"Horses have always been that peaceful place — that place that feels like home," Amberley Snyder tells PEOPLE
It only took a few seconds for Amberley Snyder to look down at her map while driving on the highway outside Sinclair, Wyoming, on a clear winter morning. But in those two or three seconds on January 10, 2010, what she loved most about her life as a rodeo barrel racer suddenly vanished.
After drifting over the road marker in her pickup truck, Snyder, then 18, cranked the steering wheel too far and overcorrected, rolling her vehicle off the road. Not wearing a seat belt for the first time in years due to a stomachache, the Mount Pleasant, Utah, teen was ejected from the truck and thrown into a metal pole.
When she landed on the ground, “everything slowed down and I couldn’t feel my legs or my toes move,” she tells PEOPLE. “I felt like I was sitting in warm water from the waist down. I knew right then that was something was definitely wrong.”
Snyder would soon learn at the hospital that she had broken her back, leaving her legs paralyzed.
“When it sunk in, my first thought was, ‘Whoa — this can’t be,’ ” she says. “How was I going to get back on my horse and compete?”
Seven years later, that question has been answered again and again as Snyder, now 26, has worked her way back to the top of the barrel racing circuit, recently winning $10,000 in Las Vegas’ All In Barrel Race.
While doctors told her she’d never walk again, nobody said anything about riding.
“It took a lot of work, but I’ve earned my professional card and now I can compete with the best girls out there,” Snyder tells PEOPLE. “Getting back on a horse again has taught me that anything is possible and not to give up. Now I’m determined to walk again. To me, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ “
A former winner of the National Little Britches Rodeo Association‘s All-Around Cowgirl World Championship, Snyder, the second oldest of five children, has ridden horses since age 3.
When her parents, Cory Snyder, a former Major League Baseball pitcher (he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox, among others) and Tina Snyder, a homemaker, announced that they were moving the family from California to Utah, “I told my dad that I’d only move if he bought me a palomino barrel horse when we got there,” she says. “He did, and I’ve been riding ever since.”
After her accident, Snyder was angry with herself for taking her seatbelt off, knowing that things most certainly would have turned out differently 10 minutes later, when she rolled her truck.
“I’d still have the use of my legs,” she says, “and it was tough to accept that fact. But I came to realize that I needed to do what I could to live a full life. And that involved getting on a horse again.”
So four months after the accident, with help from family and friends, she outfitted her saddle with a junk yard seat belt, put Velcro strips on her pants to secure her legs and added a nylon strap across her left side to keep her centered atop her horse, Power.
Although she smiled as her relatives applauded, Snyder felt lost and heartbroken.
“I was devastated — I couldn’t feel the horse’s heartbeat through my legs and my balance was off,” she tells PEOPLE. “I realized that every single part of my life was different on that day. Horses have always been that peaceful place — that place that feels like home. And suddenly, I felt nothing. I was a stranger on that horse’s back.”
But Snyder kept climbing back on, and in time, she found her way.
“I kept telling her to dig deeper, that she was a warrior and that she would prevail,” recalls her mother, Tina. “She had to change her mindset and focus not so much on herself, but what she could do for others. I knew the day it really clicked for her when she looked at me and said, ‘This is bigger than me.’ ‘Yes, I told her, ‘you are given the opportunity to be a light to those who need you.’ I’m in awe of how she has chosen to ride this one out.”
“She has a ‘never give up’ attitude,” adds Snyder’s friend, Jolene Farnsworth, 28. “Amberley is uplifting, with a heart of gold. Her strength has come from the things she thought she couldn’t do, and the fire inside of her now is brighter now than the fire around her.”
“Watching her progress from when she had everything taken away from her to now has been a ride that I’m honored to have witnessed — she’s my hero,” says another friend, Emmy Peterson, 25. “I can’t wait to see what she does next.”
For Amberley Snyder, there is no question.
“I’m going to walk again,” she says. “I’m saving money to have stem cell surgery done on my back, so you never know. And until that day comes, you’ll see me every chance I get in the arena, riding on a horse, going as fast as I possibly can.”