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Cowgirl Up | Fall 2015 Out Here Magazine

A car wreck stole champion barrel racer Amberley Snyder's ability to walk, but it didn't conquer her competitive spirit

Amberley Snyder’s fighting spirit

By Carol Davis

Photography by Mark Mosrie


This is a story of grit and grace. Of a remarkable young cowgirl who possesses as much determination, courage, and spirit as any rugged, weathered cowpoke. World champion barrel racer Amberley Snyder is the perfect mix of beauty and boldness. You don’t become a World Champion barrel racer or president of the Utah State FFA without perseverance and tenacity. But that fortitude was tested when a doctor delivered the unthinkable diagnosis that, not only would she never barrel race again, but she would never walk. “I knew I had a decision to make,” she says. “I could either listen to what he had told me and accept paralysis or I could face the obstacle and overcome the challenge.” If you know Amberley Snyder, it’s not hard to guess what she chose to do. 


The Wreck

It was January 2010 when an icy highway redirected the course of her life. Amberley, then 18, was en route to Denver, Colo., for the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, where a 2½-week job awaited that would help to pay for her rodeoing. After an FFA meeting in Logan, Utah, had wrapped up, she headed toward Denver that winter day for a 500-mile trip mostly along southern Wyoming’s unendingly flat, high prairie landscape. A little more than halfway through her journey, Amberley stopped for fuel. Her stomach had been hurting, and the seat belt pressed on it, so when she climbed back into her truck, she didn’t buckle up, which was out of the ordinary for her. 

Power, Amberley's barrel horse whose name fits him well, is at ease with her wheelchair

About 10 miles down Interstate 80, near Sinclair, Wyo., Amberley glanced at her map, and in that brief lapse of time, her truck faded over into the icy passing lane. As she gripped the steering wheel to correct, a tire hit dirt at the highway’s edge, sending the truck careening sideways at 75 mph.

The truck rolled, hurling Amberley through the glass of her driver’s side window. Her body slammed into a wooden fencepost. The force snapped the post in half and broke Amberley’s back.

Through the violent crash, Amberley never lost consciousness. She remembers everything.

As she waited in the snow for help to arrive, she wiggled her fingers, relieved that they moved. But when she tried to move her toes, nothing happened.

Doctors confirmed her fear: she was paralyzed from the waist down, a diagnosis too shattering to comprehend. No more walking. No more barrel racing. No more barrel racing.

But Amberley, who had rodeoed since age 8, had other ideas, says her mother, Tina Snyder, who never left her daughter’s side during the six-week recuperation.

“In the hospital she said, ‘Mom, promise me I’ll ride again,’” Tina recalls. “I thought, ‘No way is this kid not going to ride; she’s too talented.’”

Making Adjustments

Just four months after the accident, Amberley rode a horse, but it wasn’t the experience for which she had hoped. She no longer had control of her legs. She wasn’t comfortable. It just was not the same.

So she started college and focused on school instead of horses. And she continued to heal — inside and out.

Come spring, she was ready to try again. Amberley modified her saddle to allow her to ride safely and comfortably. She’s secured to her saddle with a seatbelt from a junkyard car — an idea from an Arizona team roper with weak legs — a cushion on her saddle, Velcro straps just above each knee, and rubber bands to keep her boots in the stirrups.

Her friends feared that her barrel horse, Power, who had not trained with Amberley since before the accident, might be too energetic for the young woman.

Amberley can do many tasks herself - catch, saddle, and load her horses - but she needs a lift into her saddle. Autumn, her younger sister and rodeo partner, is always there to help

Concerned for Amberley’s safety, they offered her the use of their horses. But Amberley trusted Power and was determined to help him get accustomed to her new conditions.

“He looked at the wheelchair at first and looked at me like, ‘What the heck are you doing in that?’ but he never spooked,” Amberley says.

Power, who measures a tall 16.3 hands, quickly adapted to Amberley’s new sitting vantage point in her wheelchair as she led him.

“He walked behind me with his head (lowered) and acted like it was no big deal,” she recalls.

For Power, with his size, to hold his head that low is not natural, Amberley explains. “He just does that because that’s where I’m at,” she says. “He cares about me that much. You can’t teach that.”

Back on the Circuit

Within 5 years of the accident, Amberley is back on the rodeo circuit again, as competitive as she ever was, chasing a world championship.

Except for the Velcro straps above each knee, you would never know that this cowgirl, whose blond hair flies behind her as she urges Power to go faster, faster, around each barrel, must climb out of her saddle after each ride and into a wheelchair.

But as Power has adapted, so has Amberley. With the aid of her new track chair — an all-terrain wheelchair — she can go into a pasture or corral and catch her horses. She saddles her horses, loads them into the horse trailer, and drives anywhere she needs to go.

She’s accompanied nearly everywhere by her younger sister, Autumn, an accomplished rodeoing cowgirl herself. Autumn is her “sidekick,” who helps her sister mount her horse, retrieve tack that Amberley can’t reach, and handle the horses.

Encouraging Others

“Hi, guys, Wheelchair Wednesday today and I just want to make my very first video in my own track chair,” Amberley says, via video, to the tens of thousands who follow her Facebook page. “So I did just get my track chair yesterday and I’m discovering what I’m able to do in it.”

Wheelchair Wednesday videos show her followers such things as how her new track chair can easily maneuver through an overgrown pasture, how she can independently dismount her horse into her wheelchair, how she straps herself into her saddle, and other parts of her daily life.

“I started Wheelchair Wednesdays to give insight into what we go through and also to show people who are new to a wheelchair what can be done,” she says.

Behind the camera for the track chair video is Emmy Peterson, Amberley’s best friend and fellow state FFA 2009-2010 officer.

The accident, which occurred just weeks before their FFA term was up, opened Emmy’s eyes to how “selfless” Amberley is.

“One of the biggest things for her right after the accident was how she was going to finish her state office,” Emmy says. “I said, ‘That’s what you’re thinking about?’”

The annual state FFA convention was scheduled for mid-March, just six weeks after the accident, and Amberley, as outgoing president, was scheduled to deliver a retiring address.

The speech had been written a month before the accident. It was about overcoming obstacles.

Now her message had more meaning than ever; she was living proof that what might seem impossible can, in fact, be accomplished.

Amberley attended the FFA convention and delivered that speech. She told the story of her accident and how she chose to reject the doctor’s prediction that she would never ride again.

“When I first wrote this speech, it was just a speech,” she told convention members during her address. “Now, I’m living it. Every day I woke up in that hospital, I knew there was a new obstacle for me to overcome.”

The accident may have made her goals more difficult to achieve, but not impossible, she told FFA members. “I have not let this obstacle tell me that I can’t accomplish my goals.”

“Each of us faces obstacles. It’s not about how big or how small your obstacles are. It’s about the attitude you have and the actions you take in order to become successful in spite of them.”

Amberley’s speech was greeted with thunderous applause, a standing ovation, and many tears.

“That’s when I knew she was going to be a great leader,” best friend Emmy says. “She was good before, but now she’s great.”

Amazing Opportunity

The success of her FFA speech showed Amberley that she could inspire others, so she now shares her motivational message of perseverance with audiences at places such as elementary schools, FFA chapters, churches, and businesses.

“We all face challenges in life. That’s inevitable,” she says. “But we get to choose how we react to them. You can let them define you or refine you. If you give up, you won’t see how much you can accomplish.”

Amberley not only expresses that principle, but she embraces it every day.

“In a situation that’s not ideal, I have been given an amazing opportunity to change people’s lives in ways I never imagined,” she says. “When people tell me I changed their life or that they did not give up because of something I said, it makes my situation a little bit easier.”


Carol Davis is editor of Out Here


Fall 2015 Out Here Magazine Home Page