Turning Tragedy Into Triumph
America’s only paralyzed barrel racer does not let her wheelchair define her
Amberley Snyder is living proof of not letting challenges define you, but refine you. On January 10, 2010, just weeks shy of her 19th birthday, the rodeo champion faced a fresh chapter in her refining. While driving through southern Wyoming to work in Denver’s National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, Snyder’s quick glance down at her map caused her to drift into the other lane, overcorrect and roll her truck. Without her seatbelt on, Snyder was ejected from the pickup, slammed into a fence post and broke her back.
After five hours of emergency surgery, a doctor informed Snyder she would never regain use of her lower body or feeling below her waist. But the abrupt introduction to needing a wheelchair did not diminish the fearless cowgirl’s untiring competitive spirit. Only four months after her accident, the rodeo athlete, who started riding lessons at age 3, eased back into the saddle of her horse.
Horses and competitive riding are woven into the Western-wear fabric of the California native’s heart. After her father retired from playing baseball with the L.A. Dodgers and moved the family to Utah, Snyder got her first horse at age 7. Soon the spunky grade-schooler kicked off her rodeo career competing in barrel racing, pole bending, breakaway roping and goat tying. By her teen years, Snyder qualified for the National High School Finals in pole bending and won the National Little Britches Rodeo Association All-Around Cowgirl World Championship in 2009.
Not one to rest on her laurels, the teenager was eager to take on college and compete in college rodeo when 2010 started off the life-altering tragedy. Yet with dig-deep grit and steely focus after her accident, Snyder conditioned her half-numb body to take on the rigors of balancing again on her horse and, eventually, at supercharged speed.
From a Rodeo Champion to a Netflix Movie Star
Now the only paralyzed barrel racer in the United States, Snyder has turned her accident into a message of hope for others facing their own personal challenges. “I have been really lucky,” said Snyder in an interview with Right at Home. “There are a lot of people who get in accidents and who are in a situation like mine, and they don’t get to get back into what they love to do or have a movie made about them or have the following that I have. And I am really lucky to have that. It’s allowed me to affect and motivate and inspire on a worldwide platform.”
This Friday, March 8, Netflix is releasing “Walk. Ride. Rodeo.” It’s a film based on Snyder’s remarkable life story of coming back from her injuries to compete in rodeo again. In the Netflix movie in which she stars as a stunt double, Snyder reaches a crossroads of turning her back on her goals. In a memorable scene in the biographical film, Snyder’s mother firmly advises her daughter, “Don’t you give up. This chair will either be your wings or it will be your anchor. You decide.”
Deciding to see her chair as wings to even more good things ahead in her life, Snyder invested in arduous training to become a professional barrel racer and breakaway roper. Snyder also pressed forward with her education and graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education, and in 2018 earned a master’s degree in school counseling from Utah State University.
Advocating for People With Disabilities
The 28-year-old is also an inspirational speaker and advocates for people with disabilities. On February 16, when a United Airlines gate agent refused to allow Snyder to board a flight on her own and termed her desire to fly with them a “liability,” the experienced traveler did not acquiesce. Instead of allowing the airline to roll her backwards down the jet bridge, Snyder and the gate agent reached a compromise of her being transferred to an airport-approved wheelchair. The United incident hit the media channels, and Snyder recounts with Right at Home why she chose to speak up about her trouble boarding the aircraft.
“When you’re frustrated over something that you can’t control, you’re allowed to speak up for yourself,” Snyder explains. “I wasn’t OK with the situation the gate agent was putting me in. I try to be very agreeable and allow people to help me, but in this particular situation, I was not comfortable. In a chair, you’re going to face places like restaurants or public buildings that are not all up to code. You should remember you can advocate for yourself. You can make people aware that changes need to happen, because if not for you, it’s going to be for the person behind you, and that is what is important.”
“When you’re frustrated over something that you can’t control, you’re allowed to speak up for yourself... You should remember you can advocate for yourself. You can make people aware that changes need to happen, because if not for you, it’s going to be for the person behind you, and that is what is important.” –Amberley Snyder
With her learned-in-the-trenches optimism, the courageous rodeo champion shares a message for seniors and adults with disabilities who need some help to maintain their independence and continue to enjoy a lifestyle they love.
“If there’s an activity that you want to do, don’t allow your challenges to keep you from doing that activity, even if you have to have help to do it,” Snyder shares. “I have to remind myself that I have to have help to ride my horses. If there’s something that you want to do and you enjoy doing it, it’s worth the time, it’s worth the hassle. Because it’s possible.”
“If there’s an activity that you want to do, don’t allow your challenges to keep you from doing that activity, even if you have to have help to do it... If there’s something that you want to do and you enjoy doing it, it’s worth the time, it’s worth the hassle. Because it’s possible.” –Amberley Snyder
And when it comes to her day-to-day routines and traveling for rodeos and speaking, the go-getter is quick to applaud her circle of helpers. “Making sure that somebody can be available to help is really important,” Snyder adds. “It is great to have a group of people and support system; for me, it’s my family and friends. Somebody is always there when I need them.”