Soldier on: Bareback rider Zack Thomas is all in, whether on the battlefield or in the arena | TSLN.com

Soldier on: Bareback rider Zack Thomas is all in, whether on the battlefield or in the arena

Zach Thomas’s definition of luck is a little different than one might expect.

After a bad horse wreck last fall, and other close calls throughout his life, he counts himself fortunate.

“I got really lucky,” he said.

“I broke my pelvis in two spots. It was an open book fracture. When that horse landed, my riggin handle came down on the left side of my pelvis and it collapsed the left side in. when she rolled, it broke the big pelvis wing in the back, diagonally, all the way down.”

In October 2018, Zach Thomas, wearing the red vest for Casper College, was involved in a bareback riding wreck in Riverton, Wyoming at the college rodeo. The mare flipped over on top of him, thrashed, and finally got up again, leaving Thomas major injuries on the arena floor. He also severed his urethra, broke six ribs, broke two vertebrae in his back, strained his knee, had a concussion, and his kidneys nearly failed while he was in the Intensive Care Unit in Denver.

For any other person, the surgeries and recovery time might be enough to make them consider hanging up their bareback riggin for good. Not Thomas. The Army veteran, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, has an iron will. He amazed doctors with the speed of his healing and defied all odds to crawl aboard a bareback horse just four months later.

Thomas’s unique journey began at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At 16, Thomas began living independently. After graduating high school, he realized a college education was something he could not afford at the time, though it was a goal he wanted to pursue. He sought to join the military in order to defray the cost of college after his service. He applied to the Coast Guard, but was rejected. “I was walking out of the recruiting station and I looked to my left and there was another recruiting station. So I went to the Army recruiting station. They took me.”

After basic training and being stationed briefly in Washington, Thomas was deployed to Afghanistan in November, 2013. Thomas said, “I was in a headquartered platoon for a while so I was a driver. I moaned and groaned about that because I didn’t want to be at headquarters, I wanted to be on the line.” It was in Afghanistan that Thomas acquired his love for adrenaline. Finally, his commanders gave him his wish and he was allowed to be a part of the active platoon.

“Eventually I got my dismount position and had some fun out walking around. Dismount means, you get on a mission, they’ll send a troop out. A troop is three platoons. We’d get to our destination, dismount, interact with the local populus, or we’d walk nine kilometers for pickup via blackhawk. Dismount was always more fun to me, because I was on the ground, moving, anything could happen, and I wasn’t just stuck in a truck.”

One mission stands out in Thomas’s memory. While patrolling a small village, his troop found a poppy field. Opium can be harvested from the plant and the Taliban often stole the product and profits from fields such as those, said Thomas. His troop was instructed to burn the field. “We walked over this ground that made a weird motion. It was a cave.” The troop investigated, sending Thomas and others in through small holes using ropes. Because the cave was near the poppy field, it was likely that the cave was used for stashing opium, money, or other dangerous items. Finding nothing, the troop evacuated, and Thomas was instructed to drop a grenade down an air hole.

“I walked over there, pulled the pin, I dropped the grenade and just rolled and ducked back. My commander told me to get back, so I rolled and hit solid ground but from the waist down, my body just dropped.” A massive hole, 100 feet deep and 30 feet across had collapsed, and his feet were dangling over the edge of the humongous cavern. His comrades pulled him out and he walked away unscathed. “It was cool. You hear about Vietnam and people being tunnel rats and things like that, and I actually got to do something similar.”

After his four years in military service, Thomas had a two-month period of discerning his next move. “I got offered a job going overseas for a security job, I’d make at least $100,000 a year, but I’d have to deploy in two months’ time.” Thomas hesitated. Another avenue had his attention.

Around that time, Thomas crawled aboard his first bareback horse at a rodeo in New Mexico with borrowed gear. He mimicked other riders taping their arms, had help situating his riggin and was bucked off within two jumps. He was hooked. With determination, he slowly began to master the event. The deadline was approaching to make the decision to go back to Afghanistan and he found himself in Wyoming visiting a friend. He called Tom Parker, the rodeo coach at Casper College at the time. After seeing Thomas get on one horse at roughstock practice, Parker offered him a spot on his team. “I was actually trying to walk on to the football team at the University of New Mexico at the time,” said Thomas, but he accepted Parker’s offer to rodeo.

The accident that occurred last November was Thomas’s first major injury as a bareback rider. He said, “Initially, they told me six to 12 months before I would even be able to think about riding again. I said, ‘That’s too long.’” Mental strength was a large factor in Thomas’s recovery. “I didn’t want sympathy or anything like that. I was still a person and could still do my own stuff. I was doing pushups like the fourth or fifth day after I got out of the hospital. I think I knocked out 150 pushups.” At the end of February, four short months after sustaining a list of major injuries, he spurred a bareback horse again at a Casper College rodeo team practice. And then he got on another. “From the moment I slid up to when I nodded was the most surreal moment. And that’s why I got on again.”

Thomas placed at several college rodeos throughout the spring season and plans to rodeo professionally. He has an associates degree in criminal justice, plans to receive a bachelor’s degree in social work, and is considering pursuing his masters. He extends his thanks to Larry Sandvick, Jhett Johnson, Marvin Garrett, Dustin Luper, and Bob Forbes for their support and coaching throughout his career.

“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,” Thomas said. F