Amberley Snyder barrel racing on her 17 hand, ex-racehorse, ATP Power. All photos by Lauren Anderson.

When Amberley Snyder was flung from her rolling pickup truck and through a wooden fence post, she lost the use of her legs— but she never lost hope. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she got back in the saddle and returned to the rodeo arena. Now twenty-five, she just bought a younger, faster barrel horse, and has a new career as a motivational speaker.

The dirt is flying as a pretty young cowgirl gallops her 17 hand horse into the pocket of the last barrel in the Spanish Fork Rodeo arena.  The rider grabs the saddle horn and leans forward as the dark quarter horse gathers his hind legs underneath himself and explodes into the rundown.  Her long blonde hair is flying behind her as they trip the timer: 15.5 seconds—a full tenth of a second faster than her best run before she was paralyzed.  Wait.  What?

Look closer and you’ll see the homemade seat belt that keeps Amberley Snyder in the saddle, and that her thighs are strapped to the stirrup fenders with thick bands of Velcro.  Beyond the alley, next to her horse trailer, is her wheelchair. Amberley is paralyzed from the waist down.  It wasn’t always this way.

From the age of three,  Amberley Snyder knew what she wanted to do: ride horses.  At seven, she was rodeoing, and by her senior year of high school she had made it to the National High School Finals Rodeo and was the 2009 Little Britches Rodeo Association All-Around Champion.  Then, the unthinkable happened.  In 2010, she was driving through Wyoming en route to the National Western Stock Show in Denver. After stopping for petrol in Rawlins, she glanced down to check a map, drifted across the highway and rolled her truck at 75 miles an hour.  She had forgotten to fasten her seat belt.

Lying in the snow on the side of the road, Amberley could see the crushed wreckage of her pickup nearby.  She had been flung out the driver side window, but was conscious—and thinking clearly—which allowed her to quickly figure out that she had no feeling in her legs.  Somehow, she found her phone and called for help.  After being rushed to Rawlins Hospital, and then life-flighted to Casper, Wyoming for surgery,  Amberley, now a paraplegic, had one question for her doctors,  “When can I ride again?” 

The doctors told her that part of her life was probably over; that she would never walk again, and probably never get back on a horse.  But they didn’t factor in the heart and determination of the lanky, now 25-year-old cowgirl who currently has her 2nd year professional rodeo permit—and a new title on her business card: Motivational Speaker.

Amberley Snyder readies her horse Power before a barrel race. Though her doctors told her she would never be able to compete again, she is currently on the pro rodeo circuit and looking forward to the 2016 season.

“It was definitely an adjustment, and I had to adjust my goals,” she explains. Only four months after the accident, Amberley was back in the saddle.  But it was too soon.  With no use of her legs and impaired balance, the experience was disappointing, physically and emotionally.  She refocused on college, but tried riding again the next spring, after retrofitting her saddle with extra straps and a junkyard seat belt.  It clicked.Soon Amberley started barrel racing again, on Power, the same spirited former racehorse she’s rode for almost a decade. She and Power have since clocked times faster than her quickest pre-accident runs in several arenas including the standard pattern.  In 2015, Snyder was voted the fan-favorite exemption to compete at The American, RFD-TV’s multi-million dollar rodeo.  “Here I was,” she says, “competing with women like Lisa Lockhart, Charmayne James, Fallon Taylor, women who had been my idols.  Charmayne, especially, was so great!  We hung out and she made me feel like I was part of the group. And Lisa had heard I wanted to meet her famous barrel horse Louie, so she brought him around so I could meet him.”

Though it was her passion for barrel racing that helped pull Amberley through her recovery, there is more to life now than running the cans.  “I speak to groups now, sometimes kids at schools, sometimes groups of all men.  I tell my story and try to inspire people, to let them know they can do anything they want to do.  It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are. I talk to people sometimes and they say ‘I want to do this or that.’ So I say, OK, what do you need to do to make that happen? Then they have all these reasons why they can’t make it happen. I always say, why not?”

After the accident that paralyzed her legs, friends and family thought the spirited ex-racehorse Amberley had trained to barrel race as a teenager might be too much for her. Instead, ATP Power seemed to understand the new situation, and learned to lower his head to her wheelchair for bridling.

When asked how she keeps a positive attitude when things get challenging, she explains “even on hard days, look for one thing that is positive. It can be anything—like your favorite song on the radio—and if you appreciate that, your mood will change.  Moments of appreciation are the key.  There is always something good you can find.”

Sharing the positive has become Amberley’s new career.  To answer the frequently asked question, “how do you do that?” she has started posting “Wheelchair Wednesday” videos on YouTube, documenting exactly how she mounts her horse unassisted, and other seemingly impossible tasks.  The short videos are not only an instructional gold-mine for equestrians with special needs, they are profoundly inspirational for anyone faced with unexpected life events.

This year Amberley is again in the running for The American exemption invitation and, if voted in, she intends to ride for more than just herself.  “I hear so many stories from people who have overcome accidents or hardships.  One little girl lost both her feet as a result of abuse, but now she barrel races, like me.”  If Amberley does compete, she’ll be wearing a shirt with the names of those who have shared their stories with her, written in different colors on the fabric.  Her horse will wear corresponding colored ribbons in his mane and tail.

As for the future, scientific and medical advancements—or a miracle—may someday provide a way for her to walk again. “I have no doubt that I’ll walk again,”Amberley states unequivocally.  “It’s been six years and nine days since I walked, and sometimes I’m like Oh, I am so ready to walk again.  But I am so blessed to have this career.  Every day I get messages from people who say I’ve helped them. I wouldn’t have been able to do that [if I hadn’t had the accident].  Everything happens for a reason.”