Article by Danika Kent, Photos by Lauren Anderson
“As an FFA officer, the state convention is the big thing you do every single year. That’s where your term starts and ends. Part of it is you write a retiring address and you can write it about anything you want to write about. I felt like the one thing I really wanted to share was that they could overcome any obstacle that was thrown their way. It didn’t matter what it was; we were all totally capable of it.”
A 2009 graduate of Spanish Fork High School, National Little Britches Rodeo world champion and Utah state FFA president Amberley Snyder was proud of the speech she had composed and looked forward to motivating her peers. When she shared it with her advisor, however, he felt that something was missing.
Although frustrated, the ambitious blonde had time to think it over. The Utah state FFA convention was slated for March, and it was only January. In the meantime, she was Colorado-bound to work for 2.5 weeks at the National Western Stock Show. At 4:30 a.m. on January 10, 2010, she left her home in Elk Ridge, Utah.
En route to Denver, Snyder made a pit stop at a convenience store in Rawlins, Wyo. When she got back in her Ford F-150, she didn’t refasten her seatbelt. It was the first in a string of life-altering events.
Ten miles down the road, she reached for her map in the passenger seat. Looking back to the highway, she realized she had faded into the next lane. When she corrected her pickup, which was set to cruise at 75 mph, she fish-tailed across the icy road.
“I remember thinking if I could straighten it out, I would be fine,” Snyder narrates. “You don’t hit your brakes when you’re driving on ice. I grabbed the wheel with both hands to bring the truck back straight, and my back right tire grabbed the dirt and ripped me sideways off the road. There was nothing I could do. I thought I was going to die right there and there was nothing I could do about it.”
She closed her eyes and could hear the mangling of the truck’s steel frame as it rolled out of control, a sound that would echo in her mind for years to come. Then, the F-150 carelessly spat her out.
“I felt myself leave the truck and I could hear it rolling, but I wasn’t in it anymore. I hit a fence post at 70 mph and that’s what broke my back,” Snyder illustrates.
When she opened her eyes again, Snyder was sitting upright against that fence post. She surveyed the material havoc left in the wake of the wreck, making a mental note of where her personal belongings were scattered along the road to be sure they wouldn’t be left behind.
The sensation of sitting in warm water, though she was in fact immersed in snow, set in and caused Snyder to evaluate the damage sustained by her own 5’9” frame. Her fingers were functioning normally, but she looked at her feet and realized she couldn’t move her toes.
“Something is really wrong,” she thought.
Picking up the pieces
Snyder felt no pain until the paramedics slid the backboard under her broken body. She was transported to a hospital in Rawlins, where she asked the doctor what the chances were that she would move her legs again.
“Slim to none, but more to the none,” he said candidly, before leaving the room. Waiting for her parents to arrive, Snyder was left alone with her thoughts.
“How am I going to ride? How am I going to compete? How am I going to be a state president? How am I going to live the rest of my life?” she wondered, re-evaluating each of her future plans, one by one.
She was flown to Casper, Wyo., where she underwent surgery to fuse her broken back. Ten days later, she was relocated to a hospital closer to home to begin rehabilitation. On her first day there, an unsuspecting nurse encouraged her to set some goals.
“‘Walk, ride, rodeo,’” Snyder said, decidedly. “The nurse gave me this look like, ‘You have no idea how hard this is going to be, the situation you’re in.’”
Of course, Snyder acknowledges, it was much more difficult than that. She did have to make smaller goals, like being able to “wheelie” on the rear wheels of her wheelchair, but her therapists quickly learned that if they challenged her in any way, she would complete the task at hand that much faster.
“‘Don’t worry,’ they said. ‘If it takes you a day or two to learn how to wheelie, it’s OK because it’s harder for girls than it is for boys,’” Snyder recalls. “Heck no! I was going to be able to do it that day!”
Not only was she highly motivated, Snyder also proved to be innovative.
“One of the hardest things in my life that changed was my balance,” Snyder says.
“My balance is so different than it was. Everything was a little tricky. My balance was always better on a saddle than anywhere else, so I asked to bring in my saddle on a saddle stand. They kept saying no, they weren’t going to do that, but finally, I convinced them.”
To the staff’s surprise and the girl’s satisfaction, Snyder’s impulse to put a therapeutic spin on her saddle was spot on.
“When I sat in the saddle, my balance was better than anywhere else we had done therapy,” Snyder recalls. “They realized I was serious. I was going to ride; I was going to figure it out.”
Snyder rehabbed tirelessly, pushing, planning and preparing for the day she would be back on her horses. Four strenuous months after the accident, that day arrived, but it was not at all what she had anticipated.
“I wish I could say it was one of the best days of my life, but it was one of the hardest. I had it built up that if I could get back on the horse, everything would be OK. When I got in the saddle, it hit me that every part of my life was going to be different,” she relates.
Not once in the aftermath of the accident, in the moments alone along the side of the road or at the stinging words of the doctor in Rawlins, did Snyder panic. With courage and grace, for four months, she had optimistically exhausted herself through therapy, willing herself to ride again. But now, devastation began to set in.
“Mentally and emotionally, all things considered, by the end of that summer, I was frustrated,” she admits. “I went to school without my horses and told my mom to sell them. They were too athletic to sit around and wait for me. She said no, they were fine waiting for me. But I went to school without them that fall and that next spring.”
“Majoring in agricultural education at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, Snyder had aspirations of a successful college rodeo career, visions of Wrangler NFR qualifications, and so much more. Based on her youth rodeo success, she saw no reason to doubt the direction her career was headed – until her physical limitations stifled her dreams.
She oftentimes felt her dreams were crumbling, but would soon realize they were transforming in a major way. In the spring of 2011, near the end of her freshman year, Snyder received a phone call from a reporter who wanted to feature her and her horses.
“I hadn’t told anyone I wasn’t riding, so I said sure,” Snyder says. “I got on my barrel horse, Power, and I think I had just adapted to the situation mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and I was ready to get on and try again.”
And ready, she was.
“I went in and picked up the lope and all the pieces that hadn’t been there came right back. Who was I kidding? The coming home, the happiness…I absolutely loved to do that and nothing would replace it,” she says.
Rejuvenated, Snyder was motivated to find a way not only to ride, but also to compete. She heard of a team roper in Arizona who’d had a seatbelt fastened to his saddle and she followed his lead. Her first concern was gaining control over her legs.
“When I went to pick up the lope, my legs were moving so much,” she explains. “They’re pretty flaccid and my horse didn’t know what I was asking him to do. We had to figure something out to keep them still for my horse, so I have Velcro straps that run under my stirrup leather and tighten down around each leg. If you watch my runs, it looks like I’m still kicking, but it holds them so they move in a fashion that my horses can recognize and it doesn’t confuse them.”
Although her legs were locked in place, without their strength to stabilize her seat, Snyder found it nearly impossible to stay in sync with her horse through the turns.
“I was moving just an inch around my second and third barrels and I couldn’t get up and ride because I was trying to get back to the center of my saddle,” she says. “To stay centered, I have a nylon strap that runs from behind my saddle on my seat to the right pommel, diagonally, and buckles on.”
Which begs the common question, what would happen if a horse fell with Snyder strapped in the saddle?
“I don’t think about it,” Snyder says, shrugging it off. “I don’t put the energy toward it. I have a lot more things to worry about than the ‘what ifs.’ Why put energy and stress toward something that you’re not facing? There are plenty of other challenges and obstacles to keep you occupied to worry about the ones you don’t have to face at the time.”
Snyder has full faith in the horses she has partnered with, confident in their ability to handle the ground and keep her safe in the saddle.
“When I get on, I don’t think about a horse falling. I have really sure-footed horses, so I’ve been blessed with horses that can really take care of me. They’re going to stay underneath me the best way they possibly can, no matter what the ground,” she says.
Snyder is most commonly associated with a big, black gelding registered as ATP Power. Purchased eight years ago as a 3-year-old off the racetrack, “Power” was a project, at best, in his early years.
“When I got him, he was so frustrating,” Snyder recalls. “He had the shortest attention span you could ever imagine – he could not focus to save his life. I am not a patient person, so we just clashed.”
Friend and barrel racing mentor Stacy Glause encouraged her to stick with the horse, vouching that he would be worth her time. Snyder half-heartedly complied until a fateful turn of events shifted her full attention to Power.
“My good horse got hurt, so he was the only thing I had and that’s when you’re forced to work on your colts. I put in a lot of time on him. When we finally started the barrel pattern, he was so athletic and picked it up so quickly. I was planning to get my permit when I got home from Denver in 2010 and start hauling him, but it didn’t work out like that.”
When she did get back in the saddle, she started on her smaller-statured and milder-mannered rope horse, Chinook San. Power had established his reputation as a hot horse, and with powerhouses like Dash Ta Fame and Special Effort on his pedigree, concerned friends offered up their own horses as alternatives to get Snyder back to barrel racing. With faith in her partner, she politely declined.
“The first time I got on him, someone caught him out of the field and brought him to me,” Snyder recalls. “He put his head down and followed me all the way to the trailer as I wheeled up. He stood perfectly still, just watched me. He didn’t ever snort or shy – it was crazy. It was a response that no one imagined from him.
“He’s kind of funny now, because he can be hot – he has pulled me out of my wheelchair a couple times, and then he freezes, like, ‘Oh no, I just did something that was bad.’ On the ground, everyone is his friend. But when I’m on his back, he pins his ears around everyone. Nothing should get near me; nothing should be around us. He’s taken that responsibility. That kind of stuff, you can’t train into a horse.”
It’s a role that Power has taken to extremes, in some cases to Snyder’s dismay.
“He hasn’t run as hard as he can, and one of the most frustrating things is not being able to kick my horses up when I need them to be running harder. I want to step up and be running in the WPRA and he has all the speed to do it, it’s just telling him, ‘It’s OK, you don’t have to take care of me all the time, you can step up and run harder.’”
Breaking the mold
Snyder was making great strides, yet one thing eluded her.
“Breakaway roping is one of my favorite things to do. I didn’t get back into it right away because I didn’t know how I would stand up, get up over my horse, get my tip down…there were mountains to climb. I was just going to worry about barrel racing, but every time I saw my rope, I wanted to do it so bad,” Snyder says.
Eventually, her will won over and she sent her rope saddle to be fitted with its own seatbelt.
“During the Fiesta Days rodeo, I was introduced to Stran Smith. We were sitting there talking, and I told him I was putting my seatbelt on my saddle but I wasn’t sure how I was going to get my tip down because I couldn’t stand up in my saddle.
“‘You know what?’ he said. ‘Joe Beaver doesn’t get his butt out of his saddle and he still ropes calves, and you can tell Joe I said that. Don’t worry about it, you’re going to be able to figure it out, you’re going to be able to do it.’ Stran is so encouraging and so positive, I left that conversation saying, ‘I am going to do this.’”
And so, she did. Today, she cites some of her greatest accomplishments as outrunning times she benchmarked before her accident.
“The other day, I won my first breakaway at a rodeo since the accident,” Snyder says, beaming. “I was so excited to leave the rodeo having won.”
The breakaway win is just one of many milestones Snyder has reached since that fateful day. As a college rodeo athlete, she finished among the top 10 barrel racers in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Rocky Mountain region.
“Good things do come out of bad situations,” she says. “There’s the saying that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I feel like I’m riding on a lemon a lot of the time, but when someone comes up and says that they didn’t give up because of me, those are the lemonade moments. I don’t know that I would’ve had the opportunity to make a difference and change peoples’ lives without this situation.”
Snyder took the stage at the Utah state FFA convention in March of 2010 to deliver the retiring address she had prepared prior to her accident. As she added the elements of her own life-changing incident, her message took on new meaning and thus, nothing at all was missing.
Attitude and Gratitude
“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” is the mantra often repeated in the Snyder household.
“Everyone in my family has something that they chased,” Snyder explains, “and we’ve all lived by that saying.”
The Snyders may not be your typical rodeo family, but their hard-wired work ethic has served each of them well. Amberley’s father, Cory, is a former Major League Baseball player. In his footsteps follow her two brothers, JC and Taylor, who play college baseball and have been scouted by major league organizations. Sisters, Ashley and Aubrey, take after their mother, Tina, who was a gymnast and a cheerleader.
From her earliest years, Amberley, has harbored a love of horses. She started riding at the age of 3, and when she was 6, began to practice the cloverleaf pattern around three cones on a leased pony named Gabby. Years later, she would share her passion with her sister, Autumn.
While in the hospital, Amberley learned another quote that has since guided her life.
“‘Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it,’” she recites. “My ability is definitely different than what it was, but with my motivation and attitude, I can still accomplish what I want to do.”
Citing independence as one of her greatest challenges, Snyder began to share the progress she’s made in regaining her self-sufficiency through a series of YouTube videos on social media. They can be found on Facebook and Twitter with the hash-tag, “Wheelchair Wednesdays.”
It’s a work in progress, she says as she talks about saddling her 17-hand horse from her wheelchair.
“It is a little bit heavy,” she says of lifting the saddle straight over her head. “But when that grit kicks in, it makes things lighter. It makes things that would normally not seem possible become possible. Getting on a horse, hooking or unhooking a trailer… I don’t care how hard it is, this is what I want to do. And you figure it out. You figure out how to make it work.”
Through the highs and lows, Snyder credits her faith, family and friends far and wide for their unwavering support.
“On my worst days, it’s the little God moments that gets me through. I’ll be driving and I’ll be discouraged about something, or wondering how I’m going to accomplish a goal, and a song will come on the radio that picks me right back up. Or I’ll get a call from somebody and they will say just what I needed to hear. Or I’ll get a Facebook message. I don’t think people realize that I read every message, and people who write me those messages help me just as much as I hope I help them.”