In two decades of professional rodeo, bareback rider Heath Ford won about $675,000 in prize money and qualified for the National Finals Rodeo three times.
But Ford, 41, also walked away from the sport with at least 30 concussions on his resume – likely a lot more.
Except for a half-dozen rodeos in 2018 for research, Ford retired in 2016. Yet some days he still feels the effects of hitting the dirt hard, or from horses’ hooves kicking him.
So a couple of years ago, Ford began experimenting, seeking to invent a better neck safety device for livestock riders. There are neck rolls that help, but Ford wants to do better.
“If you can eliminate the number of head injuries, you can extend careers,” he said.
Ford is in Cody this week coaching young cowboys. He has been around rodeo his whole life and seen the introduction of some safety devices.
When he was younger, no bull riders owned or wore helmets. There were no padded vests. He also knows many cowboys bring a macho attitude to the sport.
And it is not only rodeo. Just about every safety advancement added in any major American sport has faced resistance – from players. Always. Either the equipment change was said to be uncomfortable and was feared, or players feared being labeled wimps for putting on a new form of armor.
It is truly an unbelievable history applied to many protective pieces of equipment that are taken for granted now.
Start with baseball catchers. The mask came first, invented in the 1870s by a Harvard student after the curveball came into vogue. Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan brought the shin guard into baseball in 1905, borrowed from cricket.
The pitched ball caused numerous serious injuries, including Major League Baseball’s only on-field fatality of Cleveland’s Ray Chapman in 1920. Yet the first focused experiment on a widespread use of hard-shell batting helmets occurred in 1937 with two teams.
It was not until 1956 that wearing helmets at the plate became mandatory in the National League and not until 1958 in the American League.
It is inconceivable to imagine football players competed without helmets. Then their leather helmets were about as protective as our winter gloves.
Young people might not even believe National Hockey League goalies did not wear masks until Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens invented rudimentary protection in 1959. Plante only got to don it in-game after being leveled by a puck to the forehead. His coach wanted him out of the mask as soon as he healed, but Plante went on a winning streak and refused to shed it.
NASCAR stock car racing and the Indianapolis 500 both were routinely sites of carnage until the HANS Safety Device (akin to Ford’s idea) became mandatory and the SAFER barrier was installed at tracks.
“I think it’s perfect timing,” Ford said of a fresh open-mindedness among rodeo competitors who have probably followed the concussion syndrome problems of the NFL.
One particularly bad concussion sent Ford into retirement. He almost passed out after leaving a medical center and his vision went completely dark.
Ford’s innovation, after rejecting plaster-type materials, involved dunking leather into water, and then hardening it in an oven, providing strength and flexibility.
The device would protect the rear of the head and extend down the back, but still be lightweight. The protection would distribute the impact.
“It’s not heavy,” said Ford, something that would be of concern to riders.
Ford came out of retirement in 2018 for six rodeos to test the gear. He won three of them, but twice was thrown hard off broncs.
“Two of the horses flat dumped me, the type of ways that would have knocked me out (before),” he said.
Currently, Ford has five riders testing the protection in competition. But he is done being a crash-test dummy.
Ford, who is married with three young children, won his first rodeo in Kaycee. Just about 20 years later, last year in Stanford, Mont., he won the C.M. Russell Stampede.
“That’s a good way to end it,” he said.
Heath Ford hopes he can also provide happy endings for other rodeo riders.