The reason Cody Lambert invented the bull riding vest was to please his mother.
It was an obvious and needed safety device which was universally accepted for an event which rodeo announcers like Cody Nite Rodeo’s Zane Parker routinely refer to as the most dangerous competition in sport.
Lambert, 57, a recent visitor to Cody from Bowie, Texas, who came to instruct young riders, had a younger brother Casey who was a thoroughbred racing jockey.
“In the 1980s, racetracks began requiring it,” Lambert said.
One day his mother asked him why he couldn’t wear one like it. It was a legitimate question.
Then the famed jockey Julie Krone, the only woman to win a Triple Crown race, was in a severe horse accident and she said her vest saved her life. That influenced Lambert’s why-not? thinking, too.
Lambert came to rodeo from a family more involved in horse racing – his father Cliff was a jockey who won the All-American Futurity in 1959.
Anyone who has seen a single rodeo bull ride doesn’t need 8 seconds to recognize how dangerous the event can be. By nature this is a mismatch between the strength of an animal weighing 1,500 pounds and up and a man weighing 150 pounds and up.
Yet staying aboard a bull’s broad back to the buzzer is only part of the challenge and the least of the risk. If a rider is thrown in the air and hits the dirt hard, he is also prone to banging into the bull’s solid muscle on the way down, being gored by its horns, head-butted or stepped on, none of which is good for his health.
The head is one vulnerable area, but so is the chest and back housing vital internal organs. That’s where the vest comes in.
Lambert, a bareback and saddle bronc rider, as well as a bull rider, was a prominent competitor who often traveled with Ty Murray, Tuff Hedeman, Jim Sharp and Lane Frost. The group was sometimes called the “Wolfpack.” Lambert was one of the founders of the Professional Bull Riders and remains a vice president of that organization.
As a contemporary and friend of Frost, infamously killed at Cheyenne Frontier Days in 1989 after a bull hit him with its horns in the back, Lambert understood what creation of a vest might mean.
The combination of safety and comfort was essential, Lambert said, and some early vests not explicitly made for bull riding did not match that description.
“It made your clothes fit differently,” he said. “In some rodeos there weren’t good places to dress and undress. They didn’t have functionality for rodeo.”
The vests did not blend with western garments and zippers sometimes popped loose, so cowboys did not embrace them. Lambert worked on the design in 1992 and 1993 with a Canadian company now called Phoenix to modify the vests.
Lambert was a guinea pig testing the product. He wore one of the vests at the National Finals Rodeo in 1993.
“I was the only one who had one,” Lambert said. “A bull hit me good a couple of times.”
And he was OK.
Murray, a nine-time world champion and a member of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, had already ordered one. Lambert said world champ Cody Custer saw the vest do its stuff and said, “Hey, get me one of those.”
Usually, pro athletes resist safety innovations, calling the pioneers wimps. Lambert said he did not face that.
“I had been around for a long time,” Lambert said, “and people didn’t question my toughness.”
Around the time the vest was perfected, Lambert was sidelined by injury for nine months. So during his down time he went on the road promoting the new vests.
Lambert, who is in the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, said he is proud of his enduring contribution to rodeo.
“I wanted to have the feeling I left this sport better off than when I started,” Lambert said. “Every bull rider has one now.”
Making every bull rider’s mother happy.