The standing ovation, rippling throughout the packed grandstands at Flathead County Fairgrounds, was loud and proud.
Battling bruised ribs and an injured lung and hobbled by a ruptured wrist tendon that’s undergone multiple surgeries but just won’t fully heal, Beau Hill climbed atop a professional-grade, snot-snorting bull one last time in Kalispell.
He didn’t last eight seconds. He lasted 20 years.
The affable family man from Columbia Falls, who rose to fame as a talented teenager and defied the odds by carving out a spectacular career as one of the best professional bull riders in the world, is finally hanging up the spurs.
Hill, 38, competed on the final night of the PRCA Rodeo at the Northwest Montana Fair on Aug. 19 and received a well-deserved tribute from the crowd, which included family and friends who witnessed his last professional ride in Kalispell.
“I just decided that would be as good a place as any, a hometown rodeo. It was a good spot to do it and it was pretty awesome to do it in front of family and friends,” Hill said.
The following week he traveled to Australia and rode another bull before returning home to his wife, Keri, and their three kids: LaKia, Jace and Jory.
“I’m pretty much going to call it quits,” he said last week after being back with his family.
“I’m not saying I won’t ever get on another bull, but I’m done as a professional. I’m never going to make another run at anything.”
It’s been quite the ride in one of the roughest, most dangerous sports.
Many riders only dream of reaching the pinnacle of the sport and climbing over the bright yellow bucking chutes at the National Finals Rodeo. When Hill burst out of the chutes as a wide-eyed kid who grew up in the wilds of West Glacier and turned professional at 18, he qualified for the elite event in only his second season on the circuit.
Over the next 10 years, the Montana cowboy was one of the best in the business, qualifying for the NFR a second time and making four trips to the PBR World Finals. He frequently finished near the top of the season standings, including a third-place finish at NFR in 2004.
His stature in the pro rodeo circuit was noticed by many and he’s going out as one of Montana’s all-time greats. He’s retiring with five Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Championships in bull riding, tied for the most ever with Billings’ Dave Wagner.
“He is just an outstanding individual and very professional in everything he did,” Jim Croft, president of the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit and a longtime admirer and friend of Hill’s, said.
“He’s a leader in how he handles himself … He was a good representative for Montana in everything. He’s a real hero to a lot of bull riders.”
Hill’s good-hearted nature made him a role model and friend to many. His style was also worthy of admiration. Standing 6-foot-2, Hill is noticeably tall in a sport that benefits short, stocky riders.
But the ferocious nature of rodeo life eventually catches up to everyone. And, Hill certainly took his share of beatings, suffering a laundry list of injuries over the years — broken sternum; broken foot; separated shoulder; torn ACL and MCL; multiple broken ribs; multiple concussions.
Those first 10 years he averaged roughly 60 rodeos a year. In 2011, while battling injuries, he only managed 30. Then 39 in 2012.
By 2014, Hill was the oldest cowboy in the field of contenders by at least five years and was 15 years older than the top-ranked rider in the PRCA standings.
The same nagging injuries and other new ones plagued Hill these last few years, and recovery became more painstaking.
“My wrist has just been killing me and I’ve been in a lot of pain. It’s not as fun anymore,” he said. “That’s what happens when you ride a couple thousand head of bucking bulls.”
The injuries made him question how much longer his career would last.
“I know I could go and do a lot of amateur stuff. But it’s something I told myself, I don’t really want to back step,” he said.
“I knew it was going to happen at some point. My body is getting too worn down and too sore. If I’m not having fun and I’m not riding to the best of my ability because of my injuries, it’s as good a time as any to walk away. It’s kind of bittersweet.”
Another important factor was at play, too. For Hill, the hardest part of being a bull rider wasn’t riding bareback atop 1,200-pound bulls. It was being away from his family.
His high school sweetheart-turned-wife has always supported her husband in his grand pursuit, but every time he left home was hard, and it never grew easier.
“My wife has pretty much been a single mom for 15 years,” he said. “I really appreciate her letting me have the opportunity to do what I’ve done.”
Traveling the world and competing in elite events is fun, but Hill is now eager to catch his daughter’s soccer games. His son, Jory, is even interested in rodeos and likes to compete at the Blue Moon.
“I don’t like getting in the car and leaving anymore. It’s like pulling teeth,” he said.
“I’m excited to be able to make most of my kids’ sporting events and be around.”
He’s also got plenty of projects to keep him busy. He’s a skilled hunter and works as a professional outfitter in fall. He’s also a talented homebuilder and is building his family a new house, rising at dawn and working until dusk to complete the project.
Looking back on his career, it’s not the thrilling rides or shiny belt buckles that stand out most.
“All the friends and the people I’ve met along the way, that’s what I’ll remember more than any rides,” he said. “Definitely made a lot of friends around the world and the country. That’s something you can take with you forever.”