Paralyzed in a vehicular accident at age 18, barrel racer Amberley Snyder was told she’d never ride again. But this fierce competitor wasn’t about to take that prognosis lying down.
Riding barrels with her long platinum-blond hair flying out from under her cowboy hat, Amberley Snyder looks like a cross between a California beach beauty and a rockin’ rodeo queen. Look closer through the dust she’s kicking up and you’ll see that she’s literally strapped onto her horse.
She needs those straps to stay in the saddle because she’s riding without the use of her legs. Amberley Snyder is the only paralyzed barrel racer in the country.
After a terrible accident with her pickup truck in 2010, she wasn’t supposed to be able to ride again. But with extraordinary fight and grit, she got back on the horse and eventually returned to competing.
Her inspirational story, which comes to Netflix in 2019, ends not in tears but in cheers. And it’s not nearly over.
It was the phone call every parent fears. Your child in a horrible accident. A life-altering injury. A young athlete’s dreams seemingly dashed. Amberley Snyder and her mom, Tina, have related the story countless times. They gave one of the most moving accounts about what happened on January 10, 2010, on an episode of The Ride With Cord McCoy:
Amberley Snyder: I had been offered a job in Denver for the stock show. I was going to work there for the two and a half weeks. I got up at 4:30 in the morning to start my drive. And about 10 in the morning I stopped in Rawlins, Wyoming, at a gas station, and when I got back in my truck, I didn’t put my seat belt back on. And less than 10 miles down the road, my life completely changed.
Tina Snyder: At 10 o’clock I texted her and said, “How’s it goin’?” And I didn’t get a response back.
Amberley: I looked down to check my map. And when I looked up, I’d faded over a lane and was heading toward the mile marker on the side of the road. So I grabbed my wheel and tried to bring it back straight. And right as I thought I was gonna be OK, the dirt caught the back right tire on my truck and pulled me completely sideways. So I closed my eyes and I could just hear banging and crashing going around my head in my truck. And I felt myself pick up and leave my window. And I could hear my truck still rolling and I left [it] going 70 miles an hour and hit a fence post on the side of the freeway, and that’s what broke my back. I wake up and I’m sitting on the side of the freeway and I can see my truck in front of me and I am just thinking, Oh, my gosh, what just happened? I realized I was thinking fine. And I looked down at my fingers and I moved them and they were fine. And so next I looked down at my toes and tried to move my toes and nothing happened.
Tina: I was at the top of the stairs when I sent that text. I walked into my room ... I just remember another phone rang and my oldest son answered it. ... He came to the top of the stairs and he said, “It’s Dad.” And he handed me the phone, and Cory said, “Am’s been in an accident. And she can’t feel her legs.” And then I just fell to the floor and started sobbing. It was that devastating. It’s not a phone call you want to get.
Amberley: [I] waited for my Life Flight helicopter. It was later in Rawlins that I was first told “the news,” you’d call it. A doctor walked in and he started talking about being paralyzed. And I said, “Well, wait a minute. What are the chances of me feeling or moving my legs again?” And he said, “Slim to none, but more to the none.”
Tina: She had just barely come out of surgery when we got there and the doctor said the surgery had gone well. He did everything he could, but, you know, that there was no hope. That this was a permanent thing and that she’d be paralyzed for the rest of her life. And I just looked right at him and I said, “You don’t know my Amberley. Now just take me to Amberley.” Then they took me to her in ICU. We both ... we just looked at each other. I was just so grateful she was still here. But there was a point when she was asleep and I was sitting on the side of her bed, I was in a chair on the side of the bed and I lost it. I put my head down on the bed and I just was crying. And Amberley’s hand came over and she just put her hand on top of my hand. ... She didn’t say anything, but it was just, “Mom, I’m still here.”
Coming To Netflix: Walk Ride Rodeo
The inspiring Amberley Snyder story gets the streaming treatment.
“Since I am the only paralyzed barrel racer in the United States, I wanted to play me,” Amberley Snyder says, with her characteristic determination and candor, on the subject of her life story’s being made into a Netflix movie.
In the feature film, which she hopes will be released in March or April 2019, she’s her own stunt double, her horse Power (who has several movie doubles) plays himself whenever she’s riding, Snyder’s little sister is her pre-accident stunt double, and 27-year-old actress Spencer Locke plays Snyder in the non-riding scenes. Along with Sean Dwyer and Elizabeth Cullen, she’s also one of the film’s producers.
Snyder was on the set in and around Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico, for most of the filming. “What an experience! It was exciting yet challenging to relive my life on screen,” she says. “There is so much that goes into the making of a film. The actors were amazing. Spencer flew out to spend a few days with me beforehand. She did a great job always checking in with me to make sure her emotions were accurate and wanted to know how I felt in every remake of scenes. Her riding improved over time, and I think I even gave her the horse bug!”
Missi Pyle plays Snyder’s mom (“always uplifting for the set and she portrayed the strength and kindness needed for her role”) and Bailey Chase (Longmire) plays her dad, with Alyvia Alyn Lind as her youngest sister.
“My movie siblings were so fun to get to know,” Snyder says. “We were able to visit in between takes, during lunch, and we still keep up now. It was so important to me to have my family involved as they truly are the reason I am who I am.”
The compliments flow both ways. “The level to which Amberley and her family were involved in the movie was really exceptional,” says director Conor Allyn (Java Heat). “We were able to do things at such a better level because of her and their involvement.”
It wasn’t just Snyder’s story that was inspiring, Allyn says. It was also her presence on the set. “Particularly when Amberley was up on the horse, I would forget she’s paralyzed. She’d need help getting up, but then she’s just up on a horse. I would find myself totally forgetting; crew members would mention it, too.
“It’s all about not being handicapped, even if you’re stuck in a wheelchair. Your attitude determines what you can do. Any time Amberley was doing her riding or practicing a scene and she would go run the barrels, if she was rehearsing, you couldn’t not watch her do it. It really was magnetic. Even if you were trying to work on something else, everyone was just naturally pulled in to watching her run. There’s a woman we saw in a wheelchair a few minutes ago, and now she’s racing around barrels blowing us away. That never got old. I’m very excited about releasing this movie because I think everyone will have that same feeling when they watch it.”
Cowboys & Indians: In 2009, you had made high school rodeo nationals, and the week after high school finals, you left the Little Britches finals in Colorado with 11 buckles and a finals and world all-around title. You were on top of the world. Then came January 10, 2010. Tell me about that day.
Amberley Snyder: When I think of my accident day I have mixed emotions. I was going to work for a couple of weeks during the stock show. I sometimes imagine what my life would be like if I had made it. It’s hard to know exactly, so I remind myself everything happens for a reason and I am on the path I was meant to be on.
I was extremely calm that day, and looking back if I had known how hard it was going to be I wonder if I would have been more upset. Life changed so fast! There are sometimes things I wish I had done before my accident. I know I can’t do them all now, but I believe I will walk again and get to do all the things I didn’t before.
C&I: What was your prognosis at the time?
Snyder: The very first news I received was in the hospital in Rawlins, Wyoming. I asked the doctor what the chances were of feeling or moving my legs again. He said, “Slim to none, but more to none.” After my surgery, the doctors marked me as a “complete” injury, which means you have no chance of regaining any feeling or movement. Two days after surgery, I began to feel in one of my legs and by day four they moved me to an “incomplete” injury.
C&I: Can you share with us the state of your recovery today?
Snyder: I can feel to my knees in most places and can move a few muscles. My hip flexors are strong enough I can crawl. My abductors will fire as well. If I am in the water I can get trace movements in my hamstrings and glutes.
C&I: You weren’t supposed to be able to ride again. How did you overcome the many obstacles you faced in getting back on the horse?
Snyder: When I told doctors, therapists, and nurses that I rodeo, they told me that would be impossible and I should try to find another hobby. Of course, horses and rodeo for me was not a hobby, it is my life. It took me four months to convince doctors and my mom I was going to get on. I wish that had been the greatest day of my life, but truly that first time on a horse was devastating. I realized it was never going to be the same.
It took some time to get all the pieces of my saddle together — seat belt, Velcro straps, nylon buckles. Each part was trial and error as we figured out what worked.
I took a break that fall and winter for me to mentally and emotionally overcome the change. I thought I might be done. I even told my mom to sell my horses. I told her if I couldn’t train them like I used to, I wasn’t going to have them. It wasn’t until spring of 2011 that I tried again and it felt amazing! I knew I couldn’t leave it behind and had to figure it out.
My balance is still the hardest part. Most horses want to work with me and they figure out pretty quickly to ignore my legs and listen to my hands and voice.
C&I: How did growing up as a competitor help in your rehabilitation?
Snyder: I feel being raised to work hard, persevere, and be dedicated has helped me to keep moving forward. I have had to learn I cannot force parts of my body to work if they don’t have the connection, but I can utilize what I can do. A spinal cord injury is more than just a physical change, but a mental, emotional, and spiritual one as well. My family background has truly played a part in me having the strength to keep going.
C&I: You started riding at age 3 and got into barrel racing really young. Barrel racing is highly competitive. What was it about it that made you want to try it and get good at it?
Snyder: When I was little, my mom used to trace the barrel pattern on my hand. It just became ingrained into me. When I was 7, my dad told our family we were moving from California to Utah. I told him I would only go if he bought me a palomino barrel horse when we got there. He followed through and I began competing. Combining horses, speed, and competition made me immediately hooked!
C&I: After your accident, why was barrel racing the first thing you wanted to do, even before walking again?
Snyder: I realized very quickly I couldn’t control what nerves would connect. Riding a horse again was something I could control. And on the back of a horse has been my happiest place. I felt that if I could ride, I could handle my wheelchair.
C&I: What special equipment or techniques do you have to use to ride and to get around?
Snyder: When I ride, I have a seat belt that hooks behind the cantle and across my lap. I have Velcro straps around my legs and fenders. I have rubber bands around my feet in the stirrups. There is a nylon strap across my left hip. It runs from the cantle to the pommel. Lastly, I sit on a ROHO seat of air. This was the last piece I put on after a challenge with a saddle sore that turned into a pressure sore, five months of bed rest, and four surgeries to fix!
When I’m not riding, I use a wheelchair, and to drive, my vehicles have hand controls.
What USC football coach John Baxter has to say about meeting Amberley Snyder and the impressive example she sets.
As special-teams coordinator and tight-ends coach at the University of Southern California, John Baxter’s seen a lot of examples of the Trojan fighting spirit. But one of his favorite stories about someone who exemplifies the qualities he prizes most has to do with barrel racer Amberley Snyder.
In June 2013, Baxter was at the National Barrel Horse Association barrel race at the South Point Hotel in Las Vegas to see his daughter compete in one of the hundreds of races being run over the three-day event. “I was down below the hotel, where they’ve got 1,000 horse stalls, maybe more, just walking in the paddock area, and I see this girl come trotting by me on a horse. Two things caught my eye: one, that she was riding down there at all, because you’re not supposed to be on a horse in the paddock area, and, two, she had a seat belt on. And I remember thinking, What kind of cockamamie thing is that?”
Baxter had never heard of Amberley Snyder, but he was about to. He bought himself a Coke and went to sit in the stands. “They introduce this girl over the PA and I see it’s the girl with seat belt on,” he remembers. “She goes and makes this run. When there’s 800 racers or so at a big event, each racer comes out and gets a few claps from friends and family in the stands. But for this girl, everyone was cheering. I still didn’t see what the big deal was. Then I heard a couple of ladies in front of me talking about how amazing it was that that girl could ride when she was paralyzed. Wow! I thought. That is phenomenal!”
The next day Baxter saw Snyder race again; this time, he understood what everyone was cheering about. He didn’t want to head out before meeting her. “As we’re packing up, I see a blond girl sitting in her wheelchair. I told my daughter, ‘I’ll be right back. I gotta go meet this girl.’ ” He introduced himself, told Snyder he thought what she’d achieved was amazing, gave her his card, and asked her to send him an email because there was someone he wanted to tell her story to.
“I love stories of achievement and fight and grit,” Baxter says. “We have a national program, an annual swimathon, at USC called Swim With Mike. Mike [Nyeholt] was a swimmer in the early ’80s who had a spinal cord injury. His teammates put on a fundraiser for him; they wanted to buy him a wheelchair and a van and raise extra money for a scholarship. That effort has grown and gone on for 39 years now, funding a foundation for young people with life-changing accidents or illnesses and paying for them to go to college not just at USC but all over America.”
The guy Baxter wanted to tell Snyder’s story to was Ron Orr, one of Mike’s teammates and the founder and head of the Swim With Mike program. Though Snyder didn’t play traditional sports and probably didn’t know anything about USC at the time, Baxter wanted to get her in the program and to see that her education was paid for. He met with Orr and paperwork was sent.
Fast-forward to 2016. Baxter had returned to coaching at USC after a short stint in Michigan. “I’m walking across campus and I see Ron Orr. He tells me, ‘I just want to let you know [Amberley] not only finished her bachelor’s degree but also her master’s, and she’s coming out to Swim With Mike to make a presentation.’ ”
Baxter shrugs off his part in the whole thing. “It was just a random meeting that led to just trying to do something good for someone. Obviously, if Amberley didn’t have that kind of grit, fight, and determination, if she didn’t work and put herself out there, this story would never have happened.”
At the end of the day, Baxter says, it’s about the caring community at USC and Snyder’s exemplary toughness and fighting spirit. “At USC, they say, ‘Fight on.’ It’s the standard greeting and leave-taking. It’s the greatest mantra and battle cry in all of sports because it’s a metaphor for life. This young lady is fight-on to the core.”
C&I: How do you stay in the saddle with the intense physics of going around barrels at top speed? How does your horse know how to respond to you?
Snyder: All of my adaptations keep me in the middle. I try to not think about how I am held in while I compete. I also have my hands for balance when I am turning. My horses listen carefully to my hands and voice. In the practice pen, I also have a dressage whip to use where my legs would [normally be] to help them understand better.
C&I: What have been some of your rodeo accomplishments since your accident?
Snyder: I ran in The American in 2015 as the fan’s exemption. I was in the Top 10 each year in our Rocky Mountain Collegiate circuit. In 2016, I was in the Top 5 for the Rocky Mountain Pro Rodeo Association. I won the 2D at the All In race in 2016, winning $10,000. I earned my pro rodeo card in 2016 on the first horse I trained since my accident, French Open. We have won multiple races and are pro-rodeo earners. This past season I was second in Herriman’s PRCA rodeo. I also ran in Colorado vs The World and ended up third for Team Colorado. The biggest goal I have is making the National Finals Rodeo.
C&I: You’ve earned your bachelor’s in agriculture education and recently your master’s in counseling. What are some of your other goals in life, personally and professionally, and in rodeo?
Snyder: One of my goals included buying my own home, which I can now check off the list! Some of my future goals include speaking in all 50 states as well as more international events. I always have the goal of walking again. I want to qualify for the circuit finals, win the amateur finals, and make the NFR. I want to make it back to The American rodeo. I have the goal to finish my second book.
And I just bought my first house, in Tremonton, Utah. It is two hours north of my parents’ home in Elk Ridge, which is on the mountain practically and has the most amazing view of the valley! It has been an adventure to build my own place!
C&I: Will you be at NFR this year?
Snyder: Yes, I go to Vegas every year! It’s only a six-hour drive. I do autograph sessions for my sponsors, and the past two years I have run in the All In Barrel Race. I truly love seeing the teams who make the NFR. It takes so much time, money, and [hard work] to make it. You have to respect what that means!
C&I: How do you keep a positive attitude? What keeps you going?
Snyder: There are hard days. Sometimes I can be angry, frustrated, upset, and sad. I hold onto my mom’s advice: “Today doesn’t have to be your day, but tomorrow can be.” I allow myself to be upset and then decide what I can do next. My family and friends are huge supporters and keep me afloat when life gets hard. Setting goals and celebrating them keep me positive to keep moving forward. The messages I receive on social media are uplifting and give me strength as well.
C&I: Tell me about your first horse and growing up with horses.
Snyder: In California, my first pony was named Gabby. She was a paint pony. I wanted a pony so at 5 I could saddle her by myself. In Utah, my dad bought me my first barrel horse, Lacey. She was a palomino just as I had requested.
C&I: What’s the role of your horses in your life now? Do they “understand” your special needs?
Snyder: My horses are my legs. They give me the opportunity to leave my wheelchair behind. There is such a freedom I am able to get from my horses. My horses definitely know something is different. Power especially understands that he is supposed to take care of me. He realizes there is something different from before until after. My horses all learn to put their heads at my height for me to reach them [from my wheelchair].
My horses have given me so much joy and freedom. They have given me strength to handle the difficult moments and days. They still help me when I have bad days and have the ability to lift my spirits when nothing else can. To leave my wheelchair at my trailer is very freeing. I am blessed to have the ability to ride and compete still.
C&I: What about the role of your family?
Snyder: My family is more than the traditional Western family. My dad was a baseball player and my mom did cheer, gymnastics, and had a horse. My older sister, Ashley, was an amazing gymnast and now coaches. My brothers played baseball. J.C. is now a chef and Taylor is playing in the minor leagues with the Rockies. Aubrey loves art and dance! And Autumn does rodeo with me. She won the pole-bending state title last year for the UHSRA [Utah High School Rodeo Association].
C&I: What has changed most about your life? What’s been the toughest adjustment?
Snyder: I have had to gain so much patience and understanding. I know the lifestyle I picked requires me to get help. To safely ride and compete I need someone around, which I am very grateful for, but it does require patience. Relying on others is one of the hardest adjustments to make after being a very independent person for 18 years.
C&I: What has your accident and the fact that you’re in a wheelchair meant for your social life?
Snyder: With traveling to speak and teach, I get to meet a lot of people. I have made some amazing friendships through that. I lost some friends after my accident, which was hard, but I have been great with the ones I have. I will admit there are some social events I avoid, but my closest friends, especially my best friend, Emmy Peterson, know what I am comfortable with, so we just do that.
C&I: Besides being a competitor, you’re also a motivational speaker now. What do you tell people facing life-altering accidents or daunting odds?
Snyder: Don’t give up. You are stronger than you think and tougher than you know. Only you will decide what you are capable of. I realize there are things we cannot control, but we get to choose what happens with what we can!
C&I: And the heart of your message?
Snyder: I feel we all have obstacles. Some are seen and some are not, but everyone faces their challenges. I hope that with my story people can find strength to overcome what they are facing. We don’t always get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose what comes next.
C&I: With a movie coming out about your life, what’s the main thing you hope people will take away from your story?
Snyder: I want people to understand that we have the ability to bloom where we are planted. There are so many parts of life that are out of our control, but what we choose to make of them is up to us.
Excerpt from The Ride With Cord McCoy, used by permission. Find out more at cordmccoy.com.
From the January 2019 issue.