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On the edge of your seat: PBR in Southwest Montana

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Story by Abbie Digel, Photos courtesy of Bull Stock Media

Beau Hill is making cookies for his daughter’s school event. It’s easy to imagine him wearing
chaps and a cowboy hat while he measures sugar and cracks eggs into a bowl. Hill is a family
man—he and Keri, his wife of 10 years, have three young children and live in Columbia Falls, not far from Glacier National Park.

Keri is an esthetician at the Beauty Bar in Kalispell, and Hill is gearing up for his summer tour with the PBR (Professional Bull Riders, Inc.) 2011 has not been easy on the Hill family. Google Beau Hill, and the first hit is a video of his leg getting rocked by a bull at a January event in Anaheim, California. His knee was twisted and tweaked in all the wrong ways, causing tears in his PCL and MCL. The only Montanan in the PBR Built Ford Tough Series, Hill has been sitting out since the injury, doing extensive
rehab. He hopes to be riding for PBR events, come June.

Injuries like Hill’s are a standard in bull riding. Bull riding is based on adrenaline, and Hill is a junky. “You think you have it all figured out, then you get bucked off,” he says. “You have to stay focused, positive. You’re not going to ride every bull, and you have to
realize there are ups and downs in this sport.”

Hill compared his profession to playing a hand at poker. He has witnessed fellow competitors
go broke, but he’s been fortunate enough to keep his competitive edge. Since there is a chance to walk away from an event with handfuls of cash, Hill says it’s best to take advantage of it when you can:

“We have the chance to win $100,000 in eight seconds. That’s one hell of a feeling.”

In that same amount of time, a rider can lose his chance at the big bucks. The split seconds make the thrill of the ride. Hill is not a newcomer to bull riding. He’s been at it for 14 years, has consistently ranked among the top 40 in the world, and has ridden the top bulls.
He remembers seeing a rodeo as a high school freshman, and watching the fierce, veiny animals
throw men around until they hit the dust. He knew it was something he had to try. His second competition won him $40, and he was hooked.

His was an athletic family: his sister attended college on a full basketball scholarship, and his father played collegiate basketball four years in a row. Hill was offered scholarships to play baseball, but instead accepted a bid to do rodeo at Miles City Community College. He
hasn’t looked back.

After earning his Associates degree in building technology, Hill hit the road full time. Now, he travels approximately 250 days a year, competing in the U.S. and internationally. “Riding has taken me everywhere,” he says, “to every state and province, to Mexico, Brazil, England.”

But he always comes home.

“Summer is great because rodeos are always in Canada and Montana, [and] I can spend
time with my family.”

It could be his huge fan base, the number of talented riders here, or his supportive family, but when Hill competes in Montana, he’s found his niche. He says he could drive across the state 1000 times, pointing out animals and mountains to his children.

“It’s exciting to show the kids the old Western lifestyle—a lot of people don’t have that heritage,” he says. Hill’s legacy runs deep. “My great grandfathers were cowboys, and I wanted to be a cowboy, too.”

The Montana circuit has its down sides, he says. “The Montana rodeos aren’t as big, money-wise. A lot of guys here ride well, but don’t travel like I do. I like to go where the money is.”

Hill is the top of his class: one of the top 45 competitors in the PBR, he’s also competed in the National Finals Rodeo twice, the PBR World Finals four times, and was the National
PBR Champion in Canada in 2009. But since his injury in early 2011, Hill has been knocked
out of the top tier. He says, “It’s about coming back stronger than when you left.”

Hill is determined to ride in Montana’s events this summer. Look for him at PBR events in Billings, Missoula, Livingston and Big Sky.

PBR in Montana

2010 was the fifth year PBR came to Southwest Montana, thanks to Andy and Jacey Watson, Montana’s bull riding power couple. The Watsons were photographers for PBR for 17 years before they started Freestone Productions,their PBR production company based outside of Three Forks.

A business platform to help coordinate and put on PBR events in Southwest Montana and Idaho, Freestone is one of three companies the Watsons run, all exclusively involved with the PBR.
The Watsons also manage Bull Stock Media and Watson Rodeo Photos, which capture and manage PBR
imagery. While Andy is on the road as the sole action photographer for PBR, Jacey manages their stock of nearly a million photos. Their photography has expanded, and the public now has access to images of their favorite riders. Their biggest event, the Livingston Classic, part of the Touring Pro Division, is slated for Wednesday, July 27.

“We want to bring the best of bull riding to Southwest Montana. On top of that, we want to make it one of the top five PBR events of the year in the country,” says Jacey. “[It’s already] succeeded as being one of the top five every year it has been going.”

Included in the event each year are blue ribbon cowboys, including Hill, and the toughest
bulls in the world. Flint Rasmussen, a Montana native and one of the most sought after PBR entertainers, will be in attendance thanks to the Watsons’ influence. A stadium veteran, Flint’s career flourished with the PBR, where he dances, sings and pleases the crowd. An exclusive entertainer for PBR, Flint lives in Choteau, Montana with his family.

A new development this year is the PBR event in Big Sky on August 3. Top riders and bulls will be there, and for the first time, an arena will be constructed in the Town Center, along with a street fair and vendors. Event to include a preparty,autograph signing, live music and Calcutta on August 2.

“Our hope is for the Big Sky event to be an annual show, with big riders and big ticket sales, year after year,” says Eric Ladd, a PBR sponsor and fan. The Watsons like bringing events to smaller venues, in smaller towns. That way, the community can participate through sponsorships
and ad sales. In the past, the Classic was held in Bozeman.

The oneday event brought with it $250,000 in sales. In Montana, “It’s all about quality versus quantity. It’s a lot of heart and effort,” says Andy. “We basically throw a party for 4,000
people. We have to be on our game.”

For the PBR, which hosts events in locations across the country, “It’s fun to find the towns that embrace Western culture,” says Jacey.

This summer, the Livingston Classic plans for about 4,000 attendees. Andy figures it will sell out. The tickets, compared to bigger shows, are half the price. It doesn’t get any better
than the open-air venue, either.

“Livingston is a perfect place for a PBR show,” says Andy. Last year it cleared up right before the show, and there was a double rainbow right over the stadium, he remembers. It’s not a bad deal for the cowboys either—according to the Watsons, they should have a pretty generous payout of approximately $22,000.

The Watsons are also working on topping off last year’s epic moments: a helicopter dropped the cowboys off in the middle of the arena, and the Dirty Shame played the after party.

“Right now we have the top bulls in the world (the stock contractor has three world titles).

There will be around 30 out of 40 of the top riders in the world, with two or three world champions among them,” says Andy. The Watsons, the riders and the people behind the scenes have dedicated their lives to bull riding.

“It’s mind blowing how tough the athletes are,” Andy says. “It’s the most exciting, dangerous
sport in the world. You will buy a ticket for the whole seat, but really, you’ll only
need the edge.”

All about PBR

The Professional Bull Riders, Inc. was created in 1992 when a group of 20 bull riders broke away from the traditional rodeo scene seeking mainstream attention for the sport of professional bull riding.They felt bull riding could easily stand alone. Each rider invested $1,000, and the PBR was born.

In recent years, the PBR has celebrated milestones in organizational revenue, bull rider earnings, record-breaking performances, and media attention. It’s the fastest growing sport in the country.

More than 1,200 bull riders from the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico hold PBR memberships. They compete in more than 300 events per year on the elite tour (the Built
Ford Tough Series), the Touring Pro Division, or the PBR International circuits (PBR Australia, PBR Brazil, PBR Canada and PBR Mexico).

The ultimate goal for PBR athletes each year is to qualify for the PBR World Finals in Las
Vegas, where the coveted title of PBR World Champion is decided. Professional bull riding
is a fierce, rough, and grueling sport, with roots deeply imbedded in American culture.

This story was first published in the summer 2011 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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