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A new study confirms what many cowboys already know - rodeo is one of the most dangerous sports in the world and that riding an angry, bucking, 900-kilogram bull can be deadly.

Dale Butterwick, a sports epidemiologist with the University of Calgary, created a rodeo injury database four years ago to gather reliable information with the goal of reducing the chances of contestants getting hurt.

His numbers show that nearly 20 of every 100,000 rodeo contestants can expect to suffer a catastrophic injury. In football, that rate is less than one in every 100,000 players. Catastrophic injuries means a player either died or had their life altered in a significant way.

"I haven't seen any sport that comes close to that. In a scientific setting, alarm bells go off," Mr. Butterwick said Thursday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Of all rodeo events, Mr. Butterwick said, bull riding is the most dangerous, with most injuries happening when the rider is stomped in the chest or back.

The use of helmets and flak jackets is increasingly common, but better flak jackets are needed because the current models do little to soften the force of a stomp by an enraged bovine.

"It's not as simple as putting a bullet-proof vest on ... we're not worried about a bullet with an extremely hard velocity and a very concentrated pressure," Mr. Butterwick said. "Bulls' feet are bigger than the spread of our hands and so they distribute this force over a bigger area."

Since 1989 there have been 21 deaths on the rodeo circuit, which is more than any other professional sport. Mr. Butterwick's study charted 49 catastrophic injuries.

The majority of those injuries came in "rough stock events," which include bull, junior bull, steer, saddle bronc and bareback riding.

Most of the injured are men. Two women barrel racers died after suffering head injuries. There have been 16 deaths on the bull riding circuit alone between 1989 and 2009. At least eleven were wearing flak jackets, Mr. Butterwick said. One was a 12-year-old boy who died in Colorado two years ago at a junior bull rider competition. He was bucked off and the bull stepped on him.

Getting the traditional cowboy or cowgirl to wear protective gear isn't as difficult as you would think, Mr. Butterwick said.

The Canadian Professional Rodeo Association made it mandatory in 1994 for children to wear protective vests, helmets and face masks in steer riding.

At the National Finals Rodeo last year, between 45 and 55 per cent of the adult competitors wore helmets, said Mr. Butterwick, while the number was 75 per cent at the Canadian Finals Rodeo last year.

"Boy steer riders are all wearing helmets and have been for a number of years. And now when they become the bull riders it's not an issue to them. They're used to it," said Mr. Butterwick.

He says the competitors do realize the risk.

"People who are living the cowboy life all the time - it's something they accept. It's a dangerous game," he said.

"I don't think that's going to make them less manly and it's not going to be less scary to get on your first bull either."