How to Make Rodeos Safer Without Ditching the Cowboy Hat
Cowboy hats are lasting emblems of the American West. Though the ranks of ranchers and cattlemen have fizzled, frontier style lives on in rodeos and horseback riding trails everywhere. Yet even at the core of cowboy culture, the Western hat is fading.
Safety concerns are pushing riders from wide, curved-brim hats to wearing helmets. As with other dangerous sports such as football, the threat of concussions looms. It's a long way from saddle to ground, whether you're racing around barrels or chasing down a calf. Sure, the Western hat remains prominent among the throngs of spectators, but some worry that the on-stage look is becoming compromised.
Ricky Bolin, the 57-year-old general manager of Hatco, which makes Resistol and Stetson hats, has been thinking about helmets for years. Too many people were getting hurt in competitions, he said. "We were seeing a lot of helmets in rodeo arenas; we were seeing them in Western pleasure riding events," said Bolin. "We see the future going that direction because of head injuries."
So how do you save cowboy hats at the rodeo, if safety is paramount?
In early 2014, Bolin ran into Len Clement of equestrian helmet-maker Tipperary. At the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas at the end of that year, Clement showed him the first prototype of a hybrid hat that doubles as a helmet. It took a year to tweak the design and get the item into stores.
Hatco called it the RideSafe and put the new hat under the Resistol label. The fur felt hat has the same moldable brim as a regular hat, as well as the same folded silhouette at the top. Around it, however, is a fat ring of padding for the crown of the head. Underneath lies layers of cushioning.
There are other hat-helmet hybrids, but Resistol has the Western credibility professional riders crave. Equestrian helmet maker Troxel has a Western hat helmet, but while it has deep credibility in protecting people's heads, it's not a cowboy hat brand. Resistol counts such historic names as John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Tom Landry among those of its fans.
Resistance to helmets from riders has been staunch for decades, but some of the stigma of wearing a helmet at the rodeo is eroding. In 2004, women's pro Delores Toole became the first barrel racer to abandon her cowboy hat in favor of a helmet at the NFR in Las Vegas. She faced plenty of jabs for going against convention. And while the Women's Professional Rodeo Association long required competitors to wear a cowboy hat as part of its dress code, pressure from safety activists forced a change.
"Helmets have become an accepted part of other dangerous sports," Toole said in 2004. "And it is time they became an accepted part of Western riding and rodeo, too."
Bull-riding, the most extreme and dangerous of rodeo events, has garnered the most attention for its obvious hazards. These days, many competitors wear full-caged, hockey-style helmets. And the headgear is increasingly popping up at such events as barrel racing and roping.
The helmets are a big bet for Hatco, which expects revenue to hit $60 million in 2016. It sells about 1 million cowboy hats each year, under the Stetson, Resistol, Dobbs, and Charlie 1 Horse labels. Western-style headpieces make up about 80 percent of the company's total business.
The company has signed on to be the official protective headwear for WPRA and the National Little Britches Rodeo Association, a kid's event organization. Next, it will add such accessories as carrying cases and chin cups. There will also be additional colors. Workers have sectioned off a chunk of the Hatco factory in Garland, Tex., to assemble the new style.
The key question is whether riders will broadly adopt the headwear, since the RideSafe doesn’t look exactly like a normal hat. Are athletes and enthusiasts willing to look a bit different in the saddle?
Rodeos, as a cultural phenomenon, are an important arena for the cowboy hat. But the real money is in trail riding, a much more widespread, casual practice whose popularity ranges from suburban New York to the Nebraska plains. The hope is that riders will don RideSafes in the saddle and replace them with regular Resistol hats when they dismount.
"I believe this is going to be a major, major part of our business," said Bolin.