Professional bull rider and model Bonner Bolton remembers a life-changing break.

Bolton trades a bucking bull for a bale of hay, photograph by Joe Regan

I’ve dedicated 19 years of my life to being the best bull rider [in the world].

But my pursuit was interrupted the day I broke my neck.

In January 2016, after training harder than ever before, I was Chicago competing in the PBR Built Ford Tough Series season opener. I wanted to kick off the year by winning the entire event — something I’d never done.

The first bull I drew was perfect for me, and in the second round, I got COWBOY UP, a bull I’d been wanting to ride since the previous season.

Detail of one of Bolton's rodeo buckles, from the Johnny Nix Memorial Bull Riding competition, photograph by Isaac Garcia

Contestants typically score high on him, and I was holding first place going into the ride, so I couldn’t help but think, ‘I got another one in the bag.’

Cowboy Up and I matched jump for jump, move for move, and I finished the ride at eight seconds, the qualifying mark a rider must meet.

I tried to dismount the bull as soon as I could, but my hand slipped out of the rope earlier than I planned. The next thing I knew, he had flung me high into the air, and I plummeted to the ground headfirst at full impact.

I landed fully conscious, with my arms splayed out in front of me. I tried to lift myself up, but was temporarily paralyzed — I had broken the C2 vertebrae in my neck in half.

Bolton rides Rough'em Up Tuck at the 2015 Built Ford Tough Rumble in the Rockies, photograph courtesy of PBR

Being unable to move was a wild, scary feeling.

I could see the bull charging straight at me — he ran right over me, barely grazing my body with all four feet.

Had he stomped me, I’d been dead.

On the way to the hospital, all I could think about were my loved ones. I hoped that I’d be able to use my arms to hug them again.

After two days of waiting for the swelling in my neck to subside, I underwent a six-hour surgery, performed by four doctors, to fuse my vertebrae together. Three months later, when I was finally able to take off my neck brace, I was told that only one to two percent of people who endure the kind of accident I had regain full functionality of their limbs.

An x-ray of Bolton's neck following his near death fall off of Cowboy Up in early 2016, courtesy of Bonner Bolton

It was a miracle that I was alive and not paralyzed.

Still, the doctors wondered if there was anything else I could pursue professionally. Being asked that question hit me pretty hard.

Recovering has been one of the biggest challenges of my life, but I’m a fighter. I thank God everyday that I got a second chance.

And I’m determined to become the same athlete I was, or a better one, even if I never can get back on a bull.

— as told to The Thick

Did you see? Fashion archivist Julie Ann Orsini has a wild ride of her own, model Phil Sullivan takes The Thick Questionnaire.




"I'm determined to become the same athlete I was," says Bolton, who finished seventh in the 2015 PBR World Finals, photograph courtesy of PBR