It’s been almost four months since timed-event cowboy Caleb Berquist’s life-changing ranch accident on March 20. Some yearlings were out, so the young team roper, tie-down roper and steer roper from Lacrosse, Washington jumped on a side-by-side to get them in before a big rain. Caleb’s ranch-raised girlfriend from Montana, Murphy Hirschy, is afraid of heights. So when the terrain got too steep for her comfort zone, she opted out to walk it with the dogs. Caleb was about 20 feet from the top on a cow trail when the side-by-side flipped and rolled over on top of him on its way down the hill to the river. His injuries were catastrophic. But this young cowboy’s fight and try have proven unstoppable.
“It was horrible,” remembers Murphy. “I’ve never been so scared in my life. I thought I’d lost him.”
Caleb called for Murphy the moment he hit, and she ran to him down that steep, rocky hill in her muck boots.
“When I got to Caleb, his three cow dogs—Omaha, Scoob and Faith—were curled around his body,” she said. “They knew something was wrong. Omaha wrapped herself around Caleb’s head to try and protect him.”
Murphy kept her head, called 9-1-1 and told the lady on the other end of the line not to bother with an ambulance. They needed a helicopter—now. They landed that helicopter on the ridge right above Caleb, and after the crew carried him with ropes on a backboard, he was life-flighted to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane.
Miraculously, Caleb didn’t suffer any head trauma and never lost consciousness, though shock did set in. His dad, Shane, was the first to reach him and Murphy. They had no way of knowing whether or not Caleb had internal injuries, so while they waited for the helicopter, Caleb had Murphy call Momma Kim and Sister Sydney, just in case.
They made it by helicopter to the hospital, but the damage was devastating.
“It completely crushed his T12 vertebra—the part that goes around the spinal cord,” Murphy said. “They never said Caleb’s spinal cord was severed. They just kept saying his injury was instant and complete. We knew it was bad. He immediately couldn’t move anything below his belly button.
“Caleb also broke a rib, punctured a lung and has bruising everywhere. His left knee is completely destroyed—the ACL, MCL, PCL, LCL—all of it.”
He underwent a six-and-a-half-hour surgery the day after the accident.
“The neurosurgeons went in and removed the crushed T12 vertebra,” Murphy said. “They put a plate and four screws above it, a plate and four screws below it, and a rod in his back to stabilize it. They did say they were able to realign his spinal cord better than expected. The neurosurgeons worked on Caleb’s back, then they handed him off in the operating room to the orthopedic surgeons, who screwed his MCL back to his femur and repaired his patella (kneecap). It was a long day.”
There have been a lot of long days for Caleb, Murphy and the Berquist family and friends these last few months, and life will likely never be quite the same for this Columbia River Circuit timed-event hand, who also did big things while college rodeoing for Montana State University in Bozeman, where he graduated a year ago with bachelor’s degree in ag business.
Berquist was the Big Sky tie-down roping champ his junior and senior years, and as a college senior also won the Big Sky team roping and all-around titles. He won the Montana Circuit tie-down roping title in 2021 and was the reserve champ in 2022. He was both the 2022 Montana Circuit Finals all-around champion, and the 2022 Montana Circuit year-end all around champ. He also qualified for the Montana Circuit Finals in the steer roping in 2021 and ’22.
Once he was stabilized, there was intense daily physical and occupational therapy. Cowboy Caleb took on this ultimate challenge with the same work ethic and positive attitude that made him successful in the rodeo arena. He made the move from Spokane to the world-famous Craig Hospital, which is a renowned neurorehabilitation and research facility in Englewood, Colorado near Denver.
At long last, Caleb was recently released to return to the ranch. He was welcomed back home to Washington by family and friends, and the seat of that swather has never looked so good. There will be no roping—for now. But with the heart and try of this young champion, anything is possible.