Classic Cowboys / Rodeo

Bronc Rider J.C. Bonine

The rodeo world calls him J.C. Bonine and he's one of the most popular men in rodeo, riding the toughest saddle broncs in the rodeo business.

The rodeo world calls him “J.C.” and he is one of the most popular young men in rodeo. James Carrol Bonine of Hysham, Mont., is slight of build, standing only 5’8″ and weighing about 148 pounds. But he is able to sit the toughest saddle broncs in the rodeo business.

His career in rodeo greatly resembles that of three-time rodeo saddle bronc riding champion Shawn Davis, from Whitehall, Montana. Both cowboys contested in high school, both were intercollegiate rodeo champions, J.C. winning the national title in the saddle bronc riding event twice.

The rodeo world calls him J.C. Bonine and he's one of the most popular men in rodeo, riding the toughest saddle broncs in the rodeo business.
J.C. scored 81 and won a go-round at the 1969 National Finals Rodeo with this ride on Major Reno. Photo by Ferrell Butler

Those fans watching him as a student on the rodeo team at Eastern Montana College in Billings predicted he would have a future in the Rodeo Cowboys Association.

In 1971, the 26-year-old cowboy finished second in the nation to Bill Smith, Cody, Wyoming.

At the 1971 National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City, J.C. finished fourth in the average, 42 points behind Shawn Davis, who was bested by Kenny McLean by 24 points. Kenny scored 663 points, Shawn 639, J.C. 597. But J.C. was accorded the top marking at the Finals, getting a 78 on Tommy Steiner’s bronc, Tall Boy. J.C. also got two 74’s, one for sitting Walter Alsbaugh’s Ditchrider, the other for riding Christensen Brothers’ Smitty.

At the 1971 Finals, J.C. never got to draw the horse he was hoping for, the indomitable Trail’s End of the Big Bend Rodeo Co. of Odessa, Washington. J.C. has had an affection for Trail’s ever since Bonine began competing in professional rodeo. The bronc was the horse of rodeo impresario Oral Zumwalt’s heart. Oral predicted Trail’s would be the bucking horse of the century, and there are many rodeo experts, including former saddle bronc rider Turk Greenough, who agree. Trail’s End has unloaded the greatest names in the rodeo business.

The rodeo world calls him J.C. Bonine and he's one of the most popular men in rodeo, riding the toughest saddle broncs in the rodeo business.
This photo taken in Augusta, Mont., shows Trail’s End, J..C.’s favorite bucking horse.

J.C. has ridden Trail’s End to the whistle several times, and he has also bucked off the gelding. But to Montanans, the most memorable ride was in Butte a few years ago, when both sorrel and J.C. gave the ride all they had to highlight the entire three-night rodeo. Following the whistle, people in the audience left the grandstands to hurry into the arena and shake Bonine’s hand. Ed Ring, Bud King, and Bill Hutsell, the three former partners of Big Bend Co., held up the show until the long line with J.C. on the receiving end had ended.

There was, however, one bronc at the Finals that J.C. didn’t want to draw, and didn’t, and that is the formidable Rodeo News, owned by rodeo stock contractor Reg Kesler. Rodeo News was voted Bucking Horse of the Year in 1970. Three years ago, at the Jaycee Dillon Rodeo over the Labor Day weekend, J.C. rode Rodeo News to win the top six ride-off in saddle bronc riding, but last fall, when J.C.
again drew the bronc, Bonine was tossed for a loss.

“It’s the way the gelding tucks in his head, and then suddenly throws it ahead, at the same time kicking high in back, that sends you over his head,” said J.C. “I’m wondering who can ride Rodeo News when he does this?” Not qualifying on Rodeo News at the Finals last winter were Bill Martinelli, Oakdale, Calif., and Mel Hyland, Surrey, British Columbia; the bronc was voted second-best saddle bronc at the Finals.

The young bronc rider tries his stirrups at a Butte, Mont., rodeo.

Trail’s End and Rodeo News are not the only favorites with J.C. He gives great credit to Vold’s little sorrel called American Express. “He’s fast and snaky, and I was tossed by the sorrel two years ago at the Finals, but at Cheyenne, I won on him. In the same class, you have to put High Roll, owned by Bill Minick, and Chief, owned by Korkow. Then there’s Tradewinds of the Big Bend Rodeo Co., and Kesler’s reliable Hat Rack. There’s Descent of Cervi-Beutler Brothers, and a bronc called Calsimine out in Washington . . . I’m only beginning to list some of the greats, for there are tough ones I’ve never drawn.”

Several factors make J.C. one of the best-liked hands in the game. He is almost a bashful cowboy, yet he is quick to cooperate with anyone wishing rodeo information. But he would rather talk about the abilities of others than about his own. He is ever willing to help the rookie cowboy. He is always anxious to credit those who have bested him at the sport, like Bill Smith, Cody, whom J.C. insists is one of the greatest in the business. He gives this same kind of ample praise to his sidekick, Mel Hyland, with whom J.C. traveled much of 1971.

J.C. was ranch-raised, but all his life he has been plagued by asthma. He is terribly allergic to dust, and work in the hayfields helping his grandparents during the alfalfa harvest always brings on an attack. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing in the rodeo arena, tears will be pouring out of J.C.’s eyes, and he will be breathing with difficulty.

His injuries suffered in the arena have not been major ones, mainly to back and legs. One of the more painful ones occurred at Montana’s Big Timber rodeo several years ago. His ankle was caught between the bronc and the pickup man’s horse. J.C. had to be helped out of the arena.

The rodeo world calls him J.C. Bonine and he's one of the most popular men in rodeo, riding the toughest saddle broncs in the rodeo business.
Butch and J.C. with Butch’s barrel racing horse.

His wife Butch is one of rodeo’s most stylish and accomplished riders in the barrel racing event. During nine months of the year, Butch teaches in the primary grades in Glendale, Ariz., while J.C. is on the road. But in the summer she joins her husband with pickup truck and camper, horse trailer, and mounts.

Butch is proud of J.C.’s record, as is his family, and particularly his grandparents and sister. “I only pray he doesn’t get hurt,” she says.

The very first year that J.C. went to the Finals, which was 1969 when he was in 14th place in the nation, he marked the second highest score of the competition with a classy ride on Major Reno. In 1970 he went to the Finals in eighth place. But he truly “arrived” in the estimation of many spectators when he went in 1971 in second place, and really got down to business.

This year looks even better for J.C. and at press time he was sitting first in saddle bronc standings.

This article was originally published in the September 1972 issue of Western Horseman.

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