With an ode to Garth Brooks’ “Rodeo,” the environment on Saturday in the Spokane Arena will be filled with bulls, blood, dust, mud – and plenty of bucking.
Riders will be looking to survive 8 seconds on a bull that has been raised and specially selected for this moment. At 1,500 to 2,000 pounds, the Professional Bull Riders bulls are the most impressive bulls in the world, promising a show.
To enhance the energy, the PBR adds in some pyrotechnics and a rocking soundtrack.
But for the riders, the experience is between themselves and the bull – even as the fans scream with reckless abandon moments before the gate is snapped open and the bull tries everything in its power to shake off the rider.
Once the cowboy nods to the judge, the game is on.
Thor Hoefer II of Priest River, Idaho, will be riding in the Arena this weekend, making a competitive return to his home region for the first time since September 2019 when he won the Spokane County Interstate Fair rodeo.
Bucking animals and the Hoefers go together like beer and rodeos, stemming from his family’s lengthy history in the rodeo arena.
Hoefer’s grandfather was a saddle bronc rider and his father took advantage of his own bull riding career to raise bucking bulls when he moved to Priest River.
Hoefer worked with his dad and rode calves and sheep (mutton-busting) as a kid, immediately discovering that same passion for bull riding.
Those experiences have helped lift the youngest Hoefer up the PBR world rankings, in which he is tied for 123rd.
The first time he slid into chaps and climbed into the saddle on the back of a bull was at a junior rodeo event when he was 12.
He rode to the event with a friend and although the fear of injury crept into his mind, Hoefer exuded confidence that he believes he inherited. The people at the event said he didn’t have to ride until his dad got there, but he had already made up his mind – he was going to ride that bull.
He rode it and walked away with the win.
“That’s enough to light the fire for a long time,” Hoefer said. “Just talking about that kind of gives me the same feeling that I had before. And that’s something with bull riding, there’s nothing that compares to the rush that you get when you make a great ride, and it all goes your way.”
That experience turned him onto a rodeo path that earned him a college scholarship.
“It’s definitely kind of a selfish sport,” Hoefer said. “But the things that you can get from it and the places that it can take you are incredible. I wouldn’t be near the person that I am without the years of bull riding under my belt.”
It also introduced him to girlfriend, Nevada.
“I’m definitely blessed for the PBR and for the guys that went before me to kind of pave the way for us to do what we’re doing,” Hoefer said.
Even as his stardom grows, the “Small Town, USA” mindset of Hoefer has followed him throughout the world as he travels with the rest of the PBR. Tours from Australia to Canada have tried to buck his lifestyle, but the cowboy in him remains.
Hoefer said not everyone understands why people ride or the culture behind rodeos. It isn’t just the riding that people should appreciate, but also the Western and ranching communities it showcases.
Hoefer expressed his gratitude for all of the fans, not just the majority blue-collar workers who make up a lot of the PBR fanbase.
“(Every fan) dang sure put their time and their effort into whatever they do, and they choose to come and spend that money on a ticket,” he said. “So that to me, it doesn’t matter who they are, I appreciate them coming in. And it doesn’t matter their walk of life or even a couple of white-collar people get in. It’s like they understand, and they appreciate it just the same, and I really am grateful for the fans.”
But for those who see the rodeo as a rowdy event that’s cruel to animals, Hoefer wants those people to experience the event firsthand.
“The only way to really explain it to them is they’d have to come and watch it,” he said. “Because somehow or another we contain these 2,000-pound bulls to stand in the bucking chute. And then as soon as that gate comes open, those bulls decide they’re going to buck that day.”
According to Hoefer, the bulls they ride are not cut into or hurt by the spurs cowboys wear – the PBR threatens $20,000 fines if any rider is caught with too sharp of spurs. Cattle prods are not used in competition and the ropes used around them are polyester to prevent injury to the animal.
Hoefer said this compassion trickles down to the original ranchers who raised these bulls for possible entry into PBR competitions. For some, raising bulls is their sole source of income, so the well-being of their animals is their highest priority.
The ranchers have to choose everything from the proper genetics to breed (certain bulls are born to buck) to choosing the best feed to build the perfect bucking bull. Those bulls get sold to the highest bidding ranch before the PBR chooses the bulls to compete.
The quality of bulls has been steadily increasing over the decades. The PBR said in 1995, cowboys completed 46% of their rides (rode for the 8 required seconds). Between 2018 and 2020, that number has plummeted to 29%.
Those failed rides are when a lot of spills happen that add an extra layer of thrills to rodeos.
“It’s a David versus Goliath kind of event and I’m obviously going for David every time,” Hoefer said.
But when Goliath bucks off David, that’s when bullfighters spring into play.
Hoefer understands the excitement when the bullfighter jumps into action after a rider falls off the saddle, but knows how dangerous the moments after a ride can be.
“We understand that if we do our jobs, those guys will come in and do their jobs,” Hoefer said. “And it’s very, very interesting to see it all come together and it all works well and everybody walks away safely.
“As a rider, I’m all about the guys doing good. You know, I want everybody to show up and do the best that they can, I just want to do better. I just want to win.”
Hoefer has had his fair share of wrecks and even spent a couple of nights in the hospital for a collapsed lung. He said those injuries are what he considers the valleys of a career, but an example of a peak is when he can compete in front of his hometown crowd.
Saturday will be that opportunity for Hoefer to flash his skills in front of his dad, sister, stepmom and a dozen-plus of friends he sent tickets.
“That’s pretty awesome to have that kind of support and to have these people hit me up on my Instagram and Facebook asking me if I am riding this weekend in Spokane and they would love to come watch,” he said. “The support behind me from my friends and family just speaks volumes for the small town. As soon as something important comes to town, they show their support.”
Another rider to follow is Cody Casper, whose hometown is Newport, Washington. Casper is also ranked 123rd in the world.
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