. Wake up,” a woman in the stands said as Hayes lay surrounded by doctors and athletic trainers. It took about a minute or so before Hayes could be helped to his feet. He had a concussion — the third in a 12-month period.
Serious injuries are occupational hazards for bull riders, but doctors, riders and researchers say the most pervasive injuries are concussions. The Professional Bull Riders’ circuit provides doctors, requires helmets for anyone born after 1994 and insists concussed riders pass a test before getting back in the saddle.
There are no multimillion-dollar contracts or unions in professional bull riding; if you don’t ride, you don’t eat, leading injured athletes to push themselves back into action.
More than a decade ago, a group of health care experts — including the PBR’s longtime medical team leader, Dr. Tandy Freeman — developed a set of guidelines to prevent and manage concussions and encourage the use of protective head gear.
“What I can tell you is that there does not appear to be a statistically significant difference between riders with helmets versus without helmets in the number of concussions received yet,” Freeman said.
“It was my turn I guess,” the 29-year-old Liberal, Kansas, native said. “When we get on bulls, things usually don’t go bad; you usually do what you’re supposed to do … But when things go wrong for us, it’s a little worse I think than in other sports.”
Hayes was ordered to take at least a week off from competition, an order he said he’d follow; he hopped on three bulls the following weekend. Hayes currently is sidelined after breaking three lumbar vertebrae in late April.
The most serious consequence of repeated blows to the brain is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease. Symptoms include memory loss, anxiety and progressive dementia, and can only be diagnosed after death.
“We don’t know if people who have had one concussion are at a higher risk to develop this or if it takes three concussions or if it takes a lot more than that … some of the evidence that’s out there showing that if you do sustain multiple concussions you are at a potentially higher risk to have CTE or issues later on in life,” according to Dr. Richard Figler, co-director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Concussion Center.
CTE has been diagnosed in former NFL players, NHL players and boxers, but no research has shown whether former bull riders have been affected.
If Thad Bothwell started his career all over again, he’d likely wear a helmet instead of a cowboy hat. Bothwell, who retired in 2002, broke several body parts and logged about a half-dozen concussions.
“My son competes now and he wears a helmet,” said the 46-year-old from Rapid City, South Dakota. “I recommend helmets. Now they are really trying to keep riders from really messing themselves up.”