Bull riding is a young man’s game. But somebody forgot to tell West Glacier veteran Beau Hill, who is still in the saddle after 18 years and remains one of the best professional riders in the world
Story by Dillon Tabish • Photos by Greg LindstromIt’s a Thursday afternoon in Texas, the day of the famed Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, one of the most popular and competitive rodeo events in the country, and Beau Hill is stressing about middle school basketball.
“I got the rodeo here in Houston and then I’ll ride in Austin tomorrow — that’ll be three rides in three days — but I got to be back in Montana by Saturday to watch my daughter’s basketball game,” he says, seeming to gloss right over the impending doom of riding 1,200-pound bulls.
At 36 years old, Beau Hill is still hanging on, achieving eight-second rides and enough payouts to raise a young family as a professional cowboy riding bulls. One of the best bull riders in Montana history grew up in West Glacier and Columbia Falls and still calls the valley home, even though he spends almost as many days on the road as he does here with his high school sweetheart-turned-wife, Keri, their daughter, LaKia, 12, and sons Jace, 10, and Jory, 6.
It’s the peripatetic life of a cowboy, a vestige of the Old West. That’s part of the sacrifice it takes to survive and raise a family in this sport.
Beau knows. Oh boy, does Beau know.
“Last year I think I was gone 170 days competing at around 100 rodeos,” he says.
Actually it was 113 rodeos. And he rode atop 129 different snot-snorting bulls.
Rodeo, especially bull riding, is a young man’s game, but somebody forgot to tell Hill.
The Montana cowboy is in the midst of his 18th year of riding bulls on the professional circuit. Revered as a mentor and role model among his younger colleagues, he is winding down a remarkable career in one of the roughest, most dangerous sports.
Matt Triplett, another Columbia Falls product who is in the early stages of his own vaunted career, has credited Hill as an inspiration and motivator. Triplett grew up five minutes from Hill and admired the elder rider throughout his childhood. When Triplett was old enough, Hill invited him along for a few rodeos.
Now 23, Triplett has developed into one of the sport’s top competitors and was ranked second in the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) world standings in May.
“The biggest thing (Hill) ever did for me was just letting me go with him,” Triplett said in a PBR circuit article. “It was awesome. He was showing me the ropes and teaching me and just always being there for me.”
When you’ve been around as long as Hill, you learn a few things, sometimes the hard way.
“This game kind of chews you up and spits you out pretty fast if you don’t have what it takes mentally and physically,” Hill says. “There are so many guys out there that can replace you real quick. To be able to stick around and do as well as I have has definitely been pretty awesome.”
But it ain’t over yet.
Last year the veteran rider stormed the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) circuit and propelled himself up the rankings among the best and bravest riders, many of whom are at least 10 years younger.
By late summer, Hill was making headlines as one of the top 15 riders in the world on the verge of qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), the nation’s premier championship rodeo held in Las Vegas.
It marked a stunning comeback that made headlines for being as impressive as it was improbable.
Many riders only dream of climbing over the bright yellow bucking chutes at the NFR. When Hill burst out of the chutes as a wide-eyed kid from Columbia Falls in 2001 and 2002, he qualified for the elite event in only his second season as a full-fledged professional. Over the next 10 years, he 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 and season earnings of $159,456.
But the ferocious nature of rodeo life eventually catches up to everyone. And in a sport that benefits short, stocky riders, the tall, slender West Glacier cowboy took his beatings, suffering a laundry list of injuries — 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. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, he was also the tallest and heaviest in the PRCA standings.
“I love it, but getting older and getting sore and all banged up, that takes the fun out of it. My body, I can feel it,” he says.
He could have coasted through the season or even rode off into the sunset with a good career behind him.
But that’s not Beau.
“I knew I had a chance. I knew I couldn’t quit. My kids were pushing me. It was more pressure because now they’re at the age where they can remember all this,” he says.
Hill, competing with a chronic wrist injury from a ruptured tendon in his holding hand, entered more rodeos in 2014 than the previous three years combined.
He made sure to bring along his family whenever he could, wanting to enjoy the ride with them. It turned into an epic odyssey for the family as they drove from Eastern Montana to Texas and Canada and everywhere in between. Eager to participate, young Jace and Jory would often carry their dad’s helmet and other gear while he strapped on his protective vest and prepared to drop into the chute.
Hill did have to sit out a period in late July after a bull stomped on his calf and forced him to miss four big events. He also took a break to return home and celebrate his daughter’s birthday.
But then he hit the road once again, within a few points of the top 15 in the final weeks of qualifying.
“These are the types of injuries that normal people would be in bed for the next week not moving around at all and just trying to get back on their feet,” says Camas Key, a longtime friend who grew up with Hill in the Flathead Valley. “He can just tough it out. He’s one of those guys that is just a natural competitor.”
Down to the last weekend of qualifying for the NFR, Hill sat in 16th place and needed to place high in his final two rodeos.
Years earlier, qualifying for the championship event was simply a boyhood dream to chase, but now the family man had so much more weighing on his mind, so much more at stake.
“He really pushed a little bit harder to make this last NFR. He really wanted to qualify for his kids and his family. He was doing it for everybody beyond his self,” Key says.
Ten years after last qualifying for the NFR, Hill returned.
“You realize at this age, it’s not just fun and games. You have a family to support and you have to treat it like a business,” he says.
In front of family and friends, Hill was one of the standout riders over the 10-day championship event in Las Vegas, finishing fourth overall in the final rankings.
By the end of the weekend, his knee was swollen like a basketball and he could barely walk.
“It turned out great and I had a pretty good finals. It was a grueling year but it was a good year,” he says. “It’s always good when you can reach your goal and be back there, and it was awesome for the kids to experience. I was excited for them.”
eau Hill was born in the winter of 1979. His father, Cork, met his mother, Linda, in high school and they worked together in Glacier National Park. Young Beau grew up in the outdoors of West Glacier along the Middle Fork Flathead River, a rambunctious kid with a flair for adventure. His friends always looked to him to be the one to hit the biggest jump on the ski hill or agree to the wildest dare. He was also athletic, taking after his parents, especially his father, who played college basketball.
When he was 14, he and his sister and a friend traveled up to East Glacier one evening for the summer rodeo series. It was a rugged, dusty event that attracted weekend warriors and brave residents who stepped out of the stands to test their mettle atop a wild bull. The announcer called to the audience for a lionhearted rider, and, naturally, the group of kids turned to Beau.
“I remember nodding. And I remember I got bucked off pretty good,” he says. “I was so scared.”
Landing in the mud, defeated by the wild animal, triggered something — a challenge. A few weeks later, Hill returned and straddled another beast.
Released into the arena in front of the crowd, the bull loped around kicking its hind legs in the air trying to eject young Hill. But the kid held on.
He won $40 that night. He walked away with so much more than that, though.
“From there on, I loved it. It was pretty dang cool,” he says.
He borrowed some gear from a neighbor, and by the end of high school, Hill was a familiar name at rodeos across Montana. Even though he was inexperienced compared to other riders who grew up in the arena, Hill’s athleticism helped him conquer the eight-second rollercoasters. His long legs, rather unconventionally, also turned out to be a benefit, helping him wrap around the bull’s torso as it bucked and whirled.
“My mom was pretty nervous at first, like any mom would be. My dad, he was OK with it once he realized I was halfway decent,” Hill says.
A standout multi-sport athlete at Columbia Falls High School, Hill turned down a college baseball scholarship to compete on the rodeo team at Miles City Community College. He trained under famed rider Marty Penrod, a former circuit champion bull rider and a coach in Miles City.
He earned runner-up in his college region in 1998 and was named rookie of the year for the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit. After finishing college in three years with a degree in building technology, Hill hit the road for elite competitions, a rising star in the exciting world of rodeos.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo comes and goes with Hill surviving only the first go. He makes $650 and hurries off to Austin the next day, the worry of catching a flight to Montana still nagging him.
“I don’t like being away this much. My wife’s amazing,” he says. “She’s at home being a single mom for a number of years. She’s definitely a strong lady and lets me do what I love to do, and she’s worked hard to let me do it.”
On Saturday afternoon, LaKia’s basketball game tips off in Columbia Falls. Among the crowd of parents, Hill is saddled in the bleachers, cheering and clapping with his family by his side.
After the game the Hills climb into the truck and drive toward Kalispell. There’s a rodeo in town and Hill’s slated to sit atop another big, mean bull for the fourth time in as many days.
How many more of these does he have in him?
How many more summers can he hang on?
If his kids could choose, it would be a lot.
“They had such an awesome time at National Finals Rodeo, they keep saying they want to go back,” Hill says with a weary chuckle.