From the early 1920s to the mid-1930s, trick and fancy rider Bonnie Gray and her company were recognized as some of the best rodeo performers in the country. The famous, all-around cowgirl solidified her place in the profession as an expert in the “under-the-belly-crawl” stunt. Riding fast into the arena atop her horse, King Tut, Bonnie would drop down on the nearside of the horse, feed herself headfirst between the animal’s galloping legs, reach through, haul herself up the offside, and jump back into the saddle again. Audiences from Manhattan to Cheyenne were dazzled by the skill and daring it took to execute the death-defying trick.
Bonnie Jean Gray was a natural athlete. Born in 1891 in Kettle Falls, Washington, she learned to ride on her family’s ranch. She was also an accomplished pianist, and attended the University of Idaho where she majored in music and participated in a variety of sports including track and tennis.
Among her many other abilities, Bonnie had a talent for medicine. During World War I, she studied nursing at a military post in Montana. She utilized her nursing expertise assisting her brother, who was a doctor in Arizona. She helped deliver many babies and tended to those struck down with influenza in 1917 and 1918.
Bonnie’s interest in trick riding was something she’d had since when she was a little girl. She decided to pursue the sport in 1918 and made her professional debut in 1922. She participated in some of the biggest rodeos across the country and in Canada. In a short time, she had earned the title as the World Champion Woman Rider.
According to the February 23, 1923 edition of the Deming Headlight, Bonnie not only attracted attention as the only woman to have ridden bulls used in the bullfights in Mexico in competition, but also for her beauty, as fans were charmed by her overall look in the arena. “Is she pretty?” the article posed. “Yes, in a softly, feminine way, with a row of dazzling white teeth that show no traces of dental adornment. She’s fearless in the saddle as well as beautiful.”
In June 1930, Bonnie married trick rider Donald Harris in Los Angeles, California. The bridal party were on horseback and the ceremony was held in an elaborately decorated arena with more than a hundred mounted guests in attendance.
But Bonnie and Donald’s marriage was a volatile one. Donald was physically abusive and by August 1932, the couple were divorced.
After the divorce was finalized, Bonnie left the rodeo world to become a motion picture stuntwoman. She doubled for popular Western film stars Tom Mix, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, and Ken Maynard. One of the most elaborate and dangerous stunts she performed on camera involved her and the horse the studio had her ride. The pair jumped a clump of brush and hurtled down a ten-foot cliff. Bonnie was paid $10,000 for the stunt, but vowed she’d never agree to participate in anything else so hazardous again.
Bonnie Gray Harris died on April 28, 1988, at the age of 97. She is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, California.