Climbing back: J.R. Vezain’s road to recovery from broken vertebrae

Posted at 9:10 PM, Apr 29, 2019

BILLINGS — Melstone cowboy J.R. Vezain just passed the seven-month mark of when he broke his spine while riding bareback at a rodeo in Texas.

“They say you’ve got to stand to walk, and I force myself to stand so I can get walking pretty soon. There ain’t no better feeling than standing up,” Vezain said in December, three months after breaking his spine.

Since November, he’s been rehabbing furiously and tirelessly with the drive to walk again. Dealing with mobility issues from the waist down, most would say he’s come a long way.

“Shoot, not as far as I want to, but I’m sure making progress every day, that’s for sure,” Vezain told MTN Sports by phone on Monday from his family ranch in Melstone. “I, right away, set goals to be walking the first 30 days. When that didn’t happen, the second 30 days. When that didn’t happen I wanted to be walking at three months. And here we are at seven months still picking away at it.”

Vezain broke his T10 vertebrae and part of his T9 on Sept. 22. When they released him from the hospital, he and his wife, Shelby, who’s from Melstone, spent a month of physical therapy in Houston, then the next five months at a facility near Salt Lake City.

6-time Wrangler NFR qualifier J.R. Vezain works on leg motion during a physical therapy session. (Photo courtesy Shelby Vezain)

“Started getting trace movements in my quads, glutes and hamstrings while I was there. Was able to start lifting my own steps with body weight suspension systems,” said Vezain.

He’s lived through and learned so much in the past seven months that this cowboy sounds like a doctor, which he and Shelby will likely need in the next three weeks. Their first baby is due in mid-May and the couple wanted to be near home for delivery. They’ve only been back at the Melstone ranch since the first week of April.

“My in-laws, T.J. and Liane and Sage and Nevada (Newman), got the old garage set up into a gym for me,” Vezain said. “Shelby and I ordered a bunch of equipment. We set up a program with my therapist down there in Utah on what to do while we’re at home, so they said I’m getting all the good results from the walking machines, but as soon as they lowered my body weight below 40 percent support, I start to lose my trunk control.”

But they can’t keep him down. His Utah physical therapists initiated an adjusted eight-week program that Vezain is applying at home.

Remember, this is a six-time qualifier at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. The Cowley, Wyo. native worked for every point along the way — every dollar won and every buckle.

The work ethic is still there. The work itself is enough to drive a lot of people into waving the surrender flag. It’s not exactly rehabbing a knee injury.

“To be 100 percent honest, I’m a broken man in a world that’s ran by a big God,” he said. “I ain’t going to lie, some days are harder than others and not very many easy days have happened the last seven months. But I’ve got a goal in mind and that’s to get walking again so that I can play football and teach my kid how to saddle his horse and how to rope and how to open the door for his mom and all sorts of stuff I’ve (got to) teach that little boy and most of it’s from my feet.”

The metaphor: fall off a horse, get back on. The reality: sometimes easier said than done.

But three weeks ago Saturday, Vezain was back on the horse for the first time since his back-breaking fall.

(Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story on the recovery of six-time NFR qualifier J.R. Vezain. Part 2 can be seen here.)