Real-life inspiration for movie 'Walk. Ride. Rodeo.' tells her story of triumph over tragedy in Watford City
WATFORD CITY, N.D. — Riding in rodeos is not just what Amberley Snyder does. It’s who she is.
And it’s still who she is, despite an accident that claimed the use of her legs in 2010.
Her story of triumph over tragedy is like a movie, and, in fact, inspired one. “Walk. Ride. Rodeo." is the story of her triumph over tragedy.
Snyder’s life changed the morning of Jan. 10, 2010. She was headed to the Denver Stock Show and Rodeo. She’d been hired to work retail — a cool opportunity to immerse herself in a high-level rodeo scene.
She left Utah at 4:30 a.m., but had a stomachache, and the seat belt was making it worse. After a gas stop in Wyoming, she decided to take it off. Just for a little while.
First, however, she took a picture of herself.
That girl, Snyder told an audience recently in Watford City for Women’s Day, where she was the keynote speaker, had “the world at her fingertips.”
That girl had just graduated from high school with straight A's.
That girl had college acceptance letters with scholarships too.
That girl was the state’s FFA president. Which went right along with her plan to be an agriculture education teacher.
Not long before that photo, Snyder had also competed at the National Little Britches Rodeo Association. She took home two saddles, 11 buckles and one other thing. A title.
“Only one person gets to leave as the World All-Around Cowgirl, and that was me,” she said.
She was at the peak of where she needed to be in her 18-year-old life.
Ten minutes after taking that photo, everything changed.
Snyder was passing through Sinclair, Wyo. She glanced down at a Mapquest print-out she’d brought with her. In that split-second, she drifted into the other lane.
When she looked up, she was headed straight for a steel beam. She over-corrected.
For a moment, she thought she was going to be OK. But then the back right tire caught some dirt. The truck tipped and rolled, at 75 mph.
“At 18 years old inside of it, I’m thinking this is it,” she said. “I’m going to die right here, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.”
The truck rolled seven times before coming to rest.
Snyder was ejected — probably on the first roll — through the driver’s side window, even though it was closed. She was flung into a far fence post, her body wrapping around it, her head striking her knee. The force carried the post and crumpled girl another 20 feet, into a snowbank.
What Snyder noticed next was the eerie ringing in her ears, and a crumpled truck. Hers. It looked like an elephant the size of the world had stomped on it.
Snyder began a self evaluation. Her head seemed OK. She could wiggle her fingers.
But her legs. They felt like they were in a warm water bath.
Passersby came to help. One brought a blanket, another a cell phone. She called her dad.
Emergency workers showed up to rush her to the hospital. Doctors told her what she already knew.
She would not likely walk or ride again.
“I’d gone from this, the senior picture — you know the girl with the world at her fingertips — to this, a girl in a neck brace, on oxygen tanks, who was not sure what the future holds,” Snyder said.
Snyder was determined to ride again, despite her prognosis. She started, though, with smaller steps.
She started Wheelchair Wednesdays online, sharing videos of little triumphs along the way. These were generally everyday tasks — more challenging now she was in a wheelchair. But not impossible.
Getting on a horse again wasn’t something she knew she could do until she finally did it, Snyder added.
“You will learn the coolest things in our life happen when we’ve pushed ourselves to a limit, and then take one more step,” she said.
Four months after videotaping herself in her saddle for Wheelchair Wednesdays, she was back to riding horses again.
But not without a few hard knocks along the way.
“I used to joke that it doesn’t matter if a horse bucks with me because I cannot get bucked off since I’m strapped in,” she said.
There’s a picture of her, showing the battering and bruising that can happen when a rider is strapped to a frightened horse.
Snyder took a two-day break before trying again on a different horse, Maximus. He also got scared, but worse, Snyder was now terrified herself.
It was the end of the Amberley Snyder story, she decided.
She told her mother to sell the horses.
Mom, however, knew her daughter. Snyder has grown up hearing her father, Cory, who played nine years of Major League Baseball, say that you’re going to strike out more often than you hit home runs.
Nine months later, Snyder was back on her horses, teaching them new hand and voice commands. Eventually, she was even racing once again.
There are still moments when Snyder feels scared or defeated.
“That’s just the way life works,” she said. “But you get to decide what comes next. And you will never realize how close you were to success when you have given up.”
She is now the only paralyzed barrel racer in the United States. She competes in the regular categories, with everyone else. She also tours the country telling her story.
Her toughest question came from an elementary student. He wanted to know if she could go back in time to change that one day, would she?
“Sitting there, looking at all the innocent faces, I wanted to say yes,” Snyder said. “Because why would I want to spend any time in a wheelchair.”
But then she thought about all the good things that have come since, and realized the answer was no.
“There is some reason I’m in this chair, and I’m going to serve that purpose,” she said.
Snyder leaves her audiences with a simple, if difficult, challenge.
“I want to challenge you to find the light in your darkest day,” she said. “I want to challenge you to find the happiness in the sad moments. I want to challenge you to lean on your loved ones for that support and find the strength in your obstacles, because we don’t know what we are capable of, and we might as well surprise ourselves in how awesome it can be.
“There is no future in giving up,” she said. “The choice is up to us.”