NRHA Professional Matt Palmer will compete in The Run for a Million (TRFAM), presented by Teton Ridge, this month in Las Vegas at the South Point Arena. But his road to reining’s richest event and competing for one of the sport’s most coveted titles hasn’t been easy.
We spoke to Palmer as he prepared to leave for the 2022 TRFAM. The insights he gained with every bump in his road to the chance to win a $500,000 check could help you the next time you face adversity in your riding and help you get back on track to achieving your goals.
Downtimes in Arizona
In 2019, Palmer and his family, including his wife, mother, and father, traveled to Arizona for the annual Cactus Classic. It was a somber trip for the family, as they knew Palmer’s father had stage 4 cancer, and they were looking into moving to the sunny state so Palmer could pursue new opportunities as a reining professional. During the show, Palmer received a call that his father’s health was failing.
“At 4 a.m., I got a call that my father wasn’t going to make it,” he recalls. “He passed away during that show. We’re a close family. When you lose a parent, it’s traumatic. My sister died of cancer at age 30. I didn’t want to go back there.”
Fast-forward to 2021, when the Cactus Classic resumed following a hiatus in 2020, and along with it the qualifying event for that year’s TRFAM event.
“I wasn’t sure I could go back there, emotionally,” Palmer shares. “I knew my horse, Gunnatrashtheplace, was great, but I didn’t know if I could do it. You start remembering walking through the airport with him; you relive it. It was the same show, and I had the same feelings. Mentally, that takes a big toll.”
All that aside, Palmer powered through his emotions to show in the qualifier. He had an early draw with Gunnatrashtheplace in a very large class, so the waiting kept him on his toes most of the day. As the end of the qualifier neared, Palmer prepared to face a runoff for the final spot to be one of the 10 qualifiers.
“We were warming up to prepare for the runoff, and the last horse was shown by (NRHA Two Million Dollar Rider) Tom McCutcheon,” Palmer recalls. “He knocked us out. To go all the way down there and lay down the exact run you were hoping to have is a win in itself, but it’s still tough.”
To top it off, the crew for the TV show associated with TRFAM, The Last Cowboy, was filming at the Cactus Classic and caught all the drama on film, which would later air to the shows ever-growing audience.
“Being on camera for that kind of moment, when you’re just crushed, was very unusual,” he says. “There’s no book on how to handle that in the public eye. You just have to be who you are.”
Picking Up the Pieces
“I wanted to get back with my horse, and that started by showing at the National Reining Breeders Classic (NRBC),” Palmer says. Just one month after the disappointment of being a breath away from qualifying for TRFAM and enduring the emotional overwhelm of being back in Scottsdale, Palmer showed Gunnatrashtheplace in the 8-and-up Challenge, placing second.
“It was the first time in my life I’ve ever experienced a standing ovation,” he recalls. “Not winning was pretty tough—again—but to have the ride we had and the crowd behind us was incredible. It was another great run, but not where I wanted to be.”
Palmer left Katy, Texas, for his home in New York, firmly believing that the door he’d been knocking at for years was finally going to open—even if he had to kick it down.
“The ride at the NRBC made a lot of people talk,” he says. “I had so many calls and texts that motivated me and built my confidence. My connection with my horse was great, and he’s an amazing athlete. I came home and listened to a lot of sports psychology podcasts and interviews with professional athletes. Many of their paths were so much more challenging than the players who were the No. 1 draft picks. They had to go at it every day and never let the highs get too high or the lows get too low. I learned that I had to believe in myself and my program.”
Learn More: Winning Insights with Matt Mills
Gambling in Vegas
One year ago, Palmer faced another cross-country drive to Las Vegas for the $100,000 Shootout held during TRFAM. The top-five placers from that event automatically get a spot in the following year’s million-dollar event. Palmer would encounter yet another large and talented field with only five spots available.
“I had to believe in myself and in my horse,” he shares. “It sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. If you believe you’ll knock that door down, someday you will. Even if I didn’t make the top five, I felt like I’d been doing something right. To have that kind of support—that’s what drives me. It’s about those people who are behind you and support you.”
Palmer knew he had to take the shootout seriously and get in a solid routine to help block out distractions and emotions that could derail his focus and his ability to perform as he needed. Having never shown at the South Point, Palmer was overwhelmed walking into the casino that had more of a feeling of a bachelor party than a horse show with so much on the line. He skipped dinners and socializing that are part of the marquee event. He woke early each morning to keep up his at-home routine of working out. He rode literally at the 11th hour each night, taking his horse to the pen at 11 p.m., just before it closed at midnight.
“I had to remember where I was and why I was there,” he says. “It’s easy to get lost in the festivities. I had to make sure my mind was right and think about what my horse needed. It was a huge tool in my toolbox, and it worked. My mindset was that I didn’t know when I’d have a horse like that or that opportunity again, and I had to put my all into it.”
When the dust settled, Palmer and Gunnatrashtheplace placed third in the shootout and secured a spot for August 21’s TRFAM. The crowd had his back, and the celebratory photos flooded social media, sharing the joy Palmer felt and the emotion of the accomplishment.
Prepping for the 2022 The Run For A Million
Palmer doesn’t plan to change a thing in his routine and focus for this year’s TRFAM. His approach worked nearly flawlessly in 2021, and he has faith it’ll serve him and his horse, Frozen Shining Gun.
“I’m flying into Vegas Friday a week before I’ll show,” he says. “My best friend is driving the trailer of horses out, but I’ll arrive before them so I can prepare the stalls and be ready when the horses get there. I feel like I have the preparation down to a science now and know exactly how I want to do it.”
Palmer also plans to skip the fun factor associated with the event until he shows on August 21. That said, Taylor Sheridan, producer of The Last Cowboy and Yellowstone, has a lot of appearances for TRFAM riders to make and things to do for the TV show. Palmer looks forward to enjoying those experiences with two of his closest friends, Francesco Martinotti and Billy Williams, who also qualified for the million-dollar event.
Advice for Riders
“There’s a quote I try to live by and think about a lot,” Palmer says. “’One day, people who didn’t believe in you will want to tell everyone how they met you.’ Sometimes we have to remind ourselves why we do this—the love of the horse. It’s the whole reason we’re here, no matter what we do with our horses. I’m fortunate to be able to ride and compete, even if it doesn’t go the way I want. No matter the end result, the passion and love of horses and our sport always has to be at the forefront if you want to keep progressing.”