WHEELER, Texas – The final few weeks of September correlated into the final few days of ProRodeo’s 2021 regular season, and Zach Hibler was in the middle of a tornado known as the “NFR Bubble.”
He was driving, flying, scrambling to find success at as many rodeos as possible in order to qualify for the first time to the sport’s grand championship, the National Finals Rodeo, which features only the top 15 contestants on the money list in each event. He’d been close before, finishing 17th in 2019, but he knew he had to push the envelope in order to secure his bid.
“It was actually the most fun I’ve had rodeoing after I finally settled down,” said Hibler, 24, of Wheeler, Texas. “I was trying to make things happen and not just ride bareback horses because I loved it. When I figured that out and got my composure a little more, things started happening.
“It just felt natural. When you try to make so many things happen, you’re not doing anything wrong, but you’re trying so hard that mistakes pop up left and right.”
Riding bucking horses is fun, but it’s also a job for Hibler, the 2018 PRCA Bareback Riding Rookie of the Year. He wasn’t the only cowboy scrambling those final few days of the regular season. Fellow bareback rider Wyatt Denny was traveling coast to coast to give himself a chance. By the time the dust settled, Hibler had earned the 15th spot by less than $700.
When talking about the $65,371 that Hibler earned in 2021, that’s not a big margin, but it’s enough for the Texan to finally find his way back to Las Vegas for the NFR. He made his first venture there three Decembers ago, when he received the hardware for being one of the top rookies in rodeo that season.
“I always said I wouldn’t go to watch the rodeo until I made it,” said Hibler, who credits some of his success to his sponsors, Koepke Pipe Sales, Double J Waterwell Services and Tintori’s Lube & Tires. “I realize when you win the rookie, they give you the buckle in the arena at the NFR, so I made an exemption for that, but that was the first and last time I’ve been in the Thomas & Mack.”
That will change in just a few days, when he arrives in Sin City for the rides of his life at the NFR, set for Dec. 2-11 in the arena on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
“I’ve always known that is where I wanted to be, with those top 15 guys in the world,” he said. “It just pushed me to do the things at home, the things people weren’t seeing. I realize it’s the behind-the-scenes work that I needed to focus on.”
Bareback riding is the most physically demanding event in ProRodeo. Cowboys will strap their specially made riggings that are cinched tightly to the horse’s back, then wedge their gloves (outfitted with binds) into the rigging and essentially lock themselves to the bucking animal. Even the gentlest of rides can be felt through the cowboy’s body.
But the gentlest of rides doesn’t make for good scores, and bareback riders feed off the good scores. When he’s in the middle of a ride, Hibler will counter the horse’s moves by spurring from the neck of the horse back to his rigging in time with the animal’s bucking motion. That not only takes the pressure of the forces against him, but it also helps magnify the score.
Rodeo, in general, is a tough lifestyle. Contestants leave home in late June and may not return until the season ends the final day of September. Bareback riding can be tortuous on a cowboy’s body, so it takes passion to chase the most coveted prize in the game, a Montana Silversmiths gold buckle awarded to the contestants in each event that finish with the most earnings each year.
“One day, I saw bareback riding on TV or a video, and I asked my parents if I could enter a rodeo that weekend,” said Hibler, the son of Michael and Brandi and big brother to Layton, Clayton and Kyler. “They got me in touch with somebody that they knew rode bareback horses, and I got me and old-school rigging and got on that weekend.
“It went terrible, but I got up and knew I wanted to do that again, and I have no idea why.”
Now, he knows. He played every sport possible as a youth and knew his father rode bulls when he was in high school. Hibler has even tried his hand at the timed events.
“Dad didn’t pursue riding bulls much, but then he started team roping,” he said. “I wanted to be a team roper, but I wasn’t any good at it, so I guess it’s a good thing I like bareback riding. I team roped a little bit before I started riding roughstock. I got on a few bulls and roped calves and team roped in high school, but bareback riding stuck.”
It all goes back to that passion. The love of the game translated into success. He won the state finals and did well at the College National Finals Rodeo – he competed at Western Texas College in Snyder and Hillsboro (Texas) College.
“I didn’t have much success at the college rodeos, but I realized I needed to work harder and make it a priority if it’s something I was going to do,” Hibler said.
It’s a labor of love. Once he and his brother, Layton, decided to compete in rodeo, family vacations ceased because the family was on the road rodeoing. That was excellent family time together, and there were some memorable occasions. Now that he has his own family to care for, he knows doing well in rodeo is going to be his driving force.
“I just want to do what’s best for my family,” he said.
Shortly after his rookie season ended, Hibler married the love of his life, Stormy, a woman he’d grown up with and had known all his life. In fact, they were in the same wedding as youngsters, with Stormy as the flower girl and Zach as the ring-bearer – “I think that’s when I realized I was going to marry her,” he said.
They are expecting a little girl in February. But that’s not all. The Hiblers are also raising his youngest brothers, Clayton, 17, and Kyler, 13. They’re doing it through rodeo, with both boys interested in the sport.
“I think I can pursue rodeo for my family,” Hibler said. “I’m not a good mechanic, but the one thing I’ve thought about since I started is that I can be the best I can be at riding bareback horses.”
It’s gotten him this far early in his rodeo career, and there are no limits to where this can go.