Braxten Nielsen turns to community, mental toughness and team roping to overcome paralysis.

There are moments in life we remember with an acute clarity.

Science backs this: Traumatic or highly emotional events will be recorded in the brain in such a way that those events will be remembered with an exactness
that eludes our other memories.

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For professional bareback rider Braxten Nielsen, the moment materialized on Aug. 31, 2017, when he was mounted in the chute at the Magic Valley Stampede in Filer, Idaho, aboard Sozo, a NFR-proven bucking horse, with his riggin’ set. He nodded, the gate opened, and the horse reared back to the point of nearly sitting down like a dog, pinning Nielsen between its tremendous kinetic weight and the chutes.

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“I heard a shotgun,” Nielsen recalled of the instant. “It was like a shotgun or a pop went off in my ears. I actually kind of knew I broke my back and my legs went numb in just like a zing. A tingle went down my legs and I knew right then, oh,
I’ve got to get my hand out of my riggin’. I reached up and double-grabbed and pulled my thumb out because I knew.”

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HARD WORK WILL NEVER CHEAT YOU

In a video of the event, Sozo, after that treacherous slice of time, recovers his forward motion and pitches out of the gate with Nielsen still aboard. The roughie’s instinct to ride keeps him holding on for two or three jumps before he ragdolls to the ground, the horse jumping wildly toward him. Nielsen, trained to get up and out of the way, sits up on his hands, but his legs lay lifeless in front of him. He reaches out a hand to Sozo’s muzzle to keep the bronc from stomping him. Sozo changes course.

“The thought that was going through my mind,” Nielsen said, “was that all this hard work I’ve been doing—I’ve been chasing a dream—and it was just going to be taken from me.”

On the day of the accident, Nielsen was 24 years old and, as a card-carrying PRCA cowboy for just over a year, was sitting sixth in the PRCA Wilderness Circuit standings.

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He’d been a late comer. His high school athletic career was centered around football, basketball and baseball, all of which he’d excelled in and claimed all-state accolades. He rode horses on his family’s Roosevelt, Utah, ranch and would go over to the neighboring Richard barn, where he would rope with future NFR-qualifier and childhood friend, Rhen.

“Braxten started roping with us when he was in high school,” Richard recalled. “He was kind of just game for whatever and was always a hustler and had a good attitude. He was never super serious about becoming a team roper then, but he was athletic enough that he kind of figured it out.”

Then, Nielsen made an acquaintance who would change his life and his pursuits in rodeo.

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“I honestly didn’t know who Kaycee Feild was at the time,” Nielsen said of the four-time World Champion bareback rider. “I started looking him up and I was like, ‘Well heck, yeah, I’ll try if I’ve got someone like him to help me.’”

Feild’s younger brother, Shad, pegged Nielsen’s bareback potential on the athlete’s short and stocky build and natural proclivity for sports. As a guy who craves adrenaline, that—and the promise of a champion in his corner—was enough to convince Nielsen to hit the rodeo trail.

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Nielsen detached himself from any plans he’d made to continue playing traditional team sports and began rodeoing for the College of Southern Idaho and even moved in with Feild to glean as much coaching as the school and the pro could offer. And when it came to nodding his first-ever bronc out the gate at an amateur rodeo, Nielsen just missed his markout, but managed to make his eight-second ride.

“Hard work will never cheat you,” Nielsen deemed.

It’s a statement he says often and believes to his core. He is literal walking, talking proof of it.

“The surgeon gave me less than a 5-percent chance of ever walking again,” Nielsen said.

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During the longest few seconds of Nielsen’s young life, muscles and tendons were torn and his back was fractured at L1 (the first vertebra moving down the spine that doesn’t have ribs attached to it), causing the vertebra that sits just above it—the T12—to dislocate and allowing the spinal cord to twist and get pinched.

“I went under a five-and-a-half-hour surgery” said the now 26-year-old. “I have two rods running down my vertebrae, eight screws and five fused vertebrae.”

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POWER OF A POSITIVE ATTITUDE

Of course,” Nielsen admitted of grappling with the surgeon’s news, “there was the thought of, ‘Why me?’ I wanted to be on the rodeo trail doing what I loved. But my dad said to me in the hospital, ‘Braxten, you’ve been a great basketball player and a great football player. You’ve been a great rodeo athlete. You can still be the very best you you can be.”

Not unlike Shad Feild’s ideation of Nielsen as a bareback rider, the then wheelchair-bound dreamer grabbed a full-fisted hold of his remaining 5 percent and his father Rick’s words and nodded.

“I’ve got a chance,” he reasoned. “That first day at the hospital, I truly … I just thought, ‘One percent. I’ve just got to be one percent better tomorrow than I was today. Just one percent.’”

Sort of like how Sozo found the strength to pick himself up off his haunches instead of toppling over backward, Nielsen launched into his therapies, applying his belief about hard work to his desire to walk and, really, to ride again.

“I went to six hours of therapy every day,” he said of the first three weeks following the accident.

Then, he saw the first sign of recovery.

“Actually, my brother saw it,” Nielsen recalled. “I would go through a mental preparation deal every morning and every night, where I would really try to flex my muscles, and I would try to picture my legs moving. Lying in bed, I would picture in my mind trying to ride a bucking horse, and I would try to move my muscles to make a spurring motion. My brother was there, and he goes, ‘Hey, do that again!’”

Nielsen’s younger brother, Gavin, had seen a flicker of movement in Nielsen’s right thigh—a glimmer of hope. Nielsen imagined spurring in rhythm with a horse, and his brother saw the movement again.

Despite not yet regaining any feeling in his legs, the occasion marked a shift to eight hours of daily therapy and a focus on more mental prep.

“Actually, Kaycee helped me with that a lot before my accident—visualization and how strong our minds are.” Nielsen said. “If you can see it in your mind, you can hold it in your hand. The mind’s a powerful tool. I truly believe that our mental capacity is 90 percent of it. You’ve got to be able to see how it’s done in your mind before you can do it physically.”

Shortly after, Nielsen began to recover a sense of sensation in his legs and, by the start of November, just eight weeks after his paralysis, he took his first independent step, free of leg supports or walkers or hands holding him up by his belt. And, despite having pursued a career with the non-negotiable promise of getting mercilessly thrown in the dirt from time-to-time, Nielsen, poised to move one foot ahead of the other, was forced to confront a fear of falling.

“If I fell down, my back was still out and I could have been hurt,” Nielsen said in a tone that pointed to the seriousness of the moment. “But I think fear is the one thing that holds us back. It’s scary, but you have to be able to stand up and take that first step of facing your fear. Once you do that, there are a lot of opportunities that will come.”

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH GREATNESS

Fast forward about a year, and the clock was running out on 2018. Nielsen was looking a hard truth in the face. In what was maybe one of the first interviews he gave following his accident, he told the journalist to put it in writing: “2019. Denver, Colorado: Braxten Nielsen will be riding … bound and determined.”

Getting bareback for January’s National Western Stock Show and Rodeo was looming large over Nielsen—a goal he’d held dear for the past year-and-a-half—but it wouldn’t be a reality. The disappointment was palpable, catching in his throat and welling up in his eyes.

“I’m not going to be able to reach that goal,” he conceded. “Not close. It’s crazy.”

For as many successes—both grand and small—as Nielsen has earned since Aug. 31, 2017, there are still plenty of tough days and missed marks to contend with.

“I’m very grateful for the people I surround myself with,” Nielsen offered. “When you’re down, they’re the ones that pick you up, and it’s hard to stay up all the time.”

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The community rallied around his recovery, his old football coach leading the charge on a #BraxtenTough campaign that would help cover some of Nielsen’s medical expenses.

“Knowing that people were cheering me on and, you know, wearing my name on their shirt, I guess it made it bigger than myself is what it did,” Nielsen said, as if he’s still processing the immense support he received. “They call you and they say, ‘If anybody can do this, you can.’ And so you go [to your therapy session] thinking, ‘I can’t quit. I’ve got to work hard because people believe in me.’”

And while Nielsen imagined Denver 2019 as the pinnacle of his recovery, he knew there were lots of steps in between, and lots of hard work ahead. He needed to get in the saddle. He needed to get roping.

“I’ve always really enjoyed team roping,” Nielsen said. “Even when I was bareback riding, I’d go to the Richard’s barn when I wasn’t traveling, and it was almost just a way for me to forget about bareback riding and just have fun team roping. Just to get on a horse that’s not going to hurt you or a horse you can trust and almost just a stress reliever, I guess. And I really, same deal, anything I do, I want to be the best. Rhen really helped me with how to throw a loop and with my horsemanship.”

Back in March 2018, Nielsen went to show his college rodeo coach he could rope for the school team, despite being told he needed to wait 10–12 months to fully recover. His coach, however, said something to the effect of ‘Not without your surgeon signing off on it.’ The hiccup proved to further motivate Nielsen.

“It really lit a fire underneath me to prove that I can still compete,” Nielsen expressed. “I took the same hard work I put into the bareback riding and I just transferred it to the team roping. I started roping the dummy every day instead of the spur board or the bucking machine. It was just the Hot Heels and roping the sled and I just changed my goals and changed my vision.”

Left to right: Brother-in-law, Chance; Older sister, Jazzy; Younger sister, Chezney; Dad, Rick; Mom, Kathy; Younger brother, Gavin; Sister-in-law, Becca; Nephews Reggie and Royce (on lap). According to Nielsen, they each held fast to the belief that Nielsen would walk again. 

Left to right: Brother-in-law, Chance; Older sister, Jazzy; Younger sister, Chezney; Dad, Rick; Mom, Kathy; Younger brother, Gavin; Sister-in-law, Becca; Nephews Reggie and Royce (on lap). According to Nielsen, they each held fast to the belief that Nielsen would walk again. 

Though he headed before his accident, Nielsen found that—with the absence of feeling in his left leg, in addition to the condition of his back, which offers minimal flexibility due to the implanted hardware and fusings—roping the heel side offered allowances that heading didn’t.

“It was scary to sit back in the saddle and actually rope and ride,” Nielsen admitted. “But I thought, ‘Heck, I’ve got Rhen Richard and he knows how to heel them down.’ And Rhen definitely helped me. He made sure I wasn’t going to get on anything that was going to hurt me. Finally, about a year from my injury, I was able to start sitting up really well in the saddle and to rope competitively.”

On Aug. 4, this past summer, Nielsen entered up at the USTRC’s Dally for Dinosaurs in Vernal, Utah, and left the fairgrounds park having earned a not-too-shabby $4,135. He roped again in Pocatello, Idaho, and at the Utah Championships in August, but in September, he went ahead and snagged a top spot in the #10 Ogden Qualifier, earning him and his partner, Willie Reid, a competitive spot in the #11 Boehringer Ingelheim Finale in Las Vegas in December.

“It’s probably a miracle that he’s able to rope” considered Reid, 59, who, after pairing up in Ogden, brought Nielsen on to help with his pipe welding business. “He’s a great kid. He’s worked really hard at team roping and he wants to be a winner.”

In addition to roping in association events, Nielsen also amateur rodeoed and even entered up again on the head side in Queen Creek in November. That same month, he also went to two-time World Champion Matt Sherwood’s place in Arizona for an Arizona warm-up, after having participated in one of Sherwood’s clinics in Grand Junction, Colorado.

“He ropes good,” Sherwood asserted. “I know he wants to rope better, but we all do. He has a great horse and a great work ethic, and I think he’ll continue to get better and better. No doubt about it.”

“I’m all in,” Nielsen posited. “Matt put a lot of thought in my head of, ‘If you want to be a roper, you can be roper. You can do it.’ It was pretty neat to spend some time with him, and I’d like to try to compete professionally in the team roping. Hopefully, by 2020, I can buy my permit, and it’d be fun to go down the trail and try to do that. I know I’m a ways behind but, heck, I was a ways behind in the bareback riding, so, you never know what can happen with hard work. I want to win the Finale. Definitely.”

WE WERE BORN TO SUCCEED

Considering Nielsen’s achievements and his you-bet-I-can attitude, not to mention his high-school-jock-turned-roughie history, it might be tempting to brand him as overly confident, or cocky even, but you’d be mistaken. Given the opportunity to either speak with or spend time with him, it takes little time to realize that Braxten Nielsen doesn’t lead with his ego. He leads with his heart—a trait that both Richard and Sherwood recognize sincerely.

After qualifying for the WSRR Finale XIII just one year after his Pro Rodeo bareback wreck, Nielsen warmed up in Las Vegas by entering up for a few runs at the South Point qualifier. 

After qualifying for the WSRR Finale XIII just one year after his Pro Rodeo bareback wreck, Nielsen warmed up in Las Vegas by entering up for a few runs at the South Point qualifier. 

“He’s got the mentality that he wants to work at it and get better and I’m sure he’ll get that done. That’s the kind of kid he is,” Richard said.

“Man,” Sherwood emphasized, “he was always positive and so upbeat. He’s just a great guy to have around—in the roping arena, but my family and kids also just had the most enjoyable time with him. He just makes you want to be a better person.”

Which makes it no wonder that Nielsen has undertaken a new venture in motivational speaking, in which he tells his audiences at schools and corporations alike that they can achieve whatever they dare to dream. That any one of them can be one percent better today than they were yesterday, and that all of us can surround ourselves with others who will help us get there.

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“All of us have weaknesses and all of us have struggles to overcome,” Neilsen concluded. “We all get down, but if you’re strong in yourself and people believe in you, they’ll pick you up when you’re low. Everybody can do it.”

So, for those of us who were maybe thinking that Braxten Nielsen turned his less-than-5-percent chance of walking again into a second career in roping and rodeo because he somehow already possessed the necessary tools, Nielsen will tell us, unequivocally, that we all possess those tools. That we are all capable of achieving greatness.

Because…“We were born to succeed.” 

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