Barrel racer overcomes paralysis to earn pro card

PROVO, Utah (AP) — Since she began riding horses and taking lessons at the age of 3, Amberley Snyder has wanted to become a professional barrel racer. Today, she’s completed that goal by recently earning her Women’s Professional Rodeo Association card. While she was considered a pro last year when she bought her WPRA permit, she recently accumulated enough prize money to earn her WPRA card — the association’s highest designation. The card allows her to compete at any standard professional rodeo event in the country.

Though, the Elk Ridge resident’s path to professional riding was far from anything anyone could have expected, reported The Daily Herald (

Her family moved to Utah from California after Amberley’s father, Corey Snyder, who played for five professional baseball teams such as the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers, retired from the MLB. However, the then 7-year-old Amberley told her family she would only make the move under one condition. “I told my dad I’d only move if he got me a Palomino barrel horse when we got here,” said Snyder. “He followed through with that, and that’s when I started competing in rodeo.”

From that point on, she competed her way through each age group into her high school years. She spent every summer weekend at rodeos, earning numerous awards including the National Little Britches Rodeo Association All-Around Cowgirl World Championship in 2009. However, perhaps the most miraculous feat in Snyder’s path to professional riding wasn’t her ability to climb onto a horse and to compete so early in life, but rather her transition from a wheelchair back into the saddle.

In 2010 when she was 18, Snyder became eligible to apply for her professional rodeo permit and seemed to be well on her way to her goal of becoming a professional rider. However, on Jan. 10, 2010, Snyder was driving on her way to the Denver Stock and Rodeo show when she looked down to check her map and drifted out of her lane. She then looked up, overcorrected and slid off the road: ejecting her from the vehicle and into a metal pole. The crash fractured her spine and left her without feeling in her legs. Now instead of competing in her first professional rodeos, she was learning to adapt to her resultant disabilities.

The accident confined Snyder’s body to a wheelchair, but not her professional barrel-riding aspirations.

“After my accident, those goals didn’t change. It just took me a little longer to get to it,” said Snyder.

Once in the hospital, her doctors said she’d never ride again. Her spinal injury was complete and allowed no movement or sensation to the lower half of her body.

Undeterred, Snyder began physical therapy and working once again toward her lifelong goal.

Four months later, she got back into the saddle for the first time.

“That was just on my little rope horse with my saddle. No hookups, no nothin’ on it,” said Snyder. “I realized my balance is going to be off, so we started to figure out how I was going to be able to ride.”

So Snyder and her family started creating her own set of gear to allow her to ride normally without the use of her legs.

They started with a seatbelt from an old car in a junkyard. With her secured onto the saddle, they added Velcro straps to secure her legs, a nylon strap across her left hip to keep her centered on top of the horse and a saddle seat created from air cells like her wheelchair seat, custom-made for her by Roho.

She continued to refine and develop her new way of riding until August 2010, when it came time to head off to college and away from her horses.

“I got pretty frustrated and actually told my mom to sell my horses,” said Snyder. “I said I wasn’t going to be able to train on them, so I wasn’t going to have them. I went nine months without riding them, really without even going out to them.”

Though frustrated by not being able to work with her horses daily, Snyder didn’t want her education to suffer. She knew finding the right college would be difficult with her physical limitations.

“Even for a normal student, it’s hard to go to school and work,” she said. So, she sought out some guidance, and found support from Maria Petersen, a counseling supervisor with the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation.

Petersen’s role was to help Snyder navigate the education system and achieve her goals in the classroom, which was earning a master’s degree.

“She was self-motivated,” said Petersen. “I’d tell her the resource and she’d go get it.”

Snyder attended Snow College in Ephraim to work toward her associate degree.

Upon arriving home from school in the spring, Snyder was approached by a reporter who wanted to do a story on her and her horses. Snyder figured riding her horses would make for a good photo opportunity, so she saddled up for the first time since leaving for school.

“She showed up, I got on, and didn’t look back from there,” said Snyder.

And then, 18 months after her car accident, Amberley Snyder competed in her first barrel race since her spinal injury.

After that, Amberley began the cycle of competing in rodeos where she could, going to school and enduring intermittent bed rest setbacks. She earned her associate degree from Snow College, and then moved on to Utah State University where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education in 2015.

“Nothing stopped her from succeeding,” said Petersen. “She said she was going to do something, she’d go and do it.”

Upon graduating from Utah State University, she closed her case with the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation. Though no longer meeting with Maria regularly for guidance, Snyder keeps in touch with the organization and serves on the State Rehabilitation Council advisory board.

“Having a client that is so self-motivated, motivates a counselor. It’s contagious,” said Petersen. She explained that Snyder is the sort of client that reinvigorates all counselors. “She reminds us why we got into this field of business.”

A college graduate, successful horseback rider regardless of disability, and now a professional rider, Snyder shares her story as a motivational speaker as she pursues her master’s degree in school counseling at Utah State University. Though her speaking engagements grew periodically from 2013 by word-of-mouth recommendations, it’s become more of a full-time opportunity in the last two years.

“One of my goals is to speak in all 50 states, and I’m a little over halfway on that,” said Snyder.

Keeping everything going takes a lot of management. “She really does more than 10 people,” said her mother, Tina Snyder.

With so many irons in the fire, Amberely finds the most balance in her life in the place where she can move freely with the aid of four hooves: in the saddle.

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