Click the image or use the arrows to see more photos from an evening of bull riding at the Triplett residence.
Pat Triplett’s life as a bull rider began when he was 6 years old, sneaking onto the backs of cattle at a dairy farm near Eureka. It ended when his bones shattered and his passion flickered in his late 20s, at the tail end of a floundering professional career.
While the injuries slowed him, it was the fading desire that broke him.
“The passion – that’s the thing with rodeo,” Triplett said. “You’ve got to have the passion to hop in a car and drive 1,000 miles to a rodeo and keep on doing it.”
But Triplett’s passion has reawakened, in a new form. It comes in the form of his son, Matt, and through his own career as a stock contractor. Triplett figures if he can no longer be one of the young men riding bulls under bright lights, he can still make sure those young men are riding the best bulls. His efforts have changed the rodeo landscape of Northwest Montana.
At his home south of Columbia Falls, Triplett raises bulls and runs a training arena for bull riders in the area, most notably his son. Matt Triplett, an 18-year-old senior at Columbia Falls High School, is the two-time defending Montana High School Rodeo Association state champion bull rider. At the state finals on June 9-13 in Bozeman, he’ll go for this third straight title.
The younger Triplett has a scholarship to ride bulls at the University of Montana and recently purchased his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) permit. He will now begin the long climb up the Montana PRCA Pro Rodeo Circuit standings. His first rodeo as a professional is on June 6 in Vaughn.
Years ago, Triplett recognized his calling as a professional bull rider, with his father serving as a mentor. And now he has another mentor – and training partner – in Beau Hill, the only Montanan on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Built Ford Tough Series circuit.
Hill, a native of West Glacier who today lives a few miles down the road from the Tripletts, has taken an unlikely path to stardom, emerging from an area of Montana with little rodeo or ranching tradition. It’s the same path that Matt Triplett believes is his destiny.
Triplett and Hill both train at Pat Triplett’s arena, along with a handful of other young bull riders from the region. But Hill isn’t usually around too long for training. For a professional bull rider, the road beckons often.
Hill, 31, is a top-30 bull rider in the world. He has been a full-time bull rider since 2001 and participates in four or five rodeos a week during peak season, sometimes three a day on the Fourth of July. Hill has made hundreds of thousands of dollars in career earnings, but he said that “40 to 50 percent” of that goes back into rodeo.
Not to mention, rodeo’s not like other professional sports – there aren’t salaries. If you get hurt, which you often do in bull riding, the money stops coming in.
“You can make $10 in a year or $1 million,” Hill said.
Hill, like the older Triplett, has “broken just about everything.” That’s on top of the torn tendons and double-digit concussions. The younger Triplett has cracked his jaw and suffered endless bruises, but his bones are intact. Pat Triplett said injuries come with the territory, and it all comes back to passion.
“There’s times you think, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” he said. “You’re constantly broke, you’re sore. Then you have doctor’s bills and you’re in the hole.”
“But if you love it as much as these guys do,” he said, gesturing to Hill and his son, “it’s worth it.”
Matt Triplett began riding steers when he was 8 years old and full-grown bulls when he was 13. He said you don’t learn to love bull riding; you just do from day one.
“You either love it or you don’t,” Triplett said. “Since I first got on a bull, I knew I loved it.”
It’s hard to fake love for such a grueling sport. It’s not really worth it, yet people still give it a shot. Pat Triplett said “there’s a lot of guys out there who ride for the wrong reasons,” like ego caressing or women. But that’s fine with Hill, who is married with three kids, because those guys aren’t usually at the top of the standings.
“They pay my bills,” Hill said.
Likewise, it takes a unique dedication to do what Pat Triplett does. Already a horse trainer, Triplett began raising bulls when Matt started riding them. Right off the bat, he was hooked. Like bull riding itself, stock contracting relies on a precarious system of risk and reward.
One of every 10 bulls is fit for rodeo, Triplett said, and maybe one out of every 100 can make it to the PBR. When his bulls are 9 months old, he straps a weighted dummy to their backs and sees if they buck.
“If they’re not good, they go to McDonald’s,” Triplett said. “They become Big Macs.”
But if they’re good, they can bring in money for both Triplett and the bull riders. A bull might make the difference in a ride – a great rider won’t win with a poorly performing bull.
“They have to have a good dancing partner to win,” Triplett said.
Top bulls have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases, and tens of thousands of dollars otherwise. Triplett is still working his way up the food chain in the bull breeding business, learning its fickle nature along the way.
Sometimes a good bull can’t be fully explained, like the one he sold a while ago to Shane Gunderson, a stock contractor who is originally from Columbia Falls and now works out of North Dakota. That bull, bred from a range cow, “was just a freak of nature.”
“They’re like my little athletes,” Triplett said. “I work hard because I want them to do well. And it’s just like the bull riders. It takes a certain breed to be able to take the diesel smell, the bright lights.”
The Tripletts’ arena is where Pat’s dreams of raising the best bull in the world meet his son’s dreams of becoming the best bull rider in the world. And the arena is sprouting other dreams, with up-and-coming bull riders arriving every week to train.
Hill said when he was in high school, there wasn’t anywhere to train in the area. He just showed up at rodeos and hopped on a bull, which is what other bull riders in the Flathead did before the Tripletts’ arena was built.
“It gives the kids a shot,” Hill said. “They need to practice; practice helps a lot, as you can tell with Matt.”
As Matt Triplett follows Hill’s footsteps, he is leaving behind his own footsteps, and Pat Triplett couldn’t be happier.
“I’m proud of both of them for what they’ve achieved,” Triplett said. “Not growing up around ranches and working so hard, I’m very proud of them.”
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