Ten years after paralyzing injury, Sutton still rides rough stock in his dreams but loves the life he has

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
State Sen. Billie Sutton works on the family ranch near Burke

Sometimes in his dreams, Billie Sutton still rides broncs.

Lying in slumber, with the primary visual cortex of his brain alive with exploding neurons, Sutton can sleep-see illusions that once were real, before he was paralyzed from the belly button down when a bucking horse in a rodeo chute in Minot reared up and fell back on top of him.

The accident ended his young-and-promising professional rodeo career and left him unable to walk. But it didn’t destroy his love for rodeo or the fragments of rough-stock recollections that live on in the neocortex and occasionally throw open their chutes at night.

“It’s kind of crazy, but I still have dreams about it. And they seem so real, where I’m walking around behind the bucking chutes,” Sutton says. “And then I’m getting up on a bucking bronc, you know? But you wake up, eventually.”

Yesterday's awakening marked the 10-year anniversary of that accident up in North Dakota. And like every fourth day of October for the last decade, this one began as a bit of a rough ride emotionally for the 33-year-old state senator and Democratic candidate for governor.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years,” Sutton said in a phone interview yesterday afternoon, in-between fielding the usual array of texts and emails and phone calls from family members and friends, from the rodeo world and beyond. “I always have quite a few emotions on this day, just because of the memories of all that went on and how it changed my life. It’s pretty surreal, I guess. It does not seem like 10 years. Every October Fourth it kind of seems like yesterday.”

Other than on this one day each year, Sutton is not one to focus on the past. He has too much to handle in the here and now. He is, after all, trying to do something no Democrat in South Dakota has done in 43 years. But while winning the governor’s chair is a formidable challenge, it hardly matches the one he faced when he woke up in the hospital a decade ago, unable to move his legs.

“At that time, it was a pretty stark outlook for me, because rodeo was all I wanted to do,” he says. “My life revolved around rodeo and being a world champion some day, or at least competing in the National Finals Rodeo. Pretty much everything I did was meant to lead up to those goals. It was a tough thing to come to terms with.”

His mom and dad were there to help, of course, as they always had been throughout his growing up years on a ranch near Burke, where he participating in wrestling and football and, especially, rodeo. They were involved parents, Billie says, who always saw the possibilities and supported their children in pursuit of them.

Like their son, they had some things to grieve and give up.

“Their future was having me in rodeo and having success and then coming back home and taking over the family ranch,” Sutton says. “So that accident was a big upheaval for their view of the future as well. I think our whole family struggled with what to do. And it’s been a long journey of figuring it out.”

They had plenty of help. Friends from Burke and from the rodeo world and from West River ranch country and from all across South Dakota reached out, with prayers and best wishes and offers of support and assistance.

And someone else stood by him — someone really special. Her name is Kelsea. She and Sutton had been dating for a just a few weeks when the accident happened. She rushed to the hospital and has been by his side ever since.

“A lesser person would have cut and run. It was not an easy deal,” Sutton says. “And she didn’t even blink. She was with me through it all, good times and bad.”

The bad times that came in the months and months of medical care and rehabilitation after the accident were followed, however, by more and more good times. Sutton reshaped his expectations in life to move away from his personal ambitions in rodeo toward a finance job at the bank in Burke, public service in a successful run for the state Senate and settling down with Kelsea to marry and start a family.

Now they have a 16-month-old son, Liam, and a future that — long odds or not — could include higher political office.

But Sutton is careful not to get ahead of himself there, and not just because of the rocky, uphill road any Democrat faces in a statewide campaign in South Dakota. He takes a one-day-at-a-time perspective that was crucial as he did the hard work of coming back from his injury.

"I learned then that it can really be intimidating if you look too far ahead,” Sutton says. “That’s where, I think, I’m very prepared for this campaign, and for the job. Because I’ve focused so hard on taking one day at a time. Do the best you can, work as hard as you can, then get up the next day and do it again.”

The strategy, the family, the friends and that broad, deep, strong network of support was further strengthened, Sutton says, by his faith in a power even greater than all that.

He’s a spiritual man, with a powerful faith in God that has probably grown stronger since the injury.

“I don’t know how I would have survived it without that faith, that belief that there’s something better, that tomorrow can be better than today,” he said. “I’ve always been a believer. I’ve always had a faith in God. And that’s something I really had to lean on in coming to understand that it wasn’t all just about me. It’s about something larger.”

Sutton says his faith informs his values and his perspectives as a public servant. But he isn’t inclined to proselytize or push his religion or spiritual beliefs on others. If he evangelizes at all, he tries to do it by actions, not by words.

Faith and family, and confidence in ongoing scientific developments, help him maintain a belief  that he will walk again someday. He continues weekly physical therapy, following a program that he and a physical therapist from the hospital in Winner learned at a California institute that focuses on muscle memory and nerve regeneration.

With help from a modified saddle, he is able to ride his horse and handle some ranch chores, as well as rides in the beautiful Missouri River breaks where the ranch is located. And the horse riding is in itself part of the therapy, physically and psychologically.

“Actually, there’s a lot of stuff about riding horses for strength. And it actually simulates walking, so that’s good, too,” Sutton says.

Initially paralyzed from the belly button down, Sutton now has good movement in his hips, improved strength in his core and slight movement in one leg. And he’s hoping for a lot more.

“Even when I got hurt, I was one of the first ones to say this wasn’t the worst time to have an injury like this, because of the way technology is progressing,” Sutton says. “My whole story is I’m never going to give up. My goal is still to walk someday.”

Well, that’s one of his goals. But it’s a ways off. Meanwhile, this governor’s race has him occupied. He’s hoping to raise at least $2 million to compete with whoever wins the 2018 Republican primary, where U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem and state Attorney General Marty Jackley are the favorites.

He thinks he has a good message of change, after a long run of near-total Republican dominance in South Dakota. That hasn’t always been good. Scandals involving misused government money leading to a suicide and a multipe-murder-suicide tied to the troubled EB-5 program and funding for the Gear Up low-income student advancement initiative are the most prominent of these issue.

But money and ethics in government have developed into crucial issues, both in individual campaigns and in ballot issues on the subject.

Sutton is inclined to be firm but gentle in his criticism of  Republican candidates on such things, while pushing a more pointed message that change is long overdue. He has already proven that he can win Republican support, taking four straight South Dakota Senate races  — the last two without opposition — in a southcentral South Dakota legislative district with 1,500 more Republicans than Democrats.

“I try not to focus on the party affiliation much at all, because I honestly believe that whoever gets elected has to represent everybody,” Sutton said. “And my base voter is any South Dakotan who wants change.”

Sutton knows plenty about change, and adapting, and finding a way forward through the challenges of life. He’ll need that knowledge and those skills in the coming months of a campaign that right now is aimed at an eventual contest with the Republican nominee.

So far, there isn’t another announced Democrat in the governor’s primary.

“I haven’t heard any whispers or anything like that,” he said. “But you never know. There’s still time. So we’ll see.”

He’s ready for what comes. And given what he has overcome, he’s not much intimidated by anything a campaign might present. He’s grateful, too, in ways that some might find surprising, for the way his life is turning out.

“I think things worked out for me exactly the way they were supposed to work out. I’m sure some people would have doubts about that,” he said. “But I know I’m married to my best friend. And we’ve been together 10 years now. And I also know that we have a 16-month-old son named Liam who is the light of our life. And I can’t guarantee that I’d have what I have now if I could go back and change what happened to me.

“I also know that my work in the Legislature and as a public servant is way more rewarding than any buckle or any money I could have won at a rodeo. Based on what I have and what I know now, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Which doesn’t bring an end to dreams of those rodeo chutes and bucking broncs he loved so much. It simply means that he wakes up each day to a life he loves even more.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.