Adrenaline pumped through my veins as I sat firmly on top of the bucking horse.
I was competing in the local rodeo and had just eight seconds to prove myself as the best.
In my time I’d seen wild bulls and broncos toss men to the ground in one or two seconds flat.
Making it to the required eight seconds took skill and practise, but there was no better feeling than when you did.
Riding wild bulls and horses had started off as a bit of fun when I was 16 and working on a cattle station.
But the exhilaration kept me going.
Soon, I was winning championships and making a name for myself as a cowboy.
Later I travelled the world, competing professionally in bull and bronco riding contests across Canada and the US.
I had a couple of close encounters along the way.
Once, a bull jumped on me and broke my shoulder.
Another time, my knee was crushed and I needed surgery.
But these injuries seemed only minor in comparison to the collection of shiny buckles and prize money I’d collected.
At one local rodeo I met Sally.
She wasn’t a cowgirl, just someone who’d come to watch.
“You rode great,” she said.
Sally was a patient, gentle woman whose main passion was her work as a nurse.
For a man whose life had been all about horses, I found it refreshing talking to someone so different to me.
We started dating and she continued to watch me compete.
But when I got to my late 30s, I started to feel my age.
“I think it’s time to call it a day,” I told Sally. “I’m getting too old for rodeos.”
“You’ve still got your horses,” she reassured me. “You’ll never be too old for them.”
She was right.
Later, we married and settled down on a property where I bred and sold horses.
I even managed to convince Sally to go for a ride with me some days.
One afternoon I stepped outside for some fresh air.
It had been raining for three days straight and I was going stir-crazy being stuck inside.
I wanted to be back outdoors, working with my horses.
By now the weather had cleared and I spotted Reyboy, a wild quarter horse I was in the process of breaking in.
“How about a ride?” I said, walking towards him with a handful of sweet potato that I used to catch him.
He’d never bucked me off and had a good nature.
As he gently nuzzled my hand, I ran my fingers through his mane.
Then I saddled him and climbed on.
As we made our way down the road, Reyboy picked up the pace, moving from a slow walk to a trot, then he started to buck.
I pulled on the reins, trying to calm him down.
It was too late.
Reyboy fell backwards, landing on me.
Then he got back up, bucked on top of me and clambered away.
I was stuck on the ground, unable to move my legs.
Luckily, I still had movement in my arms so I reached into my back pocket and used my mobile to call an ambulance.
Then I phoned Sally at work.
“I’m on my way,” she said.
As soon as the paramedics arrived they wheeled me into a helicopter and I was flown to Brisbane Hospital – by car a four-hour drive away.
It was the longest trip of my life.
In my heart, I knew I’d never walk again; Reyboy had crushed me too badly.
Rushing me into a theatre, doctors put rods in my back and fused the bones together, but it was no use.
“Rick, I’m sorry, you’re paralysed from the waist down,” the doctor said.
Sally held my hand as the words echoed through my ears.
I wanted to cry out in anger.
I was mad at myself more than anything.
Why hadn’t I done any groundwork with Reyboy and warmed him up first instead of just jumping straight on?
I’d been a fool and it had cost me badly.
For days I was too furious to think straight.
Each morning I’d wake up wondering if it had all been a bad dream.
I’d try my best to wriggle my toes but it was hopeless.
No matter how hard I set my mind to it, nothing worked.
Sally listened to me vent, staying calm whenever I got mad.
“This doesn’t mean you can’t ride again, Rick,” Sally told me.
“What do you mean? Of course it does,” I said, frowning.
I couldn’t even take myself to the toilet, let alone sit on a horse.
Sally took out her phone.
“I’ve been researching,” she began, showing me a story about a young woman who’d got back into riding after becoming paraplegic.
Reading her story filled me with awe and admiration.
I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and get out of the hospital.
After months of gruelling rehab, I was allowed home with a motorised scooter.
When Sally went to work, I was by myself and loneliness quickly set in.
Animals had always been my company, but now I could only look at them from a distance.
Eventually, Back to Work, a government employment program, organised for me to get a track stander, a special type of [wheelchair] (“You’ve got no excuse now,” Sally said, grinning.
Standing up again was better than riding any bronco or bull.
It was the best feeling in the world.
Buzzing with excitement, I headed to the arena and began working with the horses, leading them around in circles.
But it wasn’t close enough. I was itching to get back in the saddle.
The rodeo community got behind me and chipped in for a wider, custom-made saddle with a seatbelt.
“I’m ready,” I told Sally.
Wheeling the track stander into the back of the ute, Sally drove me down to the paddock where my oldest horse, Bobby, was waiting.
Lifting my legs over the saddle, I sat on Bobby feeling like the king of the world.
Just walking around slowly with him was exhilarating.
I never thought I’d be able to make it this far.
These days, I’m out working with the horses at every opportunity.
I even hope to finish breaking in Reyboy so he can be ridden properly.
My life’s changed a lot since the days of spending eight seconds on a bucking bull, but I’m thrilled to still be doing what I love.
I’ll always be grateful to Sally for helping me find a way out of the darkness.
Even when things got tough, she helped me dust myself off and get back in the saddle.