Cody Christian has overcome incredible physical disabilities to become a competitive team roper. As a heeler, Christian has won countless prizes and his hopes of a rodeo career are strong. Team roping helped him heal and rodeo gives him hope and horses give him legs.
Like any good cowboy, Cody Christian hates to walk. He would rather fork a horse to get from point A to point B, but it's not because he's lazy. He hates to walk because walking is tough.
At birth, Christian was afflicted with neuroblastoma, a cancer tumor attached to his spine.
"I was nine months old when they found the tumor," the candid Christian said. "But when I was born, I was a deformed-looking little old baby."
And for the next five years, little Cody, who's now 32 years old and lives in Spiro, Okla., spent most of his time in a hospital bed. Doctors cut the tumor out and it came back. For years there were relapses and setbacks. Finally, the cancer was taken care of, but there was still more to overcome. In addition to the tumor, Christian was born without a hip socket. Again, doctors cut him open and used bones from the lower part of his back to build him a new hip socket. Cody's mother, Sue, was as doting a mother as they come. At the children's hospitals where Cody was being treated, there were often apartments adjoining the hospital rooms for parents. Sue, however, would not stay in the apartments. Instead she slept next to Cody's bed in a chair to comfort him when the intense pains jolted him out of his sleep. Cody's father made his own sacrifices as well. A rodeo cowboy and horseman, John Christian quit rodeoing and went to work in the coal mines of northeast Oklahoma to keep a steady paycheck coming in.
By the time Cody was six, the operations were over and he still hadn't taken a step.
Most any other child with Cody's affliction would have been carted around in a wheelchair, carried or simply bedridden. But Cody's family didn't let his handicap keep them from their routine. During those first five years, whenever Cody was able to come home, his family was rodeoing. John found a pony named Captain, and Cody found his legs.
"I'd ride Captain and he was my legs," said Christian. "I depended on the horse. My dad rodeoed on the weekends and I would get horseback and go ride with him and it was a way for him not to have to carry me everywhere, so he'd just throw me up on that horse and away we'd go. I remember him taking Captain to the rodeos and no one had to take care of me or push me around in a wheelchair. So it worked out."
At six, Cody began learning to walk. To say he has a hitch in his getalong is an understatement. His left leg works well, but his right leg is little more than dead weight he can use as a brace as he steps with his left foot. He then swings his right around.
As a six-year-old used to hospital beds and the small family of the rodeo world, taking his first awkward steps in public was embarrassing. "We'd walk into a Wal-Mart and I would realize everyone was looking at me," recalls Cody. "I could tell what they were thinking, Poor fella."
But while the steps were awkward, they opened doors. He began to get stronger and he began to rope. For seven years, Cody roped breakaway and ran poles and barrels at junior rodeos. Horseback, he was one of the guys, able to play, compete and grow.
"When I was up on my horse I felt equal," he said. "So I tried to stay on my horse as long as I could."
Then he turned 13.
He was bumped from the junior division of the local rodeos to the senior. Breakaway roping was no longer an event in which he could compete. He had to tie-down calf rope and he couldn't.
"I was really down about it. I moped around the house for a good couple of weeks. I thought, What am I going to do? I was trying to figure a way that I could get to that calf and flank and tie him."
Instead, his dad had a solution. John asked if Cody had ever considered team roping. Cody wasn't crazy about the idea at first (he thought team roping was a little too boring), but a light was slowly brightening in Cody's mind. The agriculture teachers at the local high school, brothers Johnny and Roy Cox, pitched in and taught Cody to heel. Soon, Cody dove headlong into the new challenge.
"If I've got it in my mind that I want to do it real bad," said Cody. "I'll work night and day at it."
Before long, John wasn't tie-down roping anymore. All through high school, he headed and Cody roped legs. "I really like to rope with him, not just because he's my dad, but he ropes good," he said. "He's real consistent and always rides good horses and he's always kept me in real good horses."
The bond between Cody and his father runs deeper than a team roping partnership. John is Cody's biggest supporter emotionally, the one who first showed Cody he wasn't that different from anyone else and that with a little hard work anything was possible.
"Everybody wants to be part of the crowd or the gang, but we need a push. I thank God I had my dad," said Cody. "My dad is my biggest confidence builder. There've been times when I've been down and he can bring me up quicker than anybody. He's just behind me 100 percent. If it wasn't for my dad, I'd probably be sitting on the couch playing video games right now."
Other than the handicap, Cody was no different from any rodeo-minded teen-aged kid. All he wanted to do was rope.
"I wasn't able to do anything else," Cody remembers. "I couldn't rope calves or play basketball or football so it was going to have to be something where I could forget about my legs. I knew I could use my upper body."
And, like any other teenager, he was becoming his own man, despite the handicap. He was chafing under his parents' control. He was establishing his independence and pulling away.
Then his mother was stricken with a brain tumor and died.
"It's hard to get over because she was there for me," he said. "I would get these pains and I can remember as a kid waking up screaming bloody murder and she would coming running. Just things like that that keep her close to me. It's just one of those deals where I look back on it a lot. She was really strong. My sister had diabetes. So she didn't just have to deal with me, she had to deal with my sister and she was a really strong woman. I didn't really realize it until she was gone. I can remember very clearly her telling me to live my dreams, that the world's mine if I want it. I like to think about her a lot."
"So many people treat physically disabled people as if they're mentally disabled too. I figured that out real young." -Cody Christian
At first, after her death, Cody continued to rope and probably used team roping as a means of dealing with the loss.
"For me, team roping means being a part of the crowd and being equal," he said "Looks are deceiving. One of the things I like about roping is surprising people."
And surprise people he did. At USTRC, Rope America and other amateur associations, Cody has piled up eight trophy saddles, numerous buckles, a truckload of other prizes and even two horse trailers, much of that prize load coming with his partner and best friend Jake Howard.
But his mother's words of encouragement still rang in his head. Team roping is fun, he was successful at it, but wasn't going to be a career. He knew that. He knew he was destined for bigger things, but he didn't know what.
At first, Cody worked in real estate. But it didn't stir his soul. He is a horseman, and that needed to be at the center of what he did.
He had always ridden outside horses, and during the real estate stint it was horses that kept his head up.
"Sometimes I pull back and just go ride," he said. "I treat my horses just like they're my best friend. Physically, they're a means of transportation to me. I have a horse saddled all the time so I can get around our place. Either I drive or I ride. Plus, I love to rope. Now I just kind of slow down and take it easy sometimes. Horses help me physically and mentally if I'm going through a bad time, I like to ride in the pasture just to relax and get my mind off of things."
He's not just a pleasure rider, though. He can get things done a-horseback. He's trained his horse to come to the fence so he can get on, taught them to read his body language and, of course, made some of them into nice heeling horses.
"Horses know that I'm disabled," he explains. "They have a sense that there's something different with me; kind of like horses around little kids, they calm down and mind. They have to be pretty smart, kind of calm. I don't mind if they're a little jumpy. I like one to really be able to respond to my hand because I can't use my feet. My stirrups are tied down to my cinch so they don't flop. I get them to move off my hand and my upper body. I kind of have to ride like a jockey. I lean forward to make them go. My balance has got to be good and my upper body has to be really strong. I think that God just blessed me out of this world with the talent I have."
But where to direct the talent? A question Cody asked himself for much of his early adulthood. He began to be more interested in the therapeutic riding scene, feeling he could really make an impact there. He visited local therapeutic riding centers and began to learn more about the scene.
At a learning conference in Texas, he met Patty Colbert, who works for the AQHA Foundation and was giving a talk on the teaching capabilities of the horse. She and Cody hit it off and she became very interested in his abilities. He put a video together of himself working with his horse and sent it off to her.
"That horse is amazing," she said in response to the video.
"Yeah, he's O.K.," said Cody. "He could be better."
"What do you want to do?" she asked. "Do you want to be a clinician, give speeches, compete or what?"
"I want to do all of it," Cody said.
"Well, what do you want to do first?" she said.
And suddenly the world opened up to Cody. His father had given him legs and built his confidence, but no one until Patty had been able to plant the seeds of something bigger.
He decided that giving speeches had the most initial appeal. Together with Patty, he developed a speech that chronicled his struggles and offered motivation and hope.
Cody began speaking in March of 2004 when the AQHA invited him to their convention in Reno, Nev., where he spoke about how the horse helps him in his daily life. Later, he was asked to take part in a groundbreaking ceremony for the Ride On Center for Kids in Georgetown, Texas, where he spoke about how horses are being used in therapeutic riding. He has also given speeches for the Texas Quarter Horse Youth Association at their Youth World Show in Ft. Worth, as well as numerous other engagements.
"Once most people find their comfort zone, they don't step out of it," Cody said. "I want to help them learn to cross that bridge and get on with their life. I also want to bring a message of disability awareness and self-esteem to the groups I talk to."
But even though he's found something he's passionate about, merely giving speeches to local 4-H groups does not satisfy him. He wants to pack 'em in and be a nationally sought-after speaker in big arenas. In short, he wants to reach the pinnacle of every endeavor he undertakes. He also wants to join the PRCA and rope at rodeos as well as compete in working cow-horse competitions.
"I want to take my horse work to a new level," he said.
Like learning to team rope, once Cody found something that stirred his soul, he hasn't waned in his commitment. He has procured sponsors to help him pay his way to speaking engagements and ropings: Wrangler, Professional's Choice, TAW Construction and Thumbs Up Ranch all help him get down the road. For his working cow-horse ambitions, he found a horse that could take him closer to that goal. Paris Wixon, an influential participant in the AQHA Foundation, gave Cody a horse she had in training with Bobby Lewis called Xanax.
"He's a fancy, high-dollar horse," Cody said. "I roped on him and knew right away I could get a lot done with this horse."
But establishing a speaking career, roping in the PRCA and joining the working cow-horse scene are only short-term goals. In the long-term, Cody wants to do more to help handicapped people using the horse. The central concept is to take the therapeutic riding a step further and get handicapped people in competitions. He wants to teach people like himself to teach the horse. It's a project he sees his father heading up. Cody feels John, who in addition to a trucking service also produces ropings under the banner, Five State Team Roping, deserves to slow down and be home more.
"The goal is to have a therapeutic riding academy where I bring in handicapped folks and teach them how to operate a horse and then help them decide what they want to do and where they want to compete," Cody said. "Just help them and be there for them. That would be a good project for my dad because if he can teach me he can teach anybody."
Sounds like a lot of work. Perhaps even a life's work. It's easy to think he's fooling himself. But then again, he wasn't even supposed to walk. Or ride a horse. Or team rope. Or win team ropings, no less. Considering all he's overcome, anyone who'd count Cody Christian out is the one fooling himself.
"I've got a lot that I want to do," he says. "But it's just all in a day's work for me. I guess it's just because I want it so bad."