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Wednesday, July 26, 2006 01:00 am

The badder the better

My homeboy cowboy loves getting bucked

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Tilden Hooper was 14 when he started riding wild horses — or at least started trying to. All his friends competed in rodeos, and Tilden figured he could ride bareback broncs, just as his father, Terry, used to do. Problem was, Tilden had failed to inherit his dad’s innate ability to keep his pants pockets glued to a thousand-pound bundle of rapidly rotating equine energy. In fact, Tilden was so bad at bareback bronc riding that if natural talent were holy water, he couldn’t have baptized a mosquito.

His mom, Patti, cried at every rodeo Tilden entered for two years. “To me, those horses were horrible and they were gonna kill my baby,” she says.

She happened to stay home the night Tilden got his bell rung in Shreveport, La. He kept asking his friends what had happened, and they would remind him that he had been bucked off a horse, landed on his head, and lost consciousness. Tilden would respond: “Don’t tell my mom!” A few minutes later, he would repeat the same question and admonition again.

Medical tests showed that Tilden had fractured his skull and bruised his brain in four different places. The injury changed his outlook on bareback bronc riding, albeit not in the way sane folk would think. “I decided it was a little too dangerous to be doing just for fun,” he says, in a soft drawl. “I decided I’d better get good at it.”

He was still hooked to an IV, pushing it on a pole down the hospital hallway, when he spotted his doctor and asked how soon he could ride again. The physician’s recommendation? “Never.” Tilden was back on (and off) a horse a few months later.

There’s only one way to learn bareback bronc riding, and that’s the hard way. Done properly, it involves the cowboy wedging one hand into a stiff handle, called a “rigging,” strapped to the back of an untamed animal. For the safety of both parties, a sheepskin tickler is cinched around the horse’s flank to encourage it to kick rather than rear up. The moment the chute opens, the cowboy is already using blunt spurs to knead the steed’s shoulders — an action that requires the rider to suppress basic survival instinct. What happens next, ideally, is a horse hurricane, with the cowboy performing a graceful whiplash dance, continuing to spur while holding one hand nonchalantly aloft. If the dance continues for eight seconds, it’s a success.

To learn this craft, you can practice leg movements on a “spurring board.” And you can train like any other athlete — aerobics, weightlifting, stretching — or not. The only way to master the horse-human mind-meld is to ride mount after mount after surly, swirling mount. Eventually, Tilden says, a light bulb clicks on.

Once that happened, he could ride anything. He gave up his superstitions (don’t put your hat on the bed, don’t wear yellow, don’t eat peanuts) and developed a craving for wilder horses. In the bareback event, judges rate both the rider and the animal, each eligible for as many as 50 points. If a cowboy gets assigned to a mild-mannered horse, it will inevitably decrease his score. Tilden always hopes to draw “the baddest horse they’ve got.”

He has ridden enough bad horses to qualify for the National High School Finals Rodeo. Currently occupying the Illinois State Fairgrounds, this rodeo lures thousands of competitors from as far away as Canada, Hawaii, and Australia. But Tilden is special to me, because he comes from a place close to my heart — the same little East Texas town nobody ever heard of where I grew up. His mom, Patti, was my classmate.

Before the rodeo Tuesday night, she and I swap compliments and the kids’ photos and share a couple of Dr Peppers (the national drink of Texas) at the Hoopers’ travel trailer. When we hike over to the multipurpose arena and take a seat in the bleachers, Patti is somehow able to pick out Tilden and Terry among the sea of straw hats, jeans, and chaps poised on the bucking chutes.

“There’s Tilden! See him? In the pink shirt. My baby has no issues with his identity!” Patti laughs.

She grabs my notebook and concentrates on writing down each rider’s scores. If a horse darts around the arena, Patti sighs, “Poor kid.” If a steed jumps and gyrates, she breathes, “Oh, isn’t that beautiful? I hope my baby gets a horse like that!”

He doesn’t. His horse surges somewhat spastically but never once kicks up its heels. Afterward, back at the trailer, Tilden’s heartbroken. “My horse ran away,” he says over and over to the long list of friends who ring his cell phone to see how he fared.

He will get another chance Saturday morning. If his two scores average high enough, he’ll make the final round on Sunday.

After this rodeo, Tilden will rejoin the professional circuit — Pecos on Wednesday, Honey Grove on Thursday, Mesquite on Friday, Teague on Saturday, Wemberly on Sunday (all in Texas), then Oklahoma, Iowa, Arkansas. He’s 19 now, and nothing in his life matters as much as rodeo.

“There’s nothing like it in the world, nothing I would rather do,” he says. “This is the only thing I’ve found that I’m willing to work hard to be good at.”

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