British Columbia

Paralyzed cowboy from Prince George, B.C., back in the saddle again

After a life-altering injury, a custom-made saddle from Texas has given Kevin Cunin the chance to once again do what he loves.

Kevin Cunin was paralyzed from chest down after a rodeo accident in 2015

Kevin Cunin tosses a rope while riding a horse with the custom-made saddle he bought from a saddle maker in Texas. (Supplied by Kevin Cunin)

A cowboy from Prince George, B.C., is back in the saddle five years after a rodeo accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. 

And it's thanks to a custom-made saddle from the world's cowboy capital, Texas.

During a 2015 rodeo competition in Smithers, B.C., Kevin Cunin lost control of the horse he was riding and was bucked into the air.

He landed on his head and was rushed to hospital with a broken neck, as well as multiple broken vertebrae and ribs. It was the last event of Cunin's first year competing in rodeos.

"As soon as I landed on my head, I couldn't feel my lower body," he told Carolina de Ryk, host of CBC's Daybreak North.

Cunin purchased the expensive saddle with help from several sponsors, including rodeo clubs in Smithers and Quesnel. (Supplied by Kevin Cunin )

After a complicated surgery, doctors told Cunin there was little chance he'd walk again. It was a "hard pill to swallow," the 30-year-old said on Wednesday.

"But I ain't so good at listening," he joked. 

Though Cunin now uses a wheelchair — something he believes he won't need one day — his unwavering spirit set him on a journey to get back on a horse.

"I had just too much fun [riding], and I knew it wasn't something I wanted to give up."

Three years after his accident, Cunin tried riding with a traditional saddle but had trouble keeping his balance and wasn't able to throw a rope or pick up speed.

Determined, he began contacting saddle makers in B.C. and Alberta, hoping one could fashion a customized saddle for him. Then he got word about a manufacturer in Texas who made so-called therapy saddles. 

"Heck yeah, we can do this," Cunin recalls the artisan saying. "We can absolutely get you back riding."

The saddle wasn't cheap — but once word of Cunin's quest to ride again spread, several businesses and organizations in B.C. helped him with the cost of the therapy saddle, including rodeo clubs in Smithers and Quesnel, B.C.

The names of Cunin's sponsors are etched into the saddle's brown leather, along with a fitting motto: "Winners never quit. Quitters never win."

The coveted item showed up this past July.

Cunin fondly recalled the first time he used it. First, he rode around with three friends at his side to keep him steady. Then two. Then only one, before it was just him and a horse for the first time since that fateful day back in 2015. 

The remarkably-detailed saddle features the names of those who sponsored Cunin, as well as a fitting motto. (Supplied by Kevin Cunin)

Cunin will soon graduate from a ranching program he started two years ago at Thompson Rivers University's Williams Lake campus. He's eager to start work on an acreage he recently purchased outside of Prince George.

"Kevin is a huge inspiration to all those around him," said Gillian Watt, coordinator of TRU's Applied Sustainable Ranching program, who credited him for not only his resilience but also an enduring sense of humour.

In the spring, Cunin hopes to begin competing in rodeos again.

"There's going to be a whole lot of work put in between now and then," he admitted. But he's confident with the help of the local rodeo community — which he credits for firmly standing by him on each leg of this journey — he'll get there.

So, what's his message to others who may be reeling from a life-altering injury?

Attitude is key, Cunin says.

"Life isn't fair. No matter who you are, you get [handed] bad deals out of life once in a while," said Cunin. 

"The only thing that you can really control in life is your attitude. So either you're going to let it get the best of you, or you're going to get the best of it."

With files from Daybreak North


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