From wild nights to dad life, CINCH cowboy is still riding strong
Tilden Hooper’s mind works a bit differently than most men.
He’s a bareback rider in professional rodeo. Those cowboys consider things in spectacular ways. Like a runaway train, there is something always racing inside them. Not many people in this world would strap themselves to a half ton of equine dynamite, but that’s what Hooper does every day.
It hasn’t been without sacrifices. Over 15 seasons, he’s found himself on the injured-reserve list; that’s not really a rodeo term, per se, because he doesn’t make a dime sitting on the sideline or hearing from his buddies that are on the rodeo trail while he sits at home recovering from injury.
The worst was a neck injury he sustained nine seasons ago. Doctors said it was a herniated disc with compression of the spinal cord and nerves, a direct reflection of the trade he plies. Bareback riders are situated atop bucking beasts by their specially designed riggings, which are strapped tightly to the animals’ back by cinches. The cowboys, wearing personally made gloves outfitted with binds, then wedge their hands into the rigging’s handle, nod their heads and prepare their bodies for detonation – the explosion out of the chutes and eight seconds of ferocious energy.
Funny thing is, he’s riding better at 33 than he did a decade ago.
“I think God blessed me with the opportunity to continue doing what I love,” said Hooper, originally from the east Texas burg of Carthage but now living in Fort Worth with his wife, Melissa, and infant son, Tell. “The relationship I have with Shawn Scott is huge. He’s the chiropractor that helped me through all this stuff. If I hadn’t met him, I don’t think I would have been able to come through the injuries and be better off.
“I’m extremely thankful God has put him in my life.”
That’s a common theme for the bronc buster who won the intercollegiate championship in 2007 and followed that by being named the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Resistol Rookie of the Year. Since that incredible inauguration into a sport of tough men, fast horses and wild times, Hooper has continued as one of the upper-echelon of bareback riders and ambassadors to the game, a seven-time qualifier to the National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s grand finale.
“I’m a totally different guy than I was when I was 19,” said Hooper, who has been endorsed by CINCH Jeans since 2010. “Life’s a lot different. My ideas of what I want to be as a father and a husband have changed. I thought I was going to set the world on fire and be the wildest bareback rider. After my injury and after other things happened in my life, God put my wife into my life. Ever since Melissa’s been here, life has been great.
“At 19, I thought I wanted to make the National Finals a hundred times. My goals now are to create a good life for my family so I can spend time with them every day and the opportunity to be hands-on with my wife and my son. I want to build a life. If in the process I win a gold buckle, then that’s great. I want to be known as a great bareback rider, but I’d also like to be known as a great man.”
He tries to walk that path daily. He’s comedic with a smart-aleck’s flair for fun. His brothers-in-arms – men like Kaycee Feild, a five-time world champion – are his subjects, and he is theirs. Feild busts chops for Hooper’s lack of driving and his lack of driving skills; Hooper jokes about the Utah champ enjoying eggs benedict, even though Feild can’t pronounce hollandaise sauce – he calls it Häagen-Dazs instead.
“I have a sister, and we’re pretty close, but I also have a brother,” Hooper said, referring to Feild. “It’s just that we have different parents. They’re family has just taken me in, and the same with my family and him. I could tell Kaycee was more concerned with the imprint he left outside the rodeo world and had a pretty good grasp that we weren’t going to do this forever. That’s the same with me.
“The things we do outside the arena are definitely more important than what we do inside the arena. As far as a competitor, Kaycee’s the best to ever do it. To always be measuring myself with him, it’s elevated my game. It might be different if we had not been traveling together. We definitely compliment each other well.”
Feild has more world titles than any other bareback rider going up and down the road today. He’s matched the number of gold buckles with his late father, Lewis, who was a three-time all-around champ and a two-time winner in bareback riding. He was also a mentor to many of the game’s greatest hands, including Hooper.
“I was real lucky to get to know Kaycee’s dad before he passed away,” he said. “To me, he was the best I met. The legacy he left behind …”
His voice trailed off a bit.
“ … That’s what I’m shooting for.”
He’s leaving a pretty good legacy for himself, and a big part of that is because of his relationship with CINCH, a Western clothier that is a major sponsor of rodeo and a driving force in the Western lifestyle. Clothes are important for cowboys, who oftentimes travel hundreds of miles between rodeos in order to arrive at the next stop just in time to prepare for another 8-second ride.
“The products are exceptionally well made and still fashionable,” Hooper said. “I think it has great products, but more so than that, I love the people that work there. They’re like family. There were several years there when we didn’t know if I was going to keep riding. They’ve always stayed with me.”
Comfort is one thing, but there is something still inside the Texan that keeps burning. The constant search for perfection is hard to lay down for competitors of his stature. The proof has come in 2021. He’s at the top of his game and the top of the game. He has been the standings leader since the opening weekend of March, when he won The American in Arlington, Texas. That was worth $100,000, half of which counts toward the PRCA standings.
“Any time you’re able to beat the best guys in the world on the biggest stage in the world on the best horses in the world … that’s why I do that,” he said.
He’s stayed on a roll since, pocketing $8,800 for winning in Clovis, California, and $7,600 he cashed in at San Angelo, Texas, and the biggest part of the schedule is still to come. Having a $50,000 windfall at one rodeo relieves the pressure of a long, difficult rodeo season, but it won’t change Hooper’s plans as he pushes forward with nightly dreams of that elusive Montana Silversmiths gold buckle.
Most importantly, though, Tilden Hooper points to Melissa and Tell as the lights of his life. He enjoys the time he gets with them, because the rodeo trail is rugged and filled with many twists and turns and a roller coaster of emotions. This is a business, and riding bucking horses is his job, but so is being a husband and a father.
“Being a dad has changed me a lot,” he said. “As anyone with kids knows, it’s not about you anymore. It’s the greatest thing in the world. I didn’t think before we had a kid that I wanted children. I’m just thankful God put this little dude in our lives. I don’t know what I would do without him.
“I’m going to do whatever I need to do to keep him healthy and happy.”
That’s what being a dad is all about.