Matt Triplett’s fairy tale climb to the top of his profession began where any good story should in Northwest Montana — amidst the taxidermied wildlife, boot-tapping country jams and rowdy cowboys and cowgirls at the venerable Blue Moon Nite Club in Columbia Falls.
It was there that a young Triplett first found himself aboard a bucking bull at one of the bar’s summer rodeos, and while it wasn’t love at first ride there weren’t many months that passed before Triplett was hopping on bulls in the bucking chute his dad built for him on the family’s nearby property. Pat Triplett, Matt’s father, saw his son’s passion and made some additions to his horse-training business, bringing in low-level bulls from wherever he could find them and giving his young son the opportunity to pursue his budding passion without venturing beyond his own yard.
Fast-forward some years and soon there were pens filled with larger, stronger and more experienced bulls, and soon there was Matt, bursting onto the rodeo scene, winning back-to-back Montana State High School Rodeo bull-riding titles and competing on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) tour for the first time in 2011.
Seven years later, Matt has already tasted success on the sport’s highest level, ranking as one of the top five cowboys in the world in 2014 and 2015, and he made national headlines last week when he announced via Twitter — as even a cowboy does in 2018 — that he had been cleared to return from shoulder surgery and would ride his first bull of the year in early May.
When Matt does make that triumphant return to the bucking chute next month, there will be a familiar name in the field, although he’ll find it on the opposite side of the ledger. Quietly, while his son was becoming one of the world’s best bull riders, Pat Triplett was training some of the world’s rankest bucking bulls.
There is violence in the air as Pat Triplett gestures toward two of his prized bulls on recent afternoon on his ranch on the outskirts of Columbia Falls. The serene blue skies and majestic, snow-capped mountains on the horizon give way to the thud of thousands of pounds of cartoonish muscle slamming together, forehead-to-forehead, not more than 30 feet from where he is standing. The two bulls currently squared off are, Triplett says, the best of friends. They are travel companions, roommates on the road and, usually, perfectly polite gentlemen toward one another.
Today, however, they are having a bit of a disagreement and Triplett, without saying it, is bothered by the tiff. Not because he’s going to have to reorganize the housing arrangement for his bulls that are traveling to Billings the following day, or because their conflict is riling up some of the younger bulls watching from nearby, but because he didn’t expect this to happen. Sure, one of the bulls had been sick and needed to be separated for a few weeks, but these two were different. Triplett, who unabashedly loves the animals in his care, has the pained expression of a parent watching two of his children fight.
“All in all, they love you, because you feed and take care of them twice a day,” Triplett said. “They become really close to you.”
Triplett grew up in Eureka and was a bull rider himself in his youth, competing professionally for about three years. He was a jockey, too, riding racehorses until “I guess I got too fat to ride them,” he quipped. That brought Triplett to horse training and, once his son showed promise as a bull rider, his current occupation as the owner and operator of PK Triplett Bucking Bulls. Triplett has partners in the business but the day-to-day care of the animals is something he takes on his shoulders and his shoulders alone. He feeds the bulls every morning and every night, and exercises them by running them through the sandy pasture across the street while on his four-wheeler. It has meant Triplett trudging outside every day for the last 15 years, only accepting the occasional assist from his wife, Kari, another of a small group of trusted associates, to do a minimal amount of work. But it’s something he never tires of doing.
“When I was training horses they used to tell me, ‘don’t turn your passion into a job,’” he said. “And I did. I turned my passion into my job.”
Triplett does not raise young bulls on his property, preferring instead to scout for bulls on rodeo’s lower levels and capitalize on their potential. When Matt first left home to embark on his professional career, Pat sold his stock of training bulls for a few professional-grade ones, and during the 15 total years he’s been doing it he’s upgraded to amass a core group that now competes regularly on the PBR’s Built Ford Tough Series (the sport’s highest level).
“He has a weird eye for finding that bull that people didn’t want anymore,” Matt said of his father. “He sees a bull that has a lot of potential and has a lot of heart; a bull that someone doesn’t believe in and makes him a better bull.”
Matt should know. He’s ridden his dad’s bulls twice in competition. The bulls are 2-for-2.
“It’s a struggle,” Pat said of watching his son on top of his bulls. “I’m cheering him on and I’m cheering the bull on, and then when the bulls buck him off I feel pretty proud of them bulls because I feel like (Matt)’s such a stud, that he’s such an awesome bull rider, that I did my job, or the bull did his job.”
Pat’s bulls, not unlike his son, began at the lowest levels of rodeo, first competing at the Majestic Valley Arena in Kalispell. From there, the bulls climbed the rodeo ladder before first cracking the PBR’s top series four years ago.
These days, Hammer Down is the star of the bunch, having gone 4-for-4 in bucking riders this season before last weekend’s event in Billings. There, Claudio Montanha Jr. stayed aboard for eight seconds and earned an 87-point ride en route to winning the competition and ascending to the number one spot in the series rankings. PK Triplett bulls left the chute five times in Billings, with the only other successful ride coming from Alisson Souza aboard Parachute to the tune of an impressive 85 1/2 points.
Triplett, like many stock contractors, gets put in the odd position of rooting for his animals to triumph over their human foes, but he will take solace from Billings in the fact that his bulls earned big points during those two rides.
“I try to get the bulls that just wreck those guys,” he said last week. “I hate to say that, but I don’t put all this time, energy, money and effort into letting them ride one. And if they do ride one, I want him to win.”
PK Triplett Bucking Bulls currently ranks 22nd out of more than 200 stock contractors who have been invited to compete on the PBR this year, and while Triplett brought four bulls to Billings he’s brought as many as 10 to other competitions. Hammer Down is a two-time participant in the World Finals and figures, Triplett believes, to be invited back this year.
Matt Triplett is a bit behind schedule but he, too, has his eyes on the World Finals in November. It was there, last year, that the 26-year-old was last in competition, managing a remarkable ride atop Hy Test despite competing, essentially, with one arm.
In November 2017, Dr. Tandy Freeman operated on Triplett’s left shoulder and in the months since the Columbia Falls native has been rehabbing with physical therapists at Kalispell’s Precision Physical Therapy and dedicating himself to his yoga practice, which has been part of his training regimen for several years. He’s had to practice patience, too, something longtime family friend, neighbor and former PBR cowboy Beau Hill has preached in recent months to his protégé.
“When you’re young, you think sitting at home for three weeks is going to kill you,” Hill said. “It’s really smart to give it a couple extra weeks and then come back. I think he’s being smart about it and he’s going to be healthy and come back like nothing ever happened.”
Hill was a regular at Pat Triplett’s home arena while rehabbing the myriad injuries he suffered or in search of a training ride during his professional career, which included four trips to the World Finals and ended with his retirement in 2017. He had an up-close seat as Pat grew his bucking bull business and Matt grew his bull-riding career, and appreciated the opportunity to take on professional-grade bulls in an area not typically known for producing bulls or bull riders.
“It’s hard to find a good practice pen around here,” Hill said. “If you grow up in Texas, people have bulls all over the place, all year round. So here, to find somebody that actually has the bulls and then has quality bulls that you want to get on, like Pat, that makes a big difference and makes you want to go to that spot and improve.”
Matt Triplett has earned nearly $800,000 in his PBR career, and he’ll be looking to add to that total at the Last Cowboy Standing event, May 4-6 at the Thomas and Mack Arena in Las Vegas. Pat Triplett plans to be there, too, with a batch of bulls he hopes can be champions, maybe even with his son on top in the bucking chute, just the way it was 15 years earlier in their front yard.
Pat and Matt, unsurprisingly, want nothing to do with that scenario. But the world they occupy already — the one where Matt, fully healthy, is reestablishing his place as one of the world’s best on a bull, and Pat and his bulls are traveling the country and throwing guys like Matt crashing to earth, is already a dream come true.
“It’s been an awesome ride,” Pat said. “I love it.”