"That looks terrifying; I think I'd like to try that."
That was Zach Thomas' first thought as he watched a Facebook video of a cowboy being bucked off a horse.
By the time he actually got to the point of sitting on a horse, he realized he'd never done so before. He needed help putting the rigging on the horse, he needed help mounting, and he had trouble remembering everything he needed to do once on the horse.
He was completely focused on the fact that he was on a horse that was going to buck him off.
Bareback bronco riding was a part of Thomas' effort to connect back to civilian life. After spending 2013 in Afghanistan as part of the Army Cavalry, gathering intelligence and talking with the local populace, the soon-to-be cowboy had a lot on his mind.
Thomas joined the Army fresh from high school in 2011 and spent four years in the Army. Now 26, he can look back at how far he’s come, not just as a rodeo competitor, but also as a transitioning veteran. He was recently featured in a video from the clothing company Wrangler.
He needed a challenge, one akin to those military life presents. That's how Thomas ended up showing up at a rodeo in New Mexico with borrowed equipment, mimicking other riders as he prepared for his turn.
The first horse threw him off its back with the second buck. Thomas, suddenly finding himself on the ground, decided that getting thrown off a horse was not only better than he thought it would be, he was also ready for round two.
In 2017, Thomas went to the Casper College rodeo team in Wyoming and asked the coach, Tom Parker, if he could give a try. Parker, who died of cancer that same year, had coached the Casper College Thunderbirds for 25 years. The old coach took an already-talented team to the College National Finals Rodeo three times in his first 15 years.
As a veteran of the Vietnam War, he felt for Thomas and put him on a horse.
"The cav world is really small, and you always run into someone you know," Thomas said. "The camaraderie was big, and I think that's what attracted me to the rodeo … the camaraderie."
It was an exciting start for a new rodeo cowboy, but tragedy struck Thomas not long after Parker's death.
While Thomas was competing in a college rodeo in Wyoming in September 2018, he stayed on for much longer than just two bucks. But the horse accidentally threw itself -- and Thomas -- back against solid metal gates.
The hit broke Thomas' back, pelvis and ribs; he also suffered a concussion and internal injuries. Doctors told him he would be out of commission for a year, but he mustered the discipline and courage he found handy in his old Army days.
Thomas was on a horse again in four months.
Now, he has earned the nickname "Crash" and is college rodeo's only U.S. Army combat veteran.
"It's a hard-earned nickname," says the former cavalry scout. "I'm not riding for me, I'm riding to prove to people that you shouldn't just quit when you think so. If you really put your mind to it, you never know what greatness lies ahead."
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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