Hero Horse Travels to Big Apple to appear on Letterman

News Update by R.T. Fitch ~ Author/President Wild Horse Freedom Federation

Fearless Equine Faces Down both Bears and Letterman

“Over the past several weeks a wonderful story has been circulating across the internet about a Montana trail guide horse, Tonk, who along with his rider, Erin Bolster, fearlessly intervened in a Grizzly attack and saved a little boy from what would have been a gruesome bear mauling.

I have intended to run the story, here, but other issues have reared their heads and we have been charging forward with the ongoing battles of equine advocacy, until last night when I noticed that both Erin and Tonk were scheduled to be on the David Letterman show so I broke tradition and stayed up a little later in hopes of catching a glimpse of this brave equine and his stout female partner.  I was not disappointed and was actually impressed that Letterman managed to pull off a relatively normal interview without either being glib or demeaning Erin and Tonk’s brave actions, but he did come off as a bit of wimp being, himself, obviously afraid of good ole Tonk.  Hat’s off to Tonk for being a mildly nervous but perfect gentleman in front of the lights, cameras and clapping crowd.

So for a mid-week break in the insanity we bring to you the printed story, below, and if you click on the image of Erin and Tonk it will take you to an edited version of their mutual appearance on national television; this is nothing but good, pure, wholesome and uplifting stuff…enjoy and keep the faith.” ~ R.T.

Click (HERE) to view Letterman Appearance

Click on image to view appearance on "Letterman"

A young woman on a big horse charged out of the pack of grizzly bear stories this summer near Glacier National Park.

In a cloud of dust, the 25-year-old wrangler likely saved a boy’s life while demonstrating that skill, quick-thinking and guts sometimes are the best weapons against a head-on charging bear.

On July 30, Erin Bolster of Swan Mountain Outfitters was guiding eight clients on a horse ride on the Flathead National Forest between West Glacier and Hungry Horse.

“It’s the shortest ride we offer,” she said recently, recalling the incident. “We’d already led two trips that morning. It’s always been a very routine hourlong loop, until that day.”

The group included a family of six plus a vacationing Illinois man, who’d booked the trip for his 8-year-old son’s first horse-riding experience.

The young boy was riding Scout, a steady obedient mount, following directly behind Bolster, who was leading the group on Tonk, a burly 10-year-old white horse of questionable lineage.

Tonk isn’t the typical trail mount. Best anyone knows, he’s the result of cross-breeding a quarter horse with a Percheron – a draft horse. Bolster is 5-foot-10, yet she relies on her athleticism to climb into the saddle aboard Tonk.

“He was one of the horses we lease from Wyoming and bring in every year,” Bolster said, noting that she’d picked him from the stable in May to be hers for the season.

“He’s a very large horse – 18 hands high. That intimidates a lot of riders. But I’ve always loved big horses. He’s kind of high-strung and spooky, the largest of our wrangling horses. I like a horse with a lot of spirit, and I was really glad to be on him that day.”

Bolster has accumulated a wealth of experience on and around horses of national and even world class. She started riding at 4 years old, became a professional trainer at 15, graduated from high school at 16 in Roanoke, Va., and ran a riding academy for several years.

Seeking a more laid-back lifestyle, she wrangled in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic before moving to Whitefish three years ago to guide tourists during the summer around Glacier National Park and ski through the winter.

“It’s the country, the mountains and the idea of seeing lot of wildlife that appealed to me, ironically enough,” she said.

Bolster quickly racked up bear experience, too, although until July 30, it was always at a distance.

“At the peak of the season, we were seeing bears daily,” she said. “The wranglers name them so we can let each other know where they are. Usually the bears just keep feeding in the distance or they run away when we come. Just seeing them is a treat for us and our guests.”

Because they guide around Glacier Park, bear awareness is part of the preparation wranglers get when hired by Swan Mountain Outfitters.

“We go over a lot of wildlife scenarios in our training,” Bolster said. “We learn to watch our horses for signals of possible trouble so we can steer clear.”

That’s the key, she said: Avoid trouble with a moose or a bear.

“We can’t use pepper spray when we’re riding because that could blind the horse,” she said. “And using a gun would spook the horses and probably produce more danger than safety.”


That’s how she went to work that day: a young but seasoned pro rider on a new, huge and spirited horse, unarmed in the wilderness with eight dudes.

“It was a pleasant ride until we came around a corner on the trail and my horse stopped firm and wouldn’t move,” Bolster said. “He never refuses to go, so that caught my attention quick.”

But not fast enough to avoid the spike white-tailed deer that burst out of the brush and glanced off Tonk’s left front shoulder.

As Tonk spun from the impact, Bolster saw a huge grizzly bear crashing through the forest right at the group in pursuit of the deer. Horses panicked and guests grabbed saddle horns for the ride of their lives.

“No amount of training could keep a horse from running from a 700-pound charging bear,” she said.

Seven of the horses sensed the danger, peeled out and galloped back on the trail toward the barn.

But Scout bolted perpendicular to the trail into the timber, packing the 8-year-old boy.

“The deer peeled off and joined the horses sprinting down the trail,” Bolster said. “So the bear just continued running right past me. I’m not sure the bear even knew the roles had changed, but now it was chasing a horse instead of a deer.”

The grizzly was zeroed in on Scout and the boy – the isolated prey in the woods.

Adding to the drama, the boy’s father, an experienced rider, could not convince his horse that it was a good plan to ride to his son’s rescue.

“The last thing he saw over his shoulder as his horse ran away was the grizzly chasing his boy,” Bolster said.

With the bear on Scout’s heels, Tonk’s instinct was to flee with the group of horses. But Tonk responded to Bolster’s heels in his ribs as she spun the big fella around. They wheeled out of a 360 and bolted into the trees to wedge between the predator and the prey.

“The boy was bent over, feet out of the stirrups, clutching the saddle horn and the horse’s neck,” she said. “That kept him from hitting a tree limb.

“But all I could think about was the boy falling off in the path of that grizzly.

“I bent down, screamed and yelled, but the bear was growling and snarling and staying very focused on Scout.

“As it tried to circle back toward Scout, I realized I had to get Tonk to square off and face the bear. We had to get the bear to acknowledge us.

“We did. We got its attention – and the bear charged.

“So I charged at the bear.”

Did she think twice about that?

“I had no hesitation, honestly,” Bolster said. “Nothing in my body was going to let that little boy get hurt by that bear. That wasn’t an option.”

Tonk was on the same page.


With a ton of horse, boulder-size hooves and a fire-breathing blonde thundering at it, the bear came within about 10 feet before skittering off to the side.

But it quickly angled to make yet another stab at getting to Scout and the boy – who had just fallen to the ground.

“Tonk and I had to go at the bear a third time before we finally hazed him away,” she said.

“The boy had landed in some beargrass and was OK. Scout was standing nearby.”

Bolster gathered the boy up with her on Tonk, grabbed Scout’s lead and trotted down the trail.

“The boy was in shock,” she said. “I looked back and could see the bear had continued to go away through he woods, but I had another five or 10 minutes of riding before I got back with the group.”

Not until she reunited with her riders – all OK and standing in various stages of confusion with their horses – did she start to shake.

“I looked at Tonk, and he was wet with sweat and shaking, too,” she said.

She was especially concerned for the boy’s father, who probably suffered the most terror in the ordeal.

“He was fine, and I got my biggest tip of the season,” Bolster said. “My biggest hope is that the boy isn’t discouraged from riding. This was a one-in-a-million event.”

For the next few days, the outfitter shut down the trail rides and Bolster joined other wranglers and a federal grizzly bear expert to ride horses through the area looking for the bear.

“They tracked it for a long way and concluded that it kept going out of the area,” she said. “Judging from the tracks and my description of how high the bear came up on Tonk, the grizzly expert estimated it weighed 700 to 750 pounds.

“This was a case of us being in the wrong place as a bear was already in the act of chasing its natural prey. He was probably more persistent because he was really hungry.”

Bolster and the other wranglers vowed to have bear spray on their belts to make sure they can defend their guests during breaks on the ground.

“But when you’re riding, the horse is your best protection, if you can stay on,” she said.

“Some of the horses I’ve ridden would have absolutely refused to do what Tonk did; others would have thrown me off in the process. Some horses can never overcome their flight-animal instinct to run away.”

In those minutes of crisis, the big lug of a mongrel mount proved his mettle in a test few trail horses will face in their careers.

Tonk’s mettle moved Bolster. She wasn’t about to send him back to Wyoming with the other leased horses.

“Two weeks ago, I closed the deal and bought him,” Bolster said as she was wrapping up her 2011 wrangling season.

“After what he did that day, he had to be mine.”

Credit for original story goes to Rich Landers.

24 comments on “Hero Horse Travels to Big Apple to appear on Letterman

  1. Had NO idea they were going to be on Letterman. Don’t personally care for him so I don’t keep up with his guest list and missed it. THAT would have been worth seeing!!! I read this when it first hit the internet and was beyond impressed with BOTH Tonk and Erin. I was amazed and had goose bumps all over after reading that story then, and even again here. What they both did took more courage than most people have to have in a lifetime, but the bond they developed in their short relationship put them in the exact frame of mindset and thought process and when she called on his bravery, he responded. What a truly amazing duo!!! I am also SO glad that she was able to buy him for her own, and can now know that he will always be with her and not shuffled off to others to be just a dude horse. God bless them both!!!!

    Thanks so much RT for bringing this back up….I hope someone watched it and maybe will post it here on the internet for those of us who missed it?? lol….


  2. I don’t understand why a man that appears to be intimidated by a big animal, chooses to own a BIG ranch in BIG sky country. And I always wondered why he and the other big celebs in Montana don’t get involved in the wild equine issues (among other issues) and Turner, well that is another discussion entirely.


    • Letterman is very involved in world starvation and the 1/2 million children dying in Somalia from starvation. He probably wonders why more Americans aren’t concerned about that considering we have the resources to prevent it.


    • Then he should be concerned about bad food products coming from the US, like horsemeat (I already know about the concern re: Nestle[Yes, it is not a US firm] but does produce products for substitute breast food products in the US for international use).

      I would think he could multi-task.


  3. Maybe one of our wild horse and burro experts like R.T. , Ginger , Suzanne Roy , John and others could contact Dave and get him to have a story about what the BLM is doing.


  4. Thank you RT! I also read this story @ 2 weeks ago and was impressed to tears. But when reading Tonk was a trail horse, one of many leased from (((WYOMING))) every year for the summer…I thought slaughter! For many summer trail/camp horses DO go to slaughter after the season ends. Then at the end of the article I read Erin was adopting Tonk!!!! YES!! Relief & Joy. This is a true happening of AMAZING GRACE. What are the odds that a valiant horse and rider would be brought together to work at a, usually, boring trail ride! Tonk the “War Horse!” Erin the Brave Warrior! And here again, the Majesty of the Horse! And here, this morning, tears again. XO


    • I thought about all the “trail” equines, too Ronnie; plus this is a draft cross (prime meat on the hoof)…yipes! But it is a wonderful story.


  5. Awesome story !!!!Rt Thank you , Tonk and Erin were very brave……..I am sending this story to all Ohio Congress people……………..A Metal of honor belongs to both Tonk and Erin…………………….


  6. While I don’t particularly care for Dave–he did have Tonk on his show. He kept cutting Erin off tho. And he was scared to pat Tonk’s head. I don’t think that gentle giant would hurt anything other than flies ( but they don’t count!).


  7. That’s the third time I’ve read the story, but it still brings tearsto my eyes. The heart and courage of a horse can be astounding!


  8. If I am not mistaken, Ted Turner has joined the “Saving America’s Mustangs” group and is a friend of Madeleine Pickens and her husband.

    I agree that one of the best ways to get this out to people would be comedy, particularly satire. You can ‘t make some of this stuff up.


    • I hope he has signed with Ms Pickens and know he DOES do much in the way of conservation; ergo the bison project…I have just never heard of his wild equine position. I understand he is the largest private property land owner in Montana.


      • The reason Turner has bison is he raises them to slaughter and sells their meat. I don’t know how he feels about wild horses since I don’t think he has rescued any.


      • I know why he has bison and know that he uses them for meat. That doesn’t bother me as bison are more adapted to those lands than cattle. His efforts are more than just “meat”. I have never heard him quoted or speak on the issues of wild equines, etc. That was my point.


  9. What a great story! I wish I would have known, I would have watched it on David Lettermen’s show. It only goes to confirm that we are so in tuned with our horses, that they will protect us. I too, worry all the time about horses being used in dude ranches and summer camps because they sometimes use them and send them down the line. Horses which are used for beginners should be worth their weight in gold instead of worrying about the cost when they are not being used. This also brought tears to my eyes because when you are one with your horse, there is nothing that you cannot do. Thank you RT for a really great story…This should be one for the books indicating why we need to save every last living horse!


    • The good news is Erin is a well trained horsewoman, in both English and Western from age 4 and from VA. She did buy Tonk and I’m sure he will have a forever home. Letterman wasn’t as big a ‘fraidy-cat as I thought after watching the clip. Erin was clear that Tonk was nervous challenging the griz, but still did what was asked of him….nothing better than an educated rider and level headed equine in action.


  10. I loved this. I just hope this woman takes good care of this horse forever and it never has to fear ending up in a killpen. That little boy had one courageous woman and her horse as his trail guide that day. Both are heroes.


  11. I have shared this with many “non-horse” people as well! May collect some more “fans” of horses and just how incredible they are!


  12. It’s also amazing that the other Horse stayed
    “The boy had landed in some beargrass and was OK. Scout was standing nearby.”


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