When professional bull rider Tanner Byrne learned that his friend Ty Pozzobon was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy at the time of his death, he said the news came as little surprise.

“It kind of made sense,” Byrne told CTV News Channel from his home in Prince Albert, Sask. “He had a very successful career, but [there were] a lot of injuries involved and a lot of concussions, so looking back now, you know, you can see the signs.”

On Tuesday, neurologists from the University of Washington confirmed that the champion bull rider from Merritt, B.C., had suffered from the brain condition, also known as CTE, before dying of suicide in January at the age of 25. Suspecting that the repeated head injuries Pozzobon sustained during his rodeo career were linked to his death, his family had donated his brain to the university.

CTE, which can only be diagnosed post-mortem, is a neurodegenerative disease that is often found in people who have suffered multiple head injuries. Recent studies have shown that the condition is widespread in those who have played professional contact sports, such as football. CTE has also been linked to mental health issues such as depression and suicide. Pozzobon is the first professional bull rider to be confirmed to have CTE.

The results of the testing, Byrne said, has brought Pozzobon’s family “a little bit of closure.” It has also brought a degree of soul-searching to Canada’s bull riding community.

“We know the risks to the sport -- we know what we’re getting ourselves into,” Byrne said. “But when something like this happens, it makes it a real gut check for all of us to take care of ourselves a little bit better because the ultimate could end up happening.”

Byrne said that he saw his friend get knocked out cold at least a dozen times and that the constant head blows Pozzobon suffered had a noticeable effect on the athlete.

“It was just a change in his personality, a change in his demeanour,” Byrne said. “He just wasn’t himself in the last few months.”

Now, to honour his friend’s memory and help make their sport safer, Byrne is part of the group that operates the Ty Pozzobon Foundation, which, according to its website, aims “to protect and support the health and well-being of rodeo competitors inside and outside the arena.”

“Through that foundation, we’re trying to educate and push forward with more protocols, with more information to those kids that are starting out [in bull riding],” Byrne said. “If they get hit, they’ll know more on how to take care of themselves or how to go to the right people that can help them do it. So, through Ty’s legacy, through Ty’s name and his foundation, we’ll hopefully make it a better sport.”

With files from The Canadian Press