Five years after a bareback bronc riding accident at the Bulkley Valley Rodeo left Kevin Cunin paralyzed from the chest down, the 31-year-old made his return to the Smithers rodeo ring Aug. 28.
Cunin was greeted by a standing ovation Saturday evening at the Fall Fair Grounds when he rode in on a specialty saddle as part of the opening ceremonies.
Cunin told The Interior News he was thrilled just to be back in the saddle, but was looking forward to competing again.
And that he did, in the team roping event as the heeler. Although Cunin was unable to complete the task, it was an awe-inspiring performance that drew loud cheers and applause from the estimated 3,000 people who gathered for the rodeo, Saturday.
It was also the culmination of a long, determined road back to where the tragedy originally befell him.
Following a complicated surgery for a broken neck and multiple broken ribs and veterbrae that left him in a wheelchair, Cunin never gave up the dream of riding again and said he got a ton of support along the way.
“The rodeo community was there: I’d be in the hospital laying in bed, and life sucked at that point pretty bad, but I’d open up my phone and look on Facebook and I’d see messages from people I knew, and people I didn’t even know from all over the place — guys who’d been in rodeo wrecks down in the U.S. — even Davey Shields made a special trip from Alberta to come in and chat, so just really cool support from all over.”
The first time he got on a horse again was in 2018 on the three-year anniversary of the accident with the help of Paul and Terry Nicholson of Pen-Y-Bryn Ranch in Quesnel.
He said it was not scary and felt so good to be back on a horse, but he knew a regular saddle just wasn’t going to cut it in the long-term.
“It was also extremely frustrating because, with no special saddle, I could kind of walk around and that was about it. I wanted to go loping, and that’s when I kind of realized I’d need the appropriate saddle to do it.”
An arduous search for a saddle maker who could pull it off led him to an artisan in Texas. At approximately four times the cost of a regular saddle, though, Cunin would need some help.
He got it from the Smithers Rodeo Club, Intercoast Construction, the Quesnel Rodeo Club and Nomad Welding, along with help from the Interlakes Rodeo Club and Clint Ellis.
Last summer, the saddle arrived and after purchasing a horse in Westlock, Alta., he got to work practicing his heeling with the hope there would be a B.C. Rodeo Association (BCRA) season in 2021.