“A fresh set of legs:” Riding horseback reveals progress of J.R. Vezain’s spinal injury

Posted at 6:13 PM, Apr 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-01 11:42:40-04

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story on the recovery of six-time NFR qualifier J.R. Vezain. Part 1 can be seen here.)

BILLINGS — Cash in a promise to himself. J.R. Vezain did it as fast as he could in early April when doctors cleared a return to the ranch he and wife Shelby call home in Melstone.

“I’ll bet, since I was born, it’s the longest I’ve ever been my entire life without riding horseback,” Vezain told MTN Sports by phone from his shop on the ranch. “Six months. We tried a few times down in Utah to get set up with some equine-therapy places and it just never worked out. Doctor’s notes and this, that and the other thing. So, I said, as soon as I get home, one of the first things I’m going to do is get horseback again.”

WNFR cowboy J.R. Vezain rides horseback again while recovering from a spine injury suffered during a rodeo in Texas. (Photo courtesy Shelby Vezain)

And in the big scope it took him nearly no time after spending six months in physical therapy after breaking his T10 vertebrae and part of his T9 riding bareback at a rodeo in Texas last September. The accident left Vezain without use of his legs.

“We got home on Friday (April 5). Saturday was Shelby’s baby shower and I was horseback Saturday afternoon and it felt amazing,” Vezain said. “It was a fresh set of legs, man. We got slid over onto the flat bed of a pickup and one guy lifted me up over. I put one leg up and then I swung up. I didn’t have to buckle up or nothing, so I was pretty awesome.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Once a ranch hand, always a ranch hand.

“Shelby and I are starting to put together our own cows and sheep and stuff. And you wonder if you’re going to be able to do the same stuff that you did before the accident or before the wreck,” he said. “It’s always in the back of your mind if you’re going to be able to work a ranch again or do any of that stuff.”

Despite fighting through lower-body mobility during recovery, where there’s a will there’s a way.

“So, I got a four-wheeler rigged up and cut a hole in a piece of flat metal and made a hand shifter out of it so I can shift the four-wheeler, and got me a cane so I can hook calves and get calves tagged and just help out again around the place,” Vezain said.

It also didn’t take the six-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (PRCA) qualifier long to land a job offer after his accident, unexpectedly arriving from the Professional Bull Riders Tour (PBR).

Vezain knew who bull riding legend Cody Lambert was but says they had only met a couple times.

“He (Lambert) reached out and said, ‘I’ve been wondering how I could help out. I could give you all the money in the world you need, but I think the best way to help out is to get you a job,'” Vezain recalled.

And that’s exactly what Lambert offered.

“And he said, ‘What do you think about judging?’ And I kind of giggled and laughed and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do that, Lambert,’ and he said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Well, just from being a rodeo cowboy the last thing you ever want to be is a rodeo judge,’ and he laughed,” Vezain said.

And right then and there, the deal was made.

Vezain trained for about a month, judged his first PBR Velocity event in January in Reno and, shortly after, his first Unleash the Beast event in Tacoma. Naturally, the PBR also worked him in Billings.

“It’s been really good,” he said. “It’s a huge blessing for Shelby and I to have a little source of income to help us cover some bills while I continue to rehab.”

They’ll also need a little diaper money for their baby boy due in a couple weeks. It’ll be their first child. Vezain said he wants to teach him to hold the door open for his mom, play football and saddle his own horse.

“All sorts of stuff I’ve got to teach that little boy, and most of it’s from my feet,” he said.