Bolster, Tonk looking for new normal
Even horse hauler is a believer after delivering heroes to Letterman Show
A few weeks ago, she was just a wrangler who led dudes on trail rides near Glacier National Park.
This week, Erin Bolster is trying to deal with a thousand email messages a day, not to mention book proposals and tempting job offers.
The wrangler who rode her horse to the rescue of a young boy being threatened by a grizzly bear this summer is trying to settle back into her Montana lifestyle.
That’s easier said than done after a Sept. 18 feature in The Spokesman-Review trotted Erin Bolster and her horse, Tonk, into the national spotlight. The ride peaked with an Oct. 11 appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman.”
“I’m not sure I’ve landed yet,” said the 25-year-old Virginia native after returning from New York City to her home in Whitefish, Mont.
She’s set up a Facebook page for Tonk to help quench the national appetite following the Percheron mix she rode head-on against a grizzly.
“I’m definitely doing a lot of thinking, and I have a lot of new options,” Bolster said. “But I’ve decided to spend next summer back here with Swan Mountain Outfitters. People are responding to this story by booking trips, and it’s clear that a lot of those people want to see Tonk. I don’t want to disappoint them.”
Randy Siemsen, the veteran Montana horse handler CBS hired to chauffer Tonk across the country and back, has become a fan, too.
“That’s a heck of a girl, right there,” he volunteered after making the 11-day round trip. “That’s a heck of a horse, too.”
Siemsen appeared on the Late Night stage wearing his black cowboy hat before about 4 million TV viewers. Paul Shaffer’s band rocked and the spotlight glared as he handed Tonk’s lead to Bolster. The studio audience went wild.
“I had been back stage with the horse the whole time Erin was talking to Letterman,” said Siemsen, who’s worked with horses for 50 years. “That horse did great even though he wanted to turn away from the audience.
“I should have stuck something in his ears like a lot of calf ropers do when they’re riding in a loud arena. I should have thought of that for Erin.
“I was more nervous than the girl and the horse put together.”
Said Bolster, “At a rehearsal, they fired up the band and I walked Tonk on stage and he did really good. We even got up in the saddle on him. He stood completely still.
“But when it came time for filming the show, there was a big crowd, and that was much more exciting. They didn’t have the applause sign lit up, but they all stood anyway and screamed. Tonk was thinking he wanted out of there, but he came around and did great.”
Indeed, the big white horse who’s lived his life in Wyoming pastures and Montana wilderness trails did New York as though he were a city boy.
CBS dispatched a security guard to help Siemsen navigate through Manhattan with the air-conditioned horse trailer to 54th and Broadway.
“The Letterman people were incredibly nice, every dang one of them,” Siemsen said.
“They even had a person to take care of my mother, who was extraordinarily over-excited,” Bolster said.
Tonk stayed at a New Jersey hunter-jumper equestrian center, where Erin took him for a ride the day before the show.
Erin was booked into the Dream Hotel, one block from the CBS studio, where she could see billboards featuring her and Tonk.
Letterman spent more than $16,000 to get the duo to New York. That includes hiring Siemsen’s Billings-based Montana Express Horse Transportation. The rate for the trip three-fourths of the way across the country was $3 a mile, including exercise stops every three hours or so and boarding along they way.
“Normally people pay 70 cents a mile because they wait until we get a load of five horses at the same time,” Siemsen said. “But this was a last-minute deal. They went all out; rammed and jammed it in a hurry. It worked.”
“After they parked in the city,” Bolster said, “Tonk held his head out the trailer window to soak up the sights and sounds. I got to spend most of the day standing out with him, talking to people and letting them pet him and take pictures. It was a real hoot.”
“She even rode the horse up and down the street,” Siemsen said.
The only other tense moment came when Bolster took Tonk into the studio for the first rehearsal.
“Before he got to the rubber mat they’d rolled out for him, he stepped onto the slick wooden floor and slipped,” Siemsen said.
“A normal horse would have gone down. They’re really lucky he’s the type of horse he is. A lot of horses, once they start slipping, there wouldn’t be any stopping them from going down.”
Bolster said Letterman seemed to have a special interest in her story.
“He told me about his bear experience, when a grizzly broke into the kitchen at his ranch in Montana near Choteau. The bear ripped a big hole in the refrigerator. Dave brought out a stainless steel tray the bear nearly bit in half like it was a paper plate.
“He knows how incredibly powerful grizzlies are. He also has a boy about the same age as the boy Tonk and I rescued, so there are a lot of reasons why my story hit home.”
After her 11 minutes on stage with Letterman, Bolster went back out on the street with Tonk to sign autographs along with the show’s other guest, actor Matthew Broderick.
“Tonk was a real ham,” she said. “I got him to bow. That’s one of two tricks he knows. He also flaps his lips for the camera.”
Bolster said the whole New York experience had an unexpected impact on her.
“I was talking to all of these people, but I also was hearing their stories,” she said. “I was in a city with people from all over the world. They had crazy stories. Everybody has a story.
“One of the Letterman security guards was an ex-New York City cop who was on duty during 9/11. It was very humbling to me. My story took off, but it’s just one story in a million.”
The “Late Night with David Letterman” left Siemens with a new story of his own, but it didn’t necessarily require the bravery that made Bolster and Tonk famous.
“Yes, I had a shovel back stage,” Siemens said. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t have to use it, not inside or even out on the street. It’s like he was housebroken. That’s as amazing for a horse as not running away from a grizzly.
“He’s a great horse, kind of like that little ol’ girl. They’re a different breed of cat.”