Four years after wreck that paralyzed him, Vezain is still reaches others
Ask anyone that knows him, and they’ll tell you J.R. Vezain is a special person. He has the ability to help others, make them be better in every way possible.
“That’s a spiritual gift of mine,” said Vezain, 30, a Cinch cowboy from Melstone, Montana. “I’m an encourager and an inspirer. I just wake up and try to kick the day’s ass. It’s just me being me.”
He’s an inspiration from the word go, and a life-changing event nearly four years ago didn’t change that about him. The wreck he suffered while riding a bareback horse in Pasadena, Texas, may have altered his plan in life, but it never got close to his heart or his vibrant personality.
He’s paralyzed from the chest down. If it weren’t for the wheelchair, many might not realize it. He suffered a fractured T10 vertebrae and a partial fracture of T9 – about the third and fourth ribs from the bottom of the rib cage.
“I used to be climbing on fire-breathing dragons trying to be 90 points,” Vezain said of riding bucking horses. “Now, it’s trying to get walking again.”
On a common day, he’ll do some ranch work and ride horses on his place in Montana – he’s outfitted a special rigging to help hoist him in the saddle. He and his wife run a couple hundred head of cattle, and he likes doing leatherwork. Vezain is also still rehabilitating his injury extensively.
Last October, he acquired a “walking machine” – a metallic exoskeleton the attaches motorized joints to a person’s hips and knees. Because of Vezain’s diligence toward rehabilitation, he was eligible for the mobility device. It’s all another step he takes toward walking again.
“That’s been a life-changing, liberating tool for me,” he said of his robotics. “They’re not super functional as far as getting a job done, but as far as being able to strap legs on to get up and walk and stretch and move around whenever I’ve wanted to, it’s been life-changing.
“There is no way I could have been able to afford it on my own. The support system that has pooled together everything to allow me to purchase that was humbling. It’s easy for people to help somebody in a crisis. For people to pool together for me to purchase this machine after the crisis, it made me cry.”
Emotions are part of daily lives, especially when there has been so much that has happened in such a short time. Since his wreck, there have been down times, but because of his infectious smile and the way he attacks life, most of his those are limited.
“I’ve been able to look at the glass half full even more,” he said. “I’ve had to learn to find little things to be thankful for. It’s hard to find those if you’re not looking for them. The wreck has opened my eyes.
“I have learned a lot in the last four years. I thought I had faith and trust before, but I had to swallow the pill. I thought I’d walk in three months, and that turned into six months and then a year and two years. I’ve had to learn a lot of patience. I’ve had to learn how to love differently. I didn’t know how to parent before, but navigating parenting through this whole situation is different.
“I’ve been humbled over the years. Another big lesson I’ve learned is how to accept help. In the Western world and as a man, it’s very hard for us to ask for help when we need it.”
He’s had help thousands of times over. The bills that came with the wreck – and the surgeries and the doctors visits and the stays in rehab and the general upkeep of a paralyzed person – have been extensive, but fellow cowboys and people who never met J.R. Vezain came out of the woodwork to help him and his family.
When he and his family opted for the robotics, the device came at a hefty cost. Donations came pouring in, and now Vezain owns his own and can walk upright.
“I’ve also learned that receiving is a blessing,” said Vezain, who operates a ranch with his wife, Shelby. “By not allowing others to help you, you’re blocking a blessing. There’s no way I could pay back all of the people that have helped us financially, mentally, emotionally.”
His biggest level of appreciation falls on Shelby, who has been his partner in every way since their wedding day and has walked every mile that he hasn’t since that day in September 2018. A few weeks after the wreck and while he was still in the rehabilitation center in Houston, they learned Shelby was pregnant.
Ryatt is now 3 years old, and when Dad isn’t trading cattle or buying calves or handling the leatherwork, he’s busy chasing his mini-me around the best he can.
“I didn’t meet my biological father until I was 15; I grew up with a man who was my siblings’ dad that was more of a dad to me,” Vezain said. “I didn’t realize the impact that would have as a father. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being a father. Other than my relationship with Christ and my relationship with my wife, this is my favorite thing to do.
“I love watching him grow and get in wrecks. It’s the funnest thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
It’s that bond and the one he has with his wife that push Vezain each day. This isn’t the life he envisioned for himself and his bride, but this is how he and his family live each day.
“It’s a tough situation,” he said. “I’ve never been in her shoes, so I’ve never had to care for and stay attracted to somebody in a wheelchair. We’ve had our fair share of struggles, but I think our bond has been strengthened over the course of the wreck. We’ve had to trade some jobs. I’ve had to ask her to do some things I’d normally do, and I do some things she’d normally do.
“We were pretty fortunate with a kid on the way. Through that, our bond has grown in a way it wouldn’t have grown without the wreck.”
There are no short cuts. There are no easy ways around the challenges. It’s the path set for them, and they have taken it.
“It’s been a challenge, it’s been fun, it’s been wild and it’s been chaotic,” Vezain said. “That was the way my life was before the wreck, so I wouldn’t expect it to be any different.”
He knew his world as a bareback rider would end at some point in his career, and he had plans. Ranching and training horses was going to be part of that, and he’d always thought he’d like to get into the reined cowhorse world. He was drawn to those types of horses because, in his mind, they are the most well-rounded equine athletes.
“If you can make a bridle horse and get one so broke that it could go in any direction, that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “Learning how to train horses that well was always my after-rodeo dreams and passion. My colt training and my ranch life is different, and it’s my biggest frustration. I’ve had to send horses off to other trainers to get them started.”
Enter Aaron Brookshire. He learned about Vezain’s passion for horse training and reached out. His first words to Vezain?
“Why wait until you’re walking? Let’s get it started now,” he told Vezain.
“Since March, I’ve been learning how to ride again, and it’s been huge,” Vezain said. “It’s been a blessing and a gamechanger, something to set goals toward … other than trying to walk again. It’s been very cool to think outside the box and continue to have my horsemanship dreams and goals and desires in this situation.
“It’s become quite a friendship. It makes me sit here and shake my head. It’s another one of those God things. He calls me every single day, and he feeds off me; he feeds of my mental game and my morale.”
It’s a positive move in a positive direction for a cowboy that remains positive despite what many would see as a negative situation.
“It’s not like I haven’t ridden my horses,” Vezain said. “I still ride; I still brand. It’s more than that to me. It’s always been about making the change with the horse. Aaron is encouraging me and inspiring me that it’s possible to control the horse from my situation. I had never given up on the dream, but what he’s done is give me the spark of encouragement that I needed at the time. I was stuck in the rut, stuck in the mundane. He got me out of that rut.”
Sometimes people need to find their way ways out of trench and onto smoother ground so they can accelerate. J.R. Vezain has found that with his passion for training horses, the love he has for his wife and watching a little boy grow into a man. He still visualizes himself walking upright without aid and knows some day he will.
Until then, he will cherish all the blessings he has been given, including a 3-year-old boy who is a bit of a challenge, a bit wild and a bit chaotic – much like Vezain himself.
“I’d say he’s got good qualities from both of us,” Vezain said of Ryatt. “Some days I think he looks like me. Sometimes I think he acts like me, and sometimes I look at him and know he’s just like his mom.
“That just makes me love her even more, to see those qualities she’s passed on to him. On a daily basis, he does some crap, whether it’s good or bad, and I just shake my head.”