PENDLETON, Ore. – As Matt Palmer stood on the Happy Canyon Arena dirt, he looked up into the stands at 5,000 fans, a grin as wide as the nearby Umatilla River on his face.
The 22-year-old rookie from Claremore, Okla., had just ridden four consecutive bulls over two nights to claim the 2021 Pendleton Whisky Xtreme Bulls Finale.
Palmer stared at the fans cheering for him, stunned by what he’d just accomplished. The rookie bull rider tried to take it all in. He tried to fight back the tears the way he’d fought to stay on Sankey Pro Rodeo & Phenom Genetics’ Bad Time in the first round, Beutler & Son Rodeo’s No Doubt in round two, Sankey Pro Rodeo & Phenom Genetics’ Time For Magic in round three and 4L & Diamond S Rodeo’s Rustler’s Roost to cap it off. Not only had he never ridden four consecutive bulls in two days in ProRodeo, he’d never even been on four bulls in two days.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but it takes a toll on your body,” he said.
He looked up into those stands and saw the first time he got on a sheep.
His family didn’t have rodeo roots. The family was driving by a rodeo and Palmer and his brother, Jesse, “started freakin’ out” when they noticed a rodeo. Their folks turned in to the event, and both Matt and Jesse got on sheep for some mutton bustin’. They held on for dear life. After progressing to calves and steers, Matt is still hanging on.
“Man, when you’re at these big rodeos and they’ve got this many fans, it makes the hair stand up on my arms and the back of my neck,” Palmer said. “It just gives me that feeling like no other.”
He didn’t score a ton of money through those four rounds. His scores of 81.5, 72, 80 and 87.5 earned him a combined $2,401. But those scores led to a windfall – $10,340 for winning the average with 320 points on four head. All told, he walked away with $12,741.
He knew the pressure coming into the event. As he put it, if he didn’t do well at the X Bulls Finale or the Pendleton Round-Up, only the ProRodeo Tour Finale presented by Pendleton Whisky in Salinas, Calif., would offer a chance to make up ground.
And he has ground to make up.
Two weeks before it looked even bleaker. Palmer was 24th in the standings with $42,042, more than $24,000 away from reaching a dream.
But Palmer headed for the Ellensburg (Wash.) Rodeo. His rookie season had seen him reach multiple short rounds at significant rodeos – San Antonio, Cheyenne, Denver, to name a few. But he’d yet to make the whistle in any of those short rounds.
At Ellensburg, he got over the hump. Not only did he cover his eight seconds, he held on for an 88.5-point ride on Corey & Lange Rodeo’s Freaky Friday to win the round, the average and a beautiful buckle that he wore at Pendleton.
It set the tone for Palmer.
He looked up into the stands and realized that on Wednesday afternoon he would be climbing aboard his fifth bull in three days, this time on the famed grass infield at the Pendleton Round-Up.
Palmer took a few deep breaths while on the arena dirt. He held back the tears of joy. Instead, he let the smile on his face grow. He looked at the Xtreme Bulls Tour Finale championship buckle in his hands. He showed it off, the pride as evident as the shine on the buckle. He talked about how “slick” some of the Xtreme Bulls buckles were that his fellow bull riders were sporting at the event.
Whether he keeps wearing the Ellensburg buckle or switches to the tour champion buckle doesn’t matter.
Matt Palmer looked into the stands and the crowd and the future and realized what matters.
“This is a dream come true,” he said. “How many people can say they’ve been to Pendleton and won it? I’m just marking my name in the history books, and I love it, baby.”
Courtesy of PRCA