By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
A tragic Wyoming auto crash nearly stole her life and all her dreams. But Amberley Snyder lives by certain words of power: Never give up. Never give in.
Snyder, the girl whose real-life experiences inspired the Netflix movie “Walk. Ride. Rodeo.” is coming to Wyoming to share her story on Thursday, November 10.
The public can catch her story at 6 p.m. at ANB Bank Leadership Center in the Clay Pathfinder Building at Laramie County Community College. The event is free.
Hers is a story of perseverance, challenge and Western grit that resonates with many in the Cowboy State.
It’s a story she also shared with Cowboy State Daily.
“I just always hope that I can have somebody who hears me speak find the strength to keep moving forward with whatever they’re dealing with,” Snyder said.
Living The Dream
Snyder is coming to Wyoming fresh off the Wilderness Circuit Finals, where she’s been giving her all for the barrel-racing life she loved before a near-fatal, one-vehicle rollover crash on Jan. 10, 2010, changed her world.
As Snyder tells it, the girl she was before the crash was on top of the world.
She was 18 and a straight-A student, state FFA president and was fresh off winning the National Little Britches Rodeo Association’s All-Around Cowgirl championships. She’d brought home two saddles, 11 buckles and the title.
She was living her dream.
The Day Her World Changed
Snyder, who is from Utah, was on her way through Wyoming en route to the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, where she’d been hired to work retail. It was a high-level rodeo scene, one she couldn’t wait to immerse herself in.
At a small gas station, she stopped to fill up. She’d had a stomach-ache since leaving home at 4:30 a.m. that morning. The seat belt, she decided, was only making things worse, so she took it off.
Just for a little while.
As she was passing through Sinclair, Snyder glanced down at her print-out from Mapquest. It was just for a second. In fact, it wasn’t even a second. It was an eye-blink.
But in that tiny stretch of time while traveling at 75 mph, she drifted out of her lane. When Snyder looked up again, she was headed straight for a steel beam.
She corrected – too quickly and too much.
She describes how time seemed suspended while she thought everything would be all right. But then the back right tire caught something, and the truck flipped over, rolling at 75 mph with her in it.
Snyder then was certain she was going to die.
Thrown From The Truck
She’d had everything going for her – the girl on top of the rodeo world – but suddenly was trapped in a moving cage of glass and steel. The truck was going so fast it rolled seven times before finally coming to rest.
Somewhere in all that rolling, Snyder was thrown from the truck despite all her windows being closed. She doesn’t know when, or even exactly how.
She sailed through the air into a fence post.
And, unlike what the Netflix movie of her story shows, her body did not stop moving after it hit that fence post. She was wrapped around it so tightly that her head struck her knees and she went another 20 feet before landing in a snowbank.
A crumpled girl thrown at high velocity, wrapped around a broken post, then so still.
She Was Alive
When she finally became aware again, the first thing she noticed was the ringing in her ears. The next was her flattened truck. It looked as though a giant, angry fist the size of Jupiter had hammered it down for scrap metal.
It was destroyed.
Despite that, Snyder thought she might be OK. She was alive. She could see. She could wriggle her fingers.
But not her toes. They wouldn’t move. In fact, her legs felt as though they were floating in a warm water bath.
Passersby soon came to help her. There was a blanket and a cellphone, which she used to call her dad. There were emergency workers rushing her to Memorial Hospital of Carbon County in Rawlins. Once stabilized, she was life-flighted to Casper for emergency surgery.
Wyoming doctors saved her life.
But nothing could bring life back to her legs, doctors told her.
Her paralysis was permanent and the rodeo champion on the cusp of the rodeo career she dreamed of was told she would not walk again. She would not ride again.
And she certainly wouldn’t be able to rodeo again, Snyder was told.
As much as the crash had inflicted physical pain and trauma, Snyder also was left at the bottom of a deep, dark emotional well. She was so young and there seemed no light at the end of a very long tunnel.
Overcoming that despair was her first, most crucial challenge. It didn’t happen all at once, and it didn’t happen alone.
She leaned on family as she climbed what seemed an endless mountain in darkness, every single day.
Her recovery ultimately unfolded within what seemed like a simple idea: “Wheelchair Wednesdays,” she called it.
Little videos showing her tackling what used to be simple, everyday things that became her personal everyday mountains.
She built on every win each day, one mountain after another.
Back In The Saddle
Eventually, she would video herself atop a horse again for one of her Wheelchair Wednesdays.
But the experience was not amazing at all.
“I realized that everything in my life was different,” Snyder said.
The key, Snyder ultimately decided, wasn’t her circumstances. The real key was her heart.
“Being able to make a shift and recognize that even though it wasn’t the same, my love for (horses) hadn’t changed,” she said. “That was the perspective I needed to really get back on and then start working toward barrel racing again.’
Four months later, Snyder was not only back on her horse, but riding them for Wheelchair Wednesdays, but not without facing yet another mountain to climb.
More Dangerous Than Before
Snyder often jokes that it doesn’t matter if a horse bucks with her on it because she’s strapped in. The horse can’t buck her off.
But the reality is that’s no joking matter. There are, in fact, photos of Snyder that show the battering and bruising that can happen when a rider has been irrevocably strapped to a frightened horse.
The horse wasn’t the only one terrified.
At one time, Snyder told her mother to just sell the horses. She was done.
But her mother knew better. She knew her daughter would try again despite her fear.
That’s just who she is and who she always has been, even before the crash that made her dreams so unbelievably challenging.
Back In The Arena
Snyder did take a break and wrestled with her fears for weeks. Then nine months later she was back, teaching her horses new hand and voice commands, and ultimately racing those horses again.
“It took me 18 months before I competed again,” she said. “There were definitely some ups and downs and figuring that out. There was nobody else who was doing what I wanted to do, so there wasn’t a how-to manual or somebody you could ask about it.”
In the midst of all that figuring, Snyder got a pressure sore that nixed riding for almost a year. But finally, she had worked through that, had trained her horses to work with her and was ready to race again.
Then again, and again.
Snyder is now the only paralyzed barrel racer in the United States. She has raced in Cheyenne Frontier Days a few times, as well as other Wyoming rodeos. And she’s in the Wilderness Circuit finals this year.
Along the way, she has attracted a following of young girls who want to ride and race barrel horses just like her. More importantly, these are girls who aspire to live by Snyder’s example.
Never give up. Never give in.