Rodeo Rider Determined to Earn Gold Buckle


Bareback riders tolerate a great deal of abuse and injury. For Tilden Hooper, a circuit bareback rider, even severe cervical stenosis and radiculopathy will not get in the way of his goal to be named Gold Buckle Champion in the National Finals Rodeo.


Following in the footsteps of his father, Hooper began riding bareback at age 15. When he was 24, he earned the title of 2007 PRCA Bareback Rookie of the Year and had qualified to compete in the National Finals Rodeo on three occasions.

During this successful time, Hooper began to experience pain in his neck that would radiate into his right arm. He worked with a physical trainer, educated in chiropractic and physical therapy, to learn specific exercises to help relieve his pain.

Unfortunately, the symptoms worsened and Hooper began to notice numbness and weakness in his right arm.

While competing in a bareback competition in Seattle in August 2012, he lost all function in his right arm. He was alarmed by the experience and the impact his condition could have on his career.

Hooper’s physical trainer referred him to Dr. John Stokes, a fellowship-trained spinal neurosurgeon at the Ascension Seton Spine & Scoliosis Center, a practice within Ascension Seton Brain & Spine Institute. Dr. Stokes talked with Hooper about his condition.

He was suffering from a herniated disc with severe cervical stenosis and radiculopathy – compression of the spinal cord and nerves. In addition to pain, numbness and weakness, this condition can cause difficulty with fine motor coordination. Severe cases may cause problems walking and eventually paralysis below the level of compression.

Stokes discussed Hooper’s surgical options, including Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion (ACDF). With the ACDF procedure, an incision is made in the front of the neck and the damaged portion of the disc is removed. The space above and below the disc is prepared for a bone graft. The graft is placed between the vertebrae and a metal plate may be placed to secure the bones as they heal. The bone graft and vertebrae fuse together and form a bone mass.

“I met with him and thought he was straightforward,” said Hooper. “Dr. Stokes didn’t sugar coat anything about the surgery.”

In October, Stokes completed Hooper’s surgery at Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin. Hooper was able to go home the same day for recovery and recalls feeling immediate relief from his symptoms.

“This surgery means I have a chance to go back to what I love,” he said. “I’ve been riding since I was 15. All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a national champion and win a gold buckle.”

Hooper, who is from East Texas but now lives and trains in Fort Worth, is relieved that his pain, numbness and weakness are gone. He has regained 100 percent of his strength and looks forward to returning to bareback riding and competition again soon.

“The prognosis for returning to athletics after a single-level cervical fusion is good,” said Stokes. “Tilden is quite accomplished in the rodeo community and has achieved national recognition on multiple levels. His most impressive qualities, however, are that he is a pleasant, unassuming and very likable young man.”

Pictured above: Tilden competing in 2011. Photo courtesy of Brenda Allen of Allens Rodeo Photos.