For the second time in his life Nick Smith found himself hanging upside down, unable to move, scared and unsure of what was about to happen.
The first time was several years ago, just two days after turning 21 in 2004. It was a freak farming accident where Smith was twisted up in an auger after his jacket and left arm got caught.
Doctors told him not only would he never walk again, but he’d never ride a horse again either. He couldn’t move his left arm and his legs, and he barely had any grip left in his hands. His balance was off. He was labeled a C-7 quadriplegic. The injury to his spine left his body unable to regulate temperature, meaning he can’t even sweat.
So how would he be able to control a horse? He couldn’t use his legs or feet to help him steady himself in the stirrups, could barely put his hands around the reins to guide the horse. The movement in his left arm returned about two years after the accident, but the grip was still a problem.
It took three years, but Smith found a way to ride a horse again. He designed a saddle that straps him onto the horse and supports his back, and found someone to make it. He relies on other people to hoist him onto the horse, strap him in and stand nearby in case there are any problems, then take him down again when he’s done with his ride.
Smith had already proven doctors wrong, that yes, he would ride again.
Now here he was nine years later, this year, hanging upside down helplessly for the second time — this time from the stomach of a horse.
Smith had insisted on entering competitions again and was at a training for cutting when it happened. In cutting competitions the rider and horse hold their ground to block a cow from rejoining its herd. It takes a lot of quick movements and turns, precision and the ability to maneuver swiftly.
Most of his family members weren’t keen on the idea of seeing him tackle cutting so his 25-year-old brother, Dylan Langford, went with him to the training facility — somewhere in Georgia or Tennessee. Details are hazy.
“It’s nerve-racking,” Langford said. “I never know if I’ve got him fixed in tight enough. When I put him on or Matthew (Smith, 19, also a brother) puts him on, we pray nothing happens.”
Langford said everything went well for most of the training session, but Smith’s saddle rotated about 10 minutes before the session was to end.
Though Smith was scared, which he expressed in colorful terms, it didn’t stop him from climbing on a horse again.
“When I’m on a horse is when I have my confidence,” Smith explained. “It’s the closest thing to feeling like I’m walking again.”
In a wheelchair, Smith is confined by terrain. He struggles on rocks, mud and hills. There is an abundance of those things around the stables where Nick Smith Quarter Horses, his business of the last four years, is located in southern Murray County.
“Riding is freedom,” he said. “In a wheelchair, I’m limited by my terrain ... but on a horse, it’s not a problem. They are my legs.”
Injury to inspiration
As far as Smith and his family can tell, he’s the first quadriplegic to show in horse competitions. And, yes, he participates in cutting competitions. He is also a licensed auctioneer and horse trainer, and he sells horses.
“I have to prove I can still go out there and compete,” he said. “I want to break that barrier. Sometimes if something’s different you treat it differently, but I don’t want to be treated differently.”
Smith struggles financially to accomplish all he wishes to do. He has goals to share his story, to show people not to let anything hold them back. He’s been invited to speak and give demonstration rides, but cannot always afford the travel costs, even when the organization asking him to speak and show pays for part of them.
“If I had been able to even look on the Internet and find someone going through what I was, life wouldn’t have sucked so badly,” Smith said. “Seeing someone or hearing someone would have helped.”
For a long time, Smith struggled to come to terms with who he had become after the accident.
“When I got hurt, was I mad at God? Yeah,” he said. “I used to think why did this not happen to a serial killer or a rapist. A man who had been a paraplegic for 50 years came to me and said, ‘If that happened, what impact would it have?’ God’s not done with me yet. The relationship I have with him now is so much more personal. Without him, there’s no way I would make it.
“I have so many goals,” he said. “What better gift than to travel and see people, and hopefully inspire them, even regular people who are just down on life.”
Smith admits he still has bad days, but he realizes how many people love and support him.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said.
Langford and Matthew Smith, who is quiet and preferred to stay on the fringes of the conversation, help their older brother around the stables. None are biological brothers, but it would be hard to know that witnessing the way they interact in that loving yet aggravating way siblings act toward one another.
Langford and Matthew Smith stay within earshot of Nick Smith, though at times they respond with “I’m not here right now” when he has another request. They make sure the horses are taken care of and make sure he has all he needs. They lift Smith, a 200-pound man, up on his horse, they make sure he’s secure, and then take him back down again when he’s through riding. They bring him his wheelchair, turn on a fan to help his body temperature cool back down after being out in the heat, and toss him a drink — prompting a little bantering about it not being cold.
Someone has to stay near Smith in case he passes out, which is what happens since he cannot regulate his body temperature through sweating. He says there are weeks during the worst heat of the summer when he passes out four or five times a week. His brothers help rouse him again.
Smith and his brothers argue, and he admits he is rather bossy at times.
So why do they do it?
“I love him,” Langford said. “I’ve looked up to him since I was little. Me and Matthew are his legs.”
Smith says he’s tried to get them to go “live their own lives.” He realizes they’re young.
“Dylan had to give up a lot of his life to help me,” he said. “Neither he nor Matthew had much of a teenage life. I told them go ... When you get paralyzed, you can’t say, ‘I don’t need anybody.’ I do need them.”
Before his spinal injury, one of Smith’s favorite activities was breaking a horse, which is a process of teaching it how to be ridden and follow commands. When a horse comes to his stable, many times he needs someone else to begin the process for him.
“It’s aggravating at times,” Smith said. “I can’t break a horse anymore, but under my guidance, someone else does it for me. I’m strapped to a horse so I can’t take a chance on a horse that’s not seasoned.”
Sometimes it takes eight months before Smith feels comfortable enough climbing on a horse. The horse has to be gentle.
“If you’re looking for a horse, aren’t you going to be more comfortable with getting a horse from a guy who’s paralyzed and strapped to it?” Smith asked. “The biggest thing that separates me from other (trainers) is that I have to put my horse through extra steps because I’m paralyzed.”
Returning to riding for Smith meant a lot of “flopping around” as he adjusted to not being able to hold his body up well.
“The more I ride the better my balance gets,” he said. “I take pride in it. This is what I love to do, and the doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to do it. The day you stop striving is the day you start going downhill.”