A Sit Down with PBR’s Dancing Cowboy

By: Andrew Giangola
April 24, 2017

Bonner Bolton has taken every crazy turn in his life in stride. Photo: Steven Tippett

PUEBLO, Colo. – For the sports fan who loves underdogs and comebacks, Bonner Bolton is one of this spring’s compelling stories.

Sixteen months ago, at the Built Ford Tough Series’ 2016 season-opener in Chicago, Bolton was on the ground with the event lead, a mouthful of dirt, and no feeling in his body.

He had broken his neck.

Following a remarkable recovery, the 29-year-old cowboy from west Texas is in a new competition – as one of the most popular contestants on ABC’s hit series, “Dancing with the Stars.”

In this wide-ranging Q&A, Bolton shares his improbable and inspirational story.

“Dancing with the Stars” can be seen Monday nights at 8 p.m. ET.  Phone lines are open for one hour after each broadcast. Be sure to watch and vote for Bonner at 1-800-868-3401.

Q: What was it like when you first hit the floor with your partner Sharna Burgess on network TV?

A: It was insane. The room had crazy energy. It felt like a freight train running through my chest. My heart was pounding. It was like being at a bull riding competition. From that first night, the whole thing has been a crazy ride and super fun.

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Bolton was paired with Sharna Burgess for his season on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Q: You’re still working on your physical recovery. Was it a tough decision to go on Dancing with the Stars?

A: It was a no-brainer. For more than a year, I’d been out of competition and was chomping at the bit to compete again. Whether on the back of a bull or on the dance floor, it feels good to be competing. More than that, it’s a chance to tell my story and hopefully inspire people who face physical challenges.

Q: Do you enjoy dancing?

A: I do. I’ve been around dance halls and honky tonks my whole life. Most of the dancing I’ve done has been with a partner. I’ve always learned from the willing young lady giving me a try.

Q: This must be a whole different kind of dancing.

A: Oh yeah, ballroom dancing is another animal. You need proper technique and structure to your step. There are parallels to bull riding – balance, timing and coordination, being liquid in your hips and moving with the animal. It takes a lot of athleticism to be a good bull rider or a good dancer.

Q: Can you apply those similarities in the competition?

A: There’s a correlation in movement, just a different way of using your balance, reflexes, coordination, strength and speed. All those things playing into bull riding are applied in dancing.

Bull riding is full force and full-on – a barbaric sort of sport. When it’s done correctly, it’s graceful and looks fluent. You are supposed to flow with your partner, the bull. You want to stay in time.

“Nose over your toes” is a saying in dance. It’s almost the same posture in bull riding.

Q: And there are huge differences as well?

A: Bull riding is a dance and a fight at the same time. You’re moving with the animal and resisting against him all at once. It’s like playing offense and defense simultaneously. You need to be aggressive, staying an inch ahead of the animal – like having a sixth sense in predicting the bull’s movement and reading two or three jumps ahead.

Q: Dance is highly choreographed while bull riding is very unpredictable. Is that a difficult switch to make?

A: When the chute opens, everything is very fast. There’s no time to think. We practice for way more than just holding on. We try to perfect our form and we experiment with how our body works, learning how a bull jumps – the up and the down of the ride, breaking everything down very slowly on the barrel to develop muscle memory for doing it on a live bucking bull. You never know what that animal is going to do. You have to have the feel of your body and the bull’s body. If he moves one way, how am I going to move?

Q: What’s the toughest part of not being in the PBR right now?

A: I’ve gone to several PBR events, and it’s hard when you used to show up in the locker room and throw your gear next to your buddies. It’s not the dirt and the horns and hooves. It’s the lifestyle on the road – the guys you’re with, the fun adventures you have, the things you see. You’re all brothers in this extremely dangerous and thrilling sport pulling for one another in putting on this great show called PBR. I’ve missed that.

Q: You’re trading camaraderie with J.B. Mauney and Chase Outlaw with Nancy Kerrigan and Mr. T. 

A: Mr. T and Rashad (Jennings), Nancy (Kerrigan), Chris Kattan – that’s a good group to be with in a locker room. There are lots of laughs and a good vibe. These celebrities are top competitors – hungry wolves ready for the kill.

Q: Have you talked to Ty Murray, who competed on Dancing with the Stars in 2009, for advice?

A: After I accepted the offer to be on the show and started watching video, I thought, “Oh my God, what did I just say yes to?”

I called Ty. First, he said how proud he was and pledged his full support. Then he warned me, “Your feet are going to be awfully sore. All the dancing you ever wanted to do in life, you’re gonna get that out of your system real soon.”

Q: The average viewer is not familiar with you. Is that an advantage?

A: It may be. Everyone’s learning my story. Hopefully, I can be an inspiration and bring positive awareness to Western culture and our sport. Maybe we turn some “Dancing with the Stars” viewers into PBR fans.

Q: What do you make of the daily scrutiny of your relationship with your partner, Sharna?

A: There’s this whole cottage press industry devoted to the show. It’s amazing. They immediately latched onto the idea of a “showmance.” I’m not doing this for that – I want to tell my story and inspire people, and it feels good to be competing again.

Q: Does it bother you that the notion of a “showmance” has been played up so much?

A: I understand why a TV show needs to do that, especially with the two single cast members. After we got our scores, I said Sharna had “drilled me all week and cracked the whip.” I meant it in a completely factual way. The audience hooted and hollered like it was after midnight at a bachelorette party.

You couldn’t blame them because the set up before we danced was like a harlequin romance novel: the golden retreating sunlight and naying horses. It was beautifully shot, and I was proud to be part of a production like that.

Q: Then you unintentionally created a global stir. What happened?  

A: I would become fully baptized in the world of celebrity. I was watching the replay of Nick (Viall) and Peta (Murgatroyd’s) dance. From being out there, I knew how tough that is to do. I wanted to share the moment with my partner. My arm went out to bring her in, and I hooked her. My hand accidently moved a bit south. Sharna promptly moved it – with efficient professionalism, I might add, from what I saw on the replays playing on the TV news and the gifs all over social media.

This becomes the top story on Extra and ET. The London tabloids eat it up. The tape is analyzed like the Kennedy assassination footage, blown up and freeze framed. Here in the US, they called it “Handgate.” Nixon’s missteps continue to live on.

Q: How did you handle the press onslaught? 

A: The best defense is always the truth, isn’t it?

And Sharna was great, too.  She confirmed to everyone who asked, and everybody was asking, that it was an accident, and of course I’m not going to intentionally do that on national television with my mother sitting a few feet away.

It was insane how big the story got, but thankfully it passed in a day or two. They say all publicity is good publicity. I’m still grappling with that.

Q: You mentioned your mom, who you’re very close to. Can you tell us about your background?

A: I grew up on a ranch in West Texas like you see in the movies, way out in the middle of nowhere, nothing but tumbleweed, coyotes and cactuses. The ranch belongs to my mom’s family, who in 1903 moved from Central Texas in covered wagons to the west quarter of Texas. They staked out a ranch that’s still there.

My mom was an art teacher, and she taught me art at a young age. I’d study in the art program at Texas Tech. But bull riding is a young man’s sport, and I left to pursue that.

When my parents met, dad had his dream girl – he was a real ranch cowboy into rodeo and riding bulls. My dad was a pioneer in helping push our sport to where it is now. He rode with Ty Murray, Cody Lambert and Jim Sharp, the guys who grandfathered our sport. I grew up learning from the best.

Q: When did you get involved in bull riding?

A: I grew up watching my dad’s bull riding videos. When I was 10 years old, I started jumping on anything wild. I did the junior ranks and made my way thru the amateur ranks.

Q: Did you ever get hurt?

A: Oh, yes sir. Like any young bull rider, I had my share of injuries, including dislocating my left shoulder three times in high school. When turning 18, I got my pro permit and started making my way to the pro ranks.

When I was 20, I won my first professional title in CBR. Then I started working my way through PBR. I was battling injuries and didn’t have much success. I tore my right bicep off the bone, which took me out for a year. Then I had elbow surgery. It took me about 3 years to get back into my groove.

There were challenging times when I wanted to quit. I came on tour fully with the Built Ford Tough Series in 2015 for my rookie year and wound up Top 10 in the PBR World Finals, where I won a round. I had shattered my collarbone previous to that, so I had to battle to get to World Finals.

Q: What happened in Chicago?

A: I came into 2016 on fire. I was in the best shape of my life, and had a feeling something big was going to happen, maybe my first big regular-season win.

I was the first one to go in the round. We call it the “gunner” coming out like that. There’s a little extra pressure, and the moment is a bit more intense to start the show off with a bang. Everyone wants to be the gunner.

I was on Cowboy Up. I’d seen him in 2015, and I wanted him. He fit my style, and it would be a good matchup.

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Bolton rode Percolator for 86.25 points in Round 3 of the 2015 World Finals.

Q: You made the 8 seconds?

A: Move for move, the ride was perfect. Then it came time for me to come off and dismount. I tried to eject out and away from him. He was bucking, and rolled me off his back instead of outwards, and the momentum shot me straight up instead of away from him. I spiraled upside down and out of control, lost my bearings, and landed on my head. I could hear the crunch.

It was like someone took a baseball bat and lit me up. I was totally conscious. I had a sharp pain in my neck and body. Then I couldn’t feel anything. I could see my hands out in front of me, but I couldn’t feel them. I thought maybe I’m just knocked out and stuff’s not functioning.

I could see the bull’s feet stomping around. The real miracle is he went over me and all four feet lightly grazed around me. He even put his head on me. He had me dead to rights but didn’t mash me into the ground. I believe he sensed I was hurt and didn’t want to kill me. He had my life in his hands and decided to spare me.

Q: What were you thinking?

A: Flooding into my head were images of all the guys who died before me. My life is going to end, too, and I’m never going to see my family and friends again.

I’m being strapped to the backboard, they’re rolling me over, trying to pull the dirt out of my mouth. Colors were flashing. My chest was caving in. I was starting to panic.

I’m going into the ambulance, and it’s dark and they’re closing the doors on me. None of my friends could go with me. It wasn’t like they could jump down and skip out on the competition. They had to ride. We were all going for 50 grand that day. The PBR Chaplain, Todd, jumped in and rode in the ambulance.

Q: What are you thinking about in the ambulance?

A: I’m dying, and they’re hauling me to the hospital to save my life. Todd kept telling me to breathe. His voice made everything peaceful and calm. I’m thinking of my yoga classes, trying to breathe. I’m telling God, “please, if you’re not taking me home today I really would like to use my arms again to wrap them around the people I love and let them know how much they mean to me.”

Your life really becomes clear at moments like that. It’s the people you love and who love you that matter most.  That’s what I was thinking about. Wrapping my arms around my loved ones, and just hoping I had that chance.

I was fading. They gave me an adrenaline shot at the hospital and did the MRI and CAT scans. Douglas Duncan came in and then Stetson Lawrence and Tanner Byrne. They stayed through the night and were making jokes to keep my spirits up. They’d be joking around, and then all of us are crying. Nobody knew if I’d be able to walk. But we were thankful I wasn’t dead.

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Bolton was quickly surrounded by his friends after his wreck in Chicago.

Q: What was it like when you got your feeling back?

A: Before surgery, I felt a wave turning over in my stomach. It scared me. I thought I was bleeding. Then I realized, I just felt my stomach! Then I felt my finger and my toes. And then I could feel up through my legs and back. I was so stoked. I wanted to jump out of bed and dance. I told those doctors they’d watch me walk out of that hospital.

Q: And you did?

A: Three or four days after spinal fusion surgery, I was walking. They had me doing laps around the ICU. They had to hold me so I didn’t fall to the side, but I was pretty much walking on my own. They said I was maybe two percent of people who walked away from that kind of spinal injury. To gain feeling before surgery was miraculous and then to not have damage and get mobility after surgery, the doctors had their mouths open, you could say. I was under heavy medicine, but even today it still dumbfounds me. I have no explanation other than a group of pretty good angels were looking over me.

Q: Your recovery was then quite remarkable?

A: Well, the four doctors at Lutheran General who performed six hours of spinal fusion surgery were pretty remarkable. Every day I’m thankful for their steady hands and God’s good grace.

It took about three months in bed before I could get mobile. After about seven months, I was back to running, swimming and hot yoga. That’s what I did with prior injuries to be flexible and agile. I did water therapy in the hot tub, lots of cardio and core kinetic workouts. I learned to do tai chi in a steam room to improve my range of movement and flexibility. All that’s helped bring back my coordination and mobility.

Q: How did you get into modeling?

A: I wasn’t even out of my neck brace when IMG came into the picture with the modeling gig. They pulled me from the ashes.

It started when one of IMG’s photographers, Cass Bird, shot some riders at the 2015 PBR World Finals. That Vegas shoot got me on the radar of Ivan Bart, the head of IMG Models, which is a sister company of PBR. Ivan liked the photos, and was following my recovery. What’s amazing is those guys had faith in me before I was even out of my neck brace. At that time, it was hard for me to hold a fork.

Q: Did you always maintain a positive outlook? 

A: Modeling has given me a fresh fire and a new perspective, but there were definitely dark times when it was hard to hold onto any positive thoughts.

I was on pain medicine, and my thoughts were so bad. I wanted to end it all. Basically, I had to get rid of the meds and push myself to get mobile again. I refused to accept I was going to be lame. I wanted to prove to the doctors I could do get my body right. In that hospital bed, I promised to myself that no matter what I did, whether I got back on a bull or not, I’d be successful in life.

I wanted to make the decision on my own whether I get back on a bull – not have a doctor decide. I wanted to regain that point of physical and athletic ability where the choice was mine.

Q: It’s a testament to your will power that you could do that. Going back to your childhood, did your dad have his share of injuries? Did you ever think this is not what I want to do? 

A: The passion and raw emotion bull riders derive from what we do is unique to our sport. Bull riding is very dangerous, and there’s a major adrenaline rush. There’s nothing like those eight seconds in sports. It takes an extreme mentality, or you don’t last long. You get made or you get broken. The men are quickly separated from the boys. You find out pretty soon if you’re meant for it.

With all the injuries in PBR, we often get asked, “Why do you do it?” Part of it is we want to see our culture continue. Bull riding is a big representation of our Western cowboy culture and our history. The PBR itself may be young, but bull riding is one of the longest-running American sports. We’re preserving those traditions.

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The Texas cowboy has quickly taken up the role of an ambassador for the PBR.

Q: Is it challenging to dance after your injury?

A: I took this on knowing I have my work cut out.  The producers assured me they’ve taken people onto the show with injuries. And of course, during my bull riding career, like any other guy in the locker room, I’ve gutted out my share of injuries.

My dance partner, Sharna, has been amazing in turning people with disabilities into dancing machines. Not to say that’s easy. My neck hurts every day. My collarbone, where I have an 8-inch plate, and where the metal is in my neck, get really tight and sore. I do extra work outside the dance floor so I can get back to practice.

Q: Before getting hurt, did modeling ever cross your mind?

A: I had done a few photos shoots for endorsements, but I had never thought about myself as a professional model. I’d always been interested in acting and got a taste of it as Scott Eastwood’s stunt double in “The Longest Ride.” I’ve played guitar since I was 12, and my brothers play too. I guess we have natural desire for entertainment and performing.

Q: Are you comfortable with where you are now – this new career outside your comfort zone?

A: Being on “Dancing with the Stars” is really not outside my comfort zone since I like meeting people, going to new places, and trying different things. That was part of my passion in PBR – the places I saw, the people I met, the things I got to do.  This is an extension of that, in a much less dangerous way.

Q: How bizarre has all this been?

A: At times it’s been one strange trip, but it’s actually been a fun transition. WME | IMG, which owns PBR, has ushered me into this whole world, and there’s a team of experts helping me figure out my whole place in all this.

Q: What are some highlights in modeling so far?

A: I am just this cowboy from Texas who grew up on a ranch very far removed from the world of high fashion, and now I’m at the same table as Gigi Hadid and Kylie Jenner. Meeting amazing actresses like Salma Hayek, getting sent to fragrance meetings in Paris, being shot by photographers like Mario Testino and going to the Victoria Secret Fashion Show after-parties.

It’s cool to be in a position to help bring awareness to our culture and lifestyle. Cowboys have carried Western world fashion since the 1800s when everything was tailor made. In my circle of friends, we’ve always had our own style. So it’s fun to be involved in this world and go to places like Paris and London, where they romanticize the American Wild West.

When my dad retired from his rodeo career, in 1991, I was 5 years old and he and my mom got an offer from Euro Disney to be in their Buffalo Bill Wild West show. We lived in France for a year. Many of my first memories were European. I remember having my fifth birthday party in Paris.

We lived in an apartment complex with Native Americans who came to France to be part of the Euro Disney show. You could hear their war drums down the hall, having these loud pow wows. It got pretty rowdy on the floor with them.

So, understanding how Europeans are intrigued with the cowboy thing, I am glad to be an ambassador for the sport and the cowboy culture where my roots are.

Q: Do people want to make you into a Magic Mike fantasy?

A: Some people have a great desire for you to remove your shirt for the camera. I get why that is, but I would like for people to see that cowboys really aren’t like that. Most of us are pretty conservative. I don’t want to be the Chippendale’s cowboy. I’d like people to accept my value as a versatile model or actor someday. My first gig with IMG Models was a job for Saks Fifth Avenue, and it was a fully clothed job. If I had it my way, I’d keep my clothes on.

Q: And if asked to go in a different direction?

A: This stuff is all art, and I intend to push the boundaries. It might get a bit edgy and push the limits. If you need to be prepared, there’s your warning.

Hey, that’s how our sport is. It’s all extreme.

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Modeling has been quite the adventure for Bolton. Photo: V Magazine

Q: What do you think the chances are that fans will see you on a bull again?

A: Since I was 10 years old, this sport has been my life. I have a passion for it even after that wreck. I’m not sure the doctors will ever clear me, but I am approaching it as if I am going back. Pushing my body and working every day to get back in same peak condition keeps me driven every day.

I’m fortunate to have new options. I’m taking life on jump by jump. Just like when I was riding. That’s all I know how to do, really.

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