Chances are, you might have already heard of Amberley Snyder. She’s a remarkable young woman living with a T11-T12 spinal cord injury (SCI) who is a source of inspiration for thousands of people from all journeys of life. Not only has she been featured in top media sources including People magazine and the Today Show, but her story has also been made into a Netflix original movie called “Walk. Ride. Run.”
We’d love for you to get to know more about her challenges and triumphs since her SCI as well as a bit about her story and her life since her injury.
A Life of Riding Horses and Rodeos
First, let’s go back to where Amberley’s unique and inspiring story began. Amberley has been riding horses since she was just 3 years old. From the start, her family has been supportive and encouraging of her dreams.
“I am extremely blessed with the family I have,” Amberley told us. “I like to tell people I really had the perfect mixture of parental guidance. My dad was a major league baseball player so he knew what it took to be the best. He taught all of us kids the value of hard work and dedication, while my mom taught us to always believe in ourselves and to be compassionate. Between them both, they have created 6 extremely talented, determined, hardworking kids – with great hair, I might add!”
She’s absolutely right about that. From an early age of 7, she began competing as a barrel racer in rodeo. She has always been easy to spot in the arena, not only for her showmanship and skills but also for her long flowing blonde hair beneath her cowboy hat.
Most of her weekends in her youth were spent riding her horse and practicing barrel racing, pole bending, and breakaway roping. These activities are competitive events in rodeos across the world and require a high level of skill from truly dedicated riders.
By 18 years of age, she was competing in rodeos regularly. She won the 2009 All-Around Cowgirl World Championship. Additionally, she served as State President of the Utah FFA (Future Farmers of America). Her future looked bright with big dreams of professionally competing.
A Spinal Cord Injury Nearly Derails Amberley’s Dreams
Then, nearly a decade ago on January 10, 2010, Amberley’s entire world changed.
While driving to Denver for a stock show, she looked away only for a moment to check her map, leading her truck to drift into the other lane. Immediately, she took the wheel back to the right and overcorrected. Her pickup rolled 7 times with Amberley conscious the entire time. Then she was thrown from the vehicle against a steel post.
In another interview with People magazine, she says, “I felt like I was sitting in warm water from the waist down.” She couldn’t fully feel her legs or toes.
When doctors told her she’d never walk again due to a T11/T12 spinal cord injury, she felt crushed. Choosing not to wear her seatbelt just once felt to Amberley like a mistake that cost her entire life.
Still, Amberley decided she wasn’t ready to give up on her life or her dreams either.
Challenges During Rehabilitation Therapy
Even with her lower body paralyzed below the waist due to her spinal cord injury, Amberley Snyder decided her future goals were to “walk, ride, rodeo.”
However, Amberley doesn’t shy away from straight talk about the time after her spinal cord injury and her following time in rehabilitation therapy. “It was too hard to take on big goals to start so I focused on small goals at first.”
With therapy came learning how to do things from the perspective of a wheelchair. In addition, she had to adjust to using medical supplies as well. Amberley said she learned that “consistency and dependability [of a supplier] is essential. 180 Medical has been those 2 things for me from the start. I have never once had to panic about my supplies or running out. I am truly thankful to not worry about that.”
The journey toward rebuilding her sense of balance and range of motion in therapy was rigorous at times. She told her doctors that her balance was always better on a saddle than anywhere else. Once her dad brought in a saddle for her, her therapists had to agree.
Still, she kept encountering a lot of challenges. She said, “I had lots of down days and frustration with the wheelchair. But sometimes I just let myself get upset or mad. Honestly, I think that’s part of the process. You need to feel the bad parts to really enjoy the good.”
However, her parents barely left her side for weeks as she went through surgery and therapy. That support and encouragement would prove invaluable for Amberley, especially during the most challenging moments of recovery.
Finding Support After Her Spinal Cord Injury
For a while, she went through a dark time, feeling uncertainty about her future, regret about her accident, and even some depression. “My family, my faith, and my horses are who I credit for me still being here,” Amberley said candidly. Her dog, Ellie Mae, who is featured in some of her social media posts, also played a role in supporting her.
“That dog helped me survive the first summer after my accident. She knew I was sad, and she made sure I had a reason to get out of bed every day. She is still the only creature who is happy to see me 100% of the time! My horses are also such a huge part of who I am. They provide a kind of freedom that I cannot find anywhere else. They realize something is different about me [compared to able-bodied riders], and they take care of me.”
The love and care of a pet can be a great support system and a reason to keep looking forward to every new day. When it comes to moving forward after an SCI, Amberley says, “I’d recommend to anyone to have a friend like a dog or another animal. They just know how to be there and help us feel better.”
Looking back at that dark time after her injury, Amberley also said she’d tell her younger self: “Just hang in there. Don’t be afraid to get help because the help allows you to do more! Take moments along the way to see how far you have come. And don’t worry. You will win again.”
Winning and Riding Again
After recovery and rehabilitation, doctors finally approved Amberley to get back on a real horse. Again, she encountered some challenges and difficulties. Her balance just wasn’t the same, and she worried she would never be able to ride as well as she once did.
After taking some time away from her horses, Amberley’s determined spirit couldn’t stay down for too long. With the help of her parents, she figured out a way to rig an adaptive saddle with a nylon strap to stay balanced on her horse. Plus, she added some Velcro strips over her legs to stay secure.
Soon enough, she was riding on her own again. In fact, just a little over a year later, she began competing again with some hard work and determination.
Amberley Snyder has won multiple awards and made top placements in rodeo circuits. For instance, she was the captain of Utah State University’s National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association team. Even with a spinal cord injury, she competed in The American Rodeo in Arlington, Texas, where she placed with a time of 15.3 seconds. That’s only 0.6 seconds slower than the top winning time so far.
Walk. Ride. Rodeo.
Since that time, Amberley has been featured on programs including the Today Show and NBC Nightly News. Excitingly, she was also approached about having a movie made about her story recently. While she wasn’t sure about the idea at first, she eventually agreed, and in 2019, an original Netflix movie “Walk. Ride. Rodeo.” about her life was released to stream.
“It has been incredible since it came out,” Amberley said, “and they did a really good job with the message, no doubt! I never thought people in other countries or even outside the horse world would know me, but they do! I am so thankful my story can be a beacon of light for so many now!”
Using Her Experience to Help Others
Today, Amberley is a motivational speaker who gets to touch lives and inspire them with her story.
“I have so many new amazing experiences,” she said. “From visiting Costa Rica with my siblings for a speech to a National FFA Convention with 13 thousand kids…the people I have met and the places I have been so far are certainly memorable.”
Plus, she also likes to regularly post inspiring quotes and a weekly feature she calls “Wheelchair Wednesday” to her Facebook.
As for advice for people living in a wheelchair or new to their spinal cord injury, Amberley said, “I don’t ever wake up and say I am thankful for my chair or that it’s better than walking. If I could walk today, I would. However, it is possible to find happiness. And I truly believe with hard work, you have the ability to do so much! Life in a chair isn’t always easy but I promise that you can get stronger to handle so much of what you’re facing. Keep up the fight!”
So what’s next for Amberley? Right now, she is working on establishing a charity, which she plans to call The Amberley Snyder Freedom Foundation. We’re excited to get the details about her foundation in the coming year, and we’re honored to have had the time to speak with this inspiring, dedicated person and share her story with you.