Originally from Sydney, Montana, Tom Thornton spent
30 years as a cowboy and a hunting guide outside of
Lewistown. He moved to Bozeman in 2003, and now
shares a studio in South Cottonwood with his partner,
artist Tina Deweese.
Thornton often stops by Stacey’s Bar and Steakhouse in
Gallatin Gateway with his artwork—he’ll lay a bronze on
the pool table and have the entire bar captivated with a
tale. Here, he recounts the story behind “Man Vs. Wild”,
a pair of paintings depicting a horse wreck:
My horses all get away from me at first, because I can’t hold my
dally. There’s so much tonnage out there bucking beside me,
when they all get to moving one way, and I’m trying to get them
lined up so they’re in front of one another, but they pull and
get away. Wherever they go, they’re all tied together, charging
down through the woods. They’re colts, knocking all around.
I get them gathered up, and I go again, [but] it isn’t five minutes
before they go again…They do it a second time.
I’m riding a big stout horse, so [the third time] I knock out a
bowline knot and just tie them hard and fast to my saddle horn.
They are not going to pull my dally away.
[dcs_img width=”300″ height=”270″ thumb=”true”]
When they blow up that third time, the paint horse, he ducks in
on the left hand side of me and then just quits bucking and starts
racing. Because I’m tied on hard and fast, that lead rope comes
right alongside my kidneys. I’m spurring my horse up to try and
outrun this, but there’s no place for me to go except over the
head of my horse–there’s a lot of tonnage pulling me that way.
And he does, he pulls me over the head of my saddle horse.
I thought maybe I broke my back. I couldn’t feel my legs,
couldn’t move ‘em. My feet weren’t working.
My brother Eddie pulls up. He says, ‘Well, what’ll I do, call
I say, “Well first, gather my horses
up.” Because now my horse is tied to
the whole shooting match.
So he does. And then, when he comes
back, about a half hour later, I was
starting to get the feeling back in my
legs, thinking I just got hit pretty hard
and I’m bruised, you know? So I get
up on my hands and knees when he
shows there, but he can’t get close to
me, because it’s almost dark and these
colts don’t want to get anywhere near
me, because they don’t know what I
am – I’m on my hands and knees.
So then I get up on my knees, and Eddie
coaxes them, and here they come.
He says ‘Well, what do I do? Are we
going back to the truck, or are we going
I say, ‘Get me on my horse, and I’ll
make a decision then.’ He put me back
on my horse, and I say, ‘It feels good up
here, let’s go.
We have eight miles to go [to our
hunting camp], and it’s dark out. My
brother had to unpack six or seven
pack horses, tents, tables, stoves. That
was like a 16-mile rounder.
I stayed in camp ten days, in the Little
Belt Mountains. Donny Hayes was
there, a friend of ours. He’d been
down to Mexico, and he’d brought
back a bottle of pain pills you can buy
over the counter down there.
He said, ‘Take two or three of these
and drink a little whisky, and you
won’t hurt.’ So, that’s what I did for 10
days at camp. We had a couple cases,
a half-gallon of whiskey. We ended
up with like 18 people in that camp,
mostly relatives and friends. There
weren’t any paying dudes.
The moral of the story is, never tie
hard and fast to colts that are entering
[dcs_img width=”200″ height=”180″ thumb=”true” framed=”black”
author=”First Horseman, a bronze by Tom Thornton”
Thornton did break his back in that
horse wreck. He had surgery a year
later, in 1999, and is now mostly
retired from his cowboy lifestyle. He
says, in retrospect, tying a pack string
to his saddle horn was “a bad idea
with colts.” He is currently showing his
work in the Cottonwood Gallery in
Bozeman – shows by appointment,