Health & Wellness

Rodeo champion Amberley Snyder back in the saddle after paralysis 6 years ago

By the time she was 18 years old, Amberley Snyder was already living her dream as a serious rodeo competitor.

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Meet Amberley Snyder, the rodeo champ back in the saddle after she was paralyzed

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Meet Amberley Snyder, the rodeo champ back in the saddle after she was paralyzed

Play Video - 4:27

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She had just won a world championship, was hitting the finals in other competitions, and was state president of Utah’s Future Farmers of America. One day she hoped to be a professional rider.

But all that changed on Jan. 10, 2010.

Snyder was driving to a Denver stock show when she looked down to check her map. When she looked back up, she was drifting into the other lane of traffic. She overcorrected her truck and the back wheels caught a patch of dirt, causing the vehicle to roll.

Courtesy Amberley Snyder
Amberley Snyder competing before the crash.

Snyder remembers every moment of the crash.

“I felt myself pick up and leave through my window,” Snyder told TODAY’s Erica Hill. “I continued to hear my truck rolling as I'm flying through the air.”

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Just minutes earlier, Snyder had taken off her seat belt because her stomach was bothering her. With no seat belt to keep her secure in the truck, she was thrown against a fence post, where she was found, still conscious, but unable to feel her legs.

Courtesy Amberley Snyder
Snyder’s truck after the crash.

Doctors later told Snyder she was paralyzed. The injury to her T12 vertebrae was classified as “complete,” which meant she had a total loss of movement and sensation below the waist. Her doctors said Snyder would never walk again, let alone ride.

But Snyder would have none of that.

“The very first day of therapy, when my nurse asked me what my goals are, I tell her, ‘Walk, ride, rodeo, that's it,’” said Snyder. “There's not an 'if,' there's not an 'and,' there's not a 'maybe,' this is what we're doing.”

Physical therapy focused on rebuilding her sense of balance. Snyder was a long way from the days when she could balance comfortably over a galloping horse.

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“Even though she was sitting in bed, if she raised her arm to brush her hair, she could fall over,” said Tina Snyder, Amberley’s mother. “Or when we were driving, if I hit the brake too fast, she'd hit the dashboard.”

But Amberley had an idea.

“I had mentioned to my therapist that my balance is better on my saddle than anywhere else, and they kind of kept just ignoring that, and I'm like, ‘No, you guys don't understand, that was where my balance was the best,''' she said. "And so finally I just told my dad, ‘Bring my saddle in.’ We're no longer asking, we're bringing it in. So we brought my saddle in and I got up on that saddle and my balance was better there than anywhere else.”

Courtesy Amberley Snyder
Snyder’s saddle was used during physical therapy.

Just four months after her accident, doctors gave her the OK to try the real thing and saddle up one of her horses.

Surrounded by friends and family, Snyder was lifted up onto her trusted horse, Power. But what was supposed to be a happy moment turned out to be one of Snyder’s darkest.

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“The first time I got on my horse, it was the hardest day of my life,” Snyder told TODAY. “You think about the day when they tell you you're never gonna walk again. The first day I sat on my horse was ten times harder than that day.

“In that moment, I realized my whole life was different. What I had pictured from the time I was 3 years old, what my life was gonna look like, what I wanted to do, what my goals were...in that moment, that's shattered.”

Courtesy Amberley Snyder
Snyder’s first time back on the horse.

Later that year, Snyder hit rock bottom. For someone who once said her happiest place on earth was on top of a horse, Snyder wouldn’t go near her horses, let alone ride them.

“I went to school, and when I'd come home on the weekend I'd look at them outside the window, but that was it,'' she said. "I did not go out there.”

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At one point, Snyder told her mom to sell the horses.

“I said, ‘These horses are way too athletic for me to just ride them around,’” Snyder recalls. “‘My balance isn't the same, my abilities aren't the same and these horses are way too nice for me to just ride them.’”

Tina Snyder refused, telling her daughter at the time, “Your horses have been injured before, and you've waited for them to heal. They're gonna wait for you.”

TODAY

And wait they did. Snyder stayed away from her horses for months until a reporter called in April 2011 and asked to do a follow-up story on her accident and her riding. Snyder agreed to a photoshoot, even though she had not gone close to her horses in months.

Back in the saddle, this time things felt different. “That was the whole game-changer,” Snyder said.

But riding, really seriously riding and barrel racing, required a few adjustments to manage Snyder’s paralysis.

The first addition to her saddle was, of all things, a seat belt.

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“We'd heard of a team roper out in Arizona who'd had a seat belt on a saddle,'' she said. "He wasn't paralyzed, but his legs were so weak that he needed that just to hold him in.”

Next came velcro straps to stabilize her legs. Without the straps, her legs flapped around the horse uncontrollably.

Then came training her horses to ignore her legs and just listen to her voice and hands.

“I get on my horse, I forget about [my legs],'' she said. "He worries about my hand and my voice and my body, and we work that way. It's like we're just on a different communication level.”

Just 18 months after her accident, in June 2011, Snyder was ready to officially get back into the ring.

She entered an exhibition barrel race, first circling the barrels at a slow lope, to the delight of friends and family gathered to witness the moment.

“I think probably that was the first time I really laughed and smiled since the accident,” said Tina Snyder. “I thought, ‘Yeah, she can do this again. We can pick up from where we are and keep going.’"

But going slow isn’t Snyder’s style.

“I said, ‘Guys, I'm gonna go a lot faster than that,’” Snyder recalls. “‘We're not just here to lope,’ and I turn around and set [the horse] through the pattern, and we were a second off of what we had been before my wreck.”

Courtesy Amberley Snyder
Snyder riding after her accident.

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Snyder has since beat her pre-accident times, and continues to compete in rodeo, now at the college level as she finishes her master’s degree in counseling at Utah State University.

Snyder also works as a motivational speaker and regularly posts “Wheelchair Wednesday” videos, giving tips and advice to other wheelchair users, like how to transfer from the ground to the chair, or how to wheel over unpaved ground, such as a dirt arena.

“My goals have not changed,” said Snyder. “The end goals of making circuit finals and making the national finals, those are still there. I'm just giving myself a little more time in order to accomplish them.”

Snyder said she is aware of the dangers that come with with strapping herself onto a horse. “It's risky,” she said, adding, “people get mad at my mom a lot for that.”

The key to her safety, Snyder said, is finding and training horses that are sure-footed.

“Obviously accidents can happen,'' she said. "I've been super, super blessed to avoid those thus far, but I'm pretty particular about what horses I get on and how they act.”

As for that “complete” injury to her T-12 vertebrae? It’s now classified as “incomplete” since Snyder now has some feeling in her upper thighs.

“I don't think that it's any coincidence that the muscle I can move is the inside of my leg,” said Snyder. “When you ride, that is your biggest muscle that you use."

“I have some movement in my hamstrings and in my glutes as well,” Snyder added, “Those are all muscles you use to ride, and I think that because I tried to use them so soon, I think that helped a lot with where I am now.”

Courtesy Amberley Snyder
Snyder and her younger sister.

Riding may or may not be the reason she has some feeling in her legs, but Tina says one thing is for sure, it’s given Snyder a sense of independence she wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“When she's on a horse, she's like everybody else,” said Tina Snyder. “She gets to leave the wheelchair behind and the horse is her legs.”

Snyder named her newest horse Legacy. She calls him Legs for short.

“I named him that way to be able to [hear the announcer] say, ‘Here comes Amberley Snyder on her Legs!’ And that's what he is for me.”

Follow TODAY.com writer Scott Stump on Twitter.

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