Amberley Snyder just can’t get the click of a seatbelt off the playlist of her life. On Jan 10, 2010 she forgot to fasten hers after stopping for gas in Rawlins, Wyo. Ten minutes later, her truck rolled and she flew through the air and wrapped around a fence post. Doctors told the 18-year-old that the chances she would walk again were “slim to none, with more to the none,” due to a T12 spinal cord injury.
Paramedics told her, “If you’d had your seatbelt on, you’d have your legs.” That was the first time she cried.
“I told my mom this one mistake has cost me my whole life.” Her mom replied, “We can’t go back. Your legs are still attached. We’re just going to work on it from here.” And so she did.
Today Snyder flies through the air on the back of a horse named Power, thanks to a seatbelt and three other straps she’s rigged on her saddle. She competes as a barrel-racer and breakaway roper. She is convinced she will walk again but lets her horses be her legs in the meantime. As the post on her Facebook page proclaims, “Two feet move your body. Four feet move your soul.”
“When I’m on my horse, I can leave my wheelchair at the trailer and I am free,” she says. “It’s a moment of complete happiness.” Snyder was a member of the Utah State University Rodeo Team and is in the top five in her region. She had her sights set on qualifying for the Collegiate Rodeo finals in Wyoming this year — coincidentally to be held in Casper where she was life-flighted after the accident and doctors told her she wouldn’t ride again. However — believe it or not — she didn’t qualify because her horse got hurt and had to go to rehab. Thankfully, he’s recovering and they are hard on the rodeo circuit this summer.
Those doctors all but laughed at her triple goal: Walk, Ride, Rodeo — set from her hospital bed. They certainly didn’t envision barrel racing at a competitive level. But the girl who began barrel racing at age 3 felt they were missing the point: “Barrel racing isn’t something I do,” she says, “It’s who I am.”
Her mom, Tina, remembers thinking, “They just don’t know my Amberley.”
Born to Ride
Amberley’s interest in horses began so early she would point to the horse on the diaper wipes and say, “Me ride” as an infant. So Tina would draw the barrel pattern on her daughter’s tiny hand and the rest became history. The family finally found a place that would let a 3-year-old ride. She began winning buckles at age 7 after the Snyders moved to Utah and Snyder got her own Palomino barrel horse. Her mom says, “She had such God-given talent and balance, she competed bareback until she was in high school.”
In fact, the month before her accident, Snyder made the High School Rodeo Finals and then won an All-Around World Championship, two saddles and 11 buckles at the Little Britches Rodeo in Colorado. Those victories put her at the top of high school rodeo stars and on the road to Denver that fateful day in January. She’d gotten a job working the Denver Stock show and left Utah at 4:30 a.m. to get there. She never made it. Instead the teenager ended up in surgery and then in rehab, demanding a saddle.
Her mother ran out the front door and drove seven hours to her bedside when “that call that no parent wants to get” came in. She passed Amberley’s totaled truck by the side of the highway still two hours from the hospital. She saw a hunk of her daughter’s long blonde hair hanging from the driver’s window and knew the news would be bad. Amberley had just gotten out of surgery when Tina pulled into the Casper hospital parking lot. “The doctors told me there was no hope,” she says, “that Amberley would be paralyzed the rest of her life.”
Tina didn’t leave the hospital for weeks despite five other kids at home. She says she still fights the urge to surround her daughter in bubble wrap to keep her safe. But she tells Amberley, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” And Tina knows just how hard Amberley works to “make it look easy” to overcome a hundred obstacles every day.
Snyder defies odds as fiercely as she rides for home after rounding that third barrel. In March 2015 she won a fan exemption to compete against the top barrel racers in the world in the $2.5 million “The American” rodeo at Texas Stadium. It was all thanks to an accidental fairy godmother named Andrea Busby.
Andrea had never met Snyder. She’d seen her across the arena at barrel races and read about her in the Barrel Horse News. So she posted on Facebook that Snyder was just the kind of rider the fan exemption was made for. Overnight hundreds, then thousands agreed. Andrea herself was stunned and figured she’d better call Snyder’s mom to make sure it was OK. “The American” organizers were a little concerned as well. They wanted to make sure Snyder was a “real competitor” in order to preserve the integrity of the event. She was and is. 37,000 votes later, Snyder was in!
“I don’t believe in counting my chickens before they hatch,” says Snyder. “I don’t think it hit me until I was sitting in Nashville doing a television interview that I was going to be riding against my idols in Texas! I was star struck. I don’t even have my pro card yet.”
The American turned out to be a “magical, once in a lifetime experience,” according to Snyder, who slept about 12 hours in the four days in Texas and also had to deal with icy roads and the largest crowd her horse, Power, had ever seen. Their 15.3-second run was only .6 of a second slower than the winning time. But she rode away with much more than prize money.
First, Busby Quarter Horses agreed to donate $25,000 to her favorite charity if she won the fan exemption. The money went to “Hope Counts,” a fund to help the families of injured junior rodeo participants. Then her share of the sponsorship patch auction netted $27,000 — enough to replace the truck that has pulled her horse trailer nearly 250,000 miles. The reigning World Champion Barrel Racer, Fallon Taylor, challenged others to contribute towards an Action Trackstander, a standing track wheelchair that will allow Amberley to tack her horse and function in arenas. The custom chair arrived last month, fully paid for by the donations. Finally, RFD-TV, the sponsor of The American, contributed $100,000 to set up an Amberley Snyder Scholarship fund for the National FFA Organization. And Snyder has been racking up the air miles between Texas and Utah where she’s now in high demand as a motivational speaker.
Her Self-Discipline: “Almost Scary”
The frantic pace wasn’t much slower at home in Utah. Amidst rodeos, riding and speeches, Snyder was a full-time college student doing student teaching. She taught classes in Greenhouse, Livestock, Leadership and Food Science, was an advisor to the FFA chapter and coached the Horse Evaluation Team, which placed second in the state. Snyder graduated from Utah State University on May 2 with a 3.85 GPA and a scholarship for grad school. She hopes to become a school counselor because she never met one who didn’t love their job.
Her college roommate, Emmy Peterson, has known Snyder since high school, before the accident, when they were both on the Utah FFA state officer team. Snyder was state president. Peterson calls Snyder “the feistiest, most determined person I know. Most days I don’t believe what I’m seeing. She gets tired but she just keeps going. Her self-discipline is almost scary.”
Peterson forgets to mention Snyder’s wheelchair when she talks about her friend, but her senior project for agricultural engineering was to build a mechanical horse on a lift to enable her roommate to practice breakaway roping from the proper angle.
Snyder’s fierce discipline starts early every day. Peterson says the flying waist-length blonde hair dries really fast and that blinding smile “just is.” Snyder hitches on jeans one hip at a time in her chair. She actually has an endorsement contract with Cinch jeans but says she wears hers really loose. She put zippers in her cowboy boots to accommodate curling toes, and then braces to help with contracture, and finally, a cast after surgery for the ankles and toes. Mostly it was a matter of time, since she had to feed horses and clean stalls before class.
Power, Wrangler — her roping horse — and now Legacy, a young horse she’s training, board about seven minutes away from her apartment. She found the place by going door to door until someone agreed to take her “boys.” Feeding, watering and cleaning stalls goes fast, but if she has to hook up the trailer, she’s in for a marathon right at the start of the day: backing the truck while dragging the wheelchair — which is wedged between the open driver’s door and the truck frame — as she inches back, hopping in and out of the wheelchair to check whether she’s lined up with the hitch. It’s much faster with a partner, and Snyder swears she’s learned to ask for help, but sometimes she has to be independent.
The juggling act goes on all day and into the night. At Preston High School, one of her students welded together a ramp in shop class so she could get into the teaching greenhouse. After classes, she tries to ride all three horses and often has speeches. She admits not a day goes by that her butt doesn’t hurt before the day ends. She tries to find even 20 minutes to get out of the chair, but it doesn’t always happen. She prioritizes an hour a day in her standing frame/strider. “It’s a great time to catch up with my favorite TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Survivor and Vampire Diaries,” she insists. She tries to get plenty of sleep. In fact she says she loves to sleep but has to wake up every two hours to turn and relieve pressure on her skin. She tolerates muscle spasms, nerve pain and headaches. She chugs water and cranberry juice and constantly takes cranberry pills to fight pesky UTIs. Cathing and rodeo arenas are not a match made in heaven.
The Personal Cost
Snyder has paid a price for pushing it the way she does. Today, there are ROHO cushions on both her barrel and roping saddles. But when she was just adding straps in the early days of being filled with joy to be riding again, she literally rode her hide off. The first pressure sore came in September 2011. By December it became clear that she needed surgery, but the doctor didn’t think it was that serious and scheduled a follow-up after the holiday. On Christmas Eve, Amberley texted her mom to come upstairs. Tina says she will never forget the smell of infection that hit her from the doorway. The situation had become life-threatening. They rushed a shaking Amberley with a 104-degree temperature to the hospital. “She couldn’t even sit at an incline for seven weeks,” said her mom.
With that one exception, she is determined to let nothing slow her down.
A recent Facebook post shows her schedule hasn’t hit downshift:
What a weekend!!! Twin Falls for College of Southern Idaho’s college rodeo! Power and I ended up second in the average!!
We got into Logan, Utah, at 3 a.m. due to the time change and left at 3:30 a.m. for the airport to fly to Texas! I was able to speak at the AQHA foundation luncheon and then fly right back!
Just got to Utah and am going to speak at a fireside to finish out the weekend!
Amberley is something of a social media queen with nearly 115,000 fans on Facebook. She answers every question and e-mail, tweets and has her own YouTube channel. She has posted a “Wheelchair Wednesday” video on her Facebook page weekly for the past two years. The topics range from using the ladder on her trailer to get on her horse to skeet shooting from a chair. She demonstrates the series of straps and bands that keep her mounted as she flies around barrels and ropes calves. But she also admits there’s no simultaneous quick release system for the six different restraints and discourages others from duplicating it. If her horse were to go down she says, “I’m all in.” Her mom admits she has taken heat for “letting” her daughter ride in such a dangerous rig. “I hold my breath,” says Tina, “but she was dying just sitting in that chair. How could I stop her?”
Snyder says she does try to assess the situation and find the safest way, but she shows up to win, not just compete.
So she rides and rodeos and firmly believes she will walk again. She says she has regained the use of some of her inside calf muscles and credits riding for the progress. She’d love to try FES and an exoskeleton someday. Meanwhile, the muscles she uses most are her vocal cords — speaking two to three times a week. She considers her ability to motivate people the biggest blessing of her accident. Her first speech — the retirement address as state FFA president — just months after her accident — resulted in an email from another Utah FFA member. The student had planned to kill himself right after the FFA State Convention. Hearing her tell her story, he changed his mind and wrote her instead.
All those speaker fees also pay for her horses. Snyder won scholarships to pay for school, but says the horses, their feed, board and expenses are her responsibility and she speaks to earn their keep.
“Sure, the accident changed me,” she says. “I value my family more. I can see beyond horses, and I had to face up to who I could be if I never won another buckle or saddle.” She says she was asked recently if she would trade all the accomplishments since the accident to be able to walk and ride like before. From her new perspective she sees as many blessings as bumps in the road.
“I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” she says. “No matter what, only you get to choose your attitude every single day, and I choose to have a good one.”
View Amberley Snyder’s “Wheelchair Wednesdays” on her YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/AmberleySnyder and join the nearly 115,000 fans who’ve “liked” her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Amberley-Snyder/220997234712375?fref=ts.