Bonner Bolton is Fashion's Favorite Cowboy

Bonner Bolton is Fashion's Favorite Cowboy

For pro bull rider and future Dancing with the Stars contestant Bonner Bolton, falling down turned into a higher calling. Here, he talks about his life-threatening accident and steps in front of the lens of Mario Testino for V106. Order your copy of the issue here.

For pro bull rider and future Dancing with the Stars contestant Bonner Bolton, falling down turned into a higher calling. Here, he talks about his life-threatening accident and steps in front of the lens of Mario Testino for V106. Order your copy of the issue here.

Photography: Mario Testino

Text: Joseph Akel

Bonner Bolton’s life changed forever on Sunday, January 10, 2016. The second day of the Professional Bull Riders’ Chicago Invitational, Bolton—who was 28 at the time—was preparing to ride a particularly aggressive bull by the name of Cowboy Up. Watching a video on YouTube of the competition’s original broadcast, it’s apparent that Cowboy Up is already restless to escape the confines of the small pen, or “chute,” that allows Bolton to mount and tie into a rope that will fasten him to the steer. As Bolton ties in, the broadcast’s commentator predicts that Cowboy Up “is going to give us a little bit of trouble at the end of the ride.” Fateful words, indeed.

“Going into Chicago, I had just come off a top 10 finish at PBR’s World Finals,” Bolton notes about that day. “I was really rising as a rookie on tour the year before and I was looking to destroy 2016.” On Saturday, the first day of the invitational, Bolton had an exceptionally strong ride, placing second and advancing to round two of the competition. “The next day,” Bolton notes, before pausing for a sigh, “I found out that I’m getting on this bull called Cowboy Up, which is the bull that my accident occurred on.”

Cowboy Up had a reputation for strong bucks and a fluidity of movement, one factor judges use to determine a rider’s score—the more forceful and fluid the movement, the higher the score—and Bolton was excited by the prospect of riding him. “I knew something special was gonna happen,” Bolton tells me, “I had that feeling in my gut. I went in super confident that day, loving my matchup—everything seemed to be destiny, picture perfect for me.” Until it wasn’t.

Watching the video of Bolton, coming out the chute, the ride proceeded perfectly. “Move for move,” Bolton remembers, “I was so in rhythm with that bull. We were one. I’ve never been on a bull that felt better.” As Cowboy Up bucks, Bolton intuitively reacts, one hand fastened to the rope while the other remains high in the air. Judges score a ride out of a 100 points, 50 allocated to the bull’s performance, the other 50 based on the rider’s. For the latter, points are awarded, in part, on the rider’s ability to anticipate and mirror the bull’s movement. Disqualification can occur if the rider’s free hand touches any part of the bull or himself. In addition, a rider must remain on the bull for a minimum of eight seconds in order to receive a score. Most experienced riders average a score of 75 or more, with anything above 80 considered excellent. For comparison, Bolton’s ride on Cowboy Up received a score of 86.75. Perhaps one of the most difficult elements of any ride is the dismount. A poorly timed dismount can turn an exceptional ride into what cowboys call a “wreck,” an apt euphemism for the brutally violent falls and life-threating run-ins with a bull that can occur as a result. Bolton’s dismount quickly became the wreck of his life.

“I looked to launch out and dismount from the bull,” he recalls, “and I just mistimed it. Instead of shooting out to the side, I get rolled out the back, first suspended high in the air before coming straight down onto my head.” In the video, Bolton can be seen laying face down in the dirt motionless, the once cheering crowd silent as medical staff rush into the arena. “It’s like someone took a baseball bat to my head.” Within a split second, Bolton knew he had had bigger problems. “Any time we hit the dirt, our training teaches us to get up and run immediately,” he tells me. “You can see in the video, I raise my head, but I couldn’t feel anything below my neck—my arms were out in front of me, but I can’t move them.” Bolton is strapped to a stretcher and rushed to a nearby hospital where x-rays reveal a snapped C2 vertebrae. He would remain paralyzed for 24 hours, during which time he would undergo six hours of surgery.

The dangers posed by bull riding were nothing new to Bolton. Born into a ranching family just outside of Odessa, a rural town in west Texas, Bolton had been exposed to the sport as a young child. His father, Toya Bolton, has some 20 years of riding experience and is considered a pioneer of the sport. “I had been riding horses my whole life,” the younger Bolton points out proudly, “growing up on a ranch and working cattle doing the real cowboy thing.” As soon as he was old enough, Bolton began training to ride bulls, first on a bucking barrel—an oil drum suspended in the air by ropes tied to stakes in the ground—and later on the real thing. Bolton’s rise as a PBR rider to watch was stellar and he was looking to make 2016 the year that he broke out as a champion rider.

As he rode in the back of the ambulance on the way to the hospital, those dreams quickly vanished. “I’m thinking this might be my last day on this Earth,” he confesses, “that I might not get to see my family.” At one point Bolton says reflectively, “I was counting my blessings and getting ready for it, praying to God, ‘If this is it, I’m ready to go, but I don’t want to.’” Bolton’s prayers were answered. That night, laying in his hospital bed, he felt something. “My stomach turned, like a wave,” he recalls with intensity, “and at first I thought I was bleeding, but then I realized it was the first feeling I had below my neck.” Bolton was not permanently paralyzed and in three days he would be walking again. Shortly thereafter, he began several months of grueling physiotherapy. “There were literally moments,” Bolton remembers of that time, “where I kind of just wanted to end it. It was just torture. I have never been through a more painful experience, one where it’s hard to even raise yourself up out of bed.” But just as God gives, so can he take away. While Bolton regained full sensation of his body and its use, his doctors made it clear that his riding days were best left in the past.

With his career as a bull rider in question, Bolton remained an active figure in the PBR community. His all-American good looks paired with a wholesome sensibility quickly found Bolton garnering the attention of executives at IMG Models. In 2015, WME-IMG acquired PBR, one of several forays by the talent agency into the realm of sports, including their purchase of UFC. In short order, Bolton has shot a campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue and is working on a new fragrance project. Additionally, he has become, in many ways, the face of PBR, an ambassador for the sport and its riders.

Several weeks after our first meeting, I met Bolton again at Madison Square Garden for the kick-off of the 2017 PBR Built Ford Tough Series, PBR’s equivalent to the major leagues. Just two days shy of the anniversary of his fateful accident, seeing Bolton hanging around the chutes with other cowboys preparing for their rides was especially poignant. When pressed about whether he would ever ride again if given a clean bill by his doctors, Bolton was quick to respond: “My passion is there still for the sport. I told the doctors, ‘If there ever is the chance that I can ride again without it begin a threat to my life—just doing it one time—I would, because my passion supersedes the danger.’ It always has and that’s why I always come back from my wrecks.”

See more of Bonner Bolton in the slideshow below.

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