I needed to make the NFR. Financially I needed it. Mentally I needed it. And physically I needed to see if my neck could hold up.
On the Bubble
Starting Monday, September 17, Cowboy Journal will follow seven CINCH and Classic Equine athletes as they fight to make the NFR. Bareback rider Tilden Hooper is not on the bubble this year, but his story of a make-or-break ride in 2014 kicks off our coverage. Follow the action: #theCjHASE
I remember the horse was kind of a nut case in the chute. He wasn’t going to kill me, but he was real nervous, dancing around in there, raring up. He was just real, real high strung.
This was back in 2014 at the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo in San Juan Capistrano. The horse was Comanchero from Flying U Rodeo. I got that draw, and I knew for sure that was the best horse at the rodeo. I could win the rodeo on him, and, man, I needed a win.
The season was drawing to a close, and I was right there on the bubble. I’d say I was sitting fourteenth or fifteenth. I might even have been sixteenth. This time of year guys almost don’t look as much.
Comanchero. That sucker jumped out and went to bucking. Man, he was bucking so hard. It was a fistfight. You can watch bareback riding and sometimes you can tell from the first jump if a guy’s set down good. Other times you see the guy, and he’s just barely hanging on. That was me. I wasn’t set down where I needed to be. It was touch-and-go every jump.
In bareback riding, your riggin’s dropping out from underneath you ever jump. You’re getting your feet set and stopping yourself from going over the front. Well, that son-of-a-gun had me raised up, and he came around to the left and had me standing out on my right leg. I was bracing myself for impact when all of a sudden everything disappeared beneath me. He dropped, and I just kept going.
Why It Mattered
I’d been on the bubble before. Multiple times. Hell, the first year I had a real shot at making the National Finals Rodeo, 2008, was crazy.
That year, at the last rodeo of the season, I was standing fifteenth. Wes Stevenson was sixteenth. At that last rodeo, I didn’t do any good, but Wes didn’t do any good either, so I thought I had it sewed up. Then this guy from Australia, Dave Worsfold, won sixteen or seventeen grand and jumped from nineteenth to fifteenth, bumping me to sixteenth.
Ten days later, my Dad called me. He was working on this wind farm, building wind turbines, and he was like, “Hey, you need to come down here and work for me. You ain’t gonna just be jacking around all winter.”
“I don’t think I can do that,” I told him.
“What? Why not,” he asked. He was starting to get fired up.
“Well,” I said, “if I take this job I doubt you’ll give me two weeks off in December.”
“What are you talking about, Tilden?”
“The PRCA just called,” I told him. “I made the NFR!” Turns out Dave Worsfold had been over his rodeo limit. It took the PRCA ten days to figure it out and call me. But, hey, better late than never.
So being in the hunt at the end of a rodeo season was nothing new. What made that ride on Comanchero in 2014 so important was my injured neck.
I had a herniated disc and another disc that ruptured into my spinal cord. In 2012, a surgeon told me he needed to fuse two pairs of vertebrae in my neck. I couldn’t ride anymore, he said. I’d have to get a new job. I didn’t want to get a new job, so I got a new surgeon. He fused one pair of vertebrae, and I spent a year and a half on the sidelines, strengthening my neck muscles. I went into the 2014 season to see if my neck was going to hold up. I wanted to know if I could still compete with the guys at the top level.
I definitely needed to make the NFR. Financially I needed it. Mentally I needed it. And physically I needed to see if my neck could hold up. If not, maybe I did need to get a new job.
Let’s Do It!
None of this was going through my head when I was riding Comanchero. He was bucking, and I was bracing myself for impact, and then he dropped, and I just kept going. The next thing I knew, I hit the ground. Comanchero was on the ground beside me, my hand came out of the riggin’, and I was getting up. It all happened so fast that I didn’t know if he bucked me off or what.
The judges gave me a reride. Turns out the horse overkicked, lost his step and fell. I had a million thoughts racing through my mind. There wasn’t another horse there as good as Comanchero, so I didn’t need to know what the reride was to know that I was going to downgrade. I needed eighty-six or eighty-seven to win it, and the reride was probably an eighty-two-pointer at best.
Next thing I knew, Reno Rosser from Flying U Ranch was in the arena.
“I’ll run Comanchero back around for you, if you want,” he said.
I was like, “Hell, yeah! Let’s do it.”
It’s pretty uncommon for a contractor to run his prized horse around again after a fall like that, especially a horse like Comanchero who’s such a freaking nut job in the bucking chute. I was definitely lucky to get another chance on him.
They ran me during the bronc riding. There were broncs loaded in the chutes, so they had Comanchero waiting in the alleyway with my riggin’ on him. It was kind of funny: Me and Ardie Maier, a bull rider, were standing there, and Cotton Rosser, Reno’s dad, turned to Ardie and said, “Hey, stand there and pet that horse.” It must have caught Ardie by surprise, because he didn’t question it. He just stood there and petted that sucker on the neck and kept him calm ’til they got him out to the bucking chute.
This time, Comanchero was a little more settled in the chute, but I was full of emotions, trying not to get too wound up. It had all happened so fast. I was thinking, man, the first time was touch-and-go. I gotta do a better job!
This time, Comanchero angled off to the right and was a little more user-friendly. I was set down and in control. I had a really good ride.
When they announced my score, I knew I’d won the rodeo. The crowd was going nuts. The whole day was a rollercoaster ride. Part of what I love so much about bareback is having all those emotions and learning how to control them and still compete at the top of your game. It’s about the best feeling in the world.
The eight or nine thousand bucks I won that day sling-shotted me up to tenth or eleventh and pretty much locked me into a slot at the NFR. If things had turned out differently on Comanchero, and I had not made the Finals, I’m not sure I would have quit bareback. I’m pretty hard-headed. I probably would have stuck with it. But at the end of day, I proved to myself I could still compete. I went to the NFR that year and had my best finals ever. That was special to me, for sure.
Look for THE CHASE: On the Bubble starting September 17, 2018. Follow all the action: #theCjHASE