TWIN FALLS — On the first night of the Magic Valley Stampede PRCA Rodeo, Braxten Nielsen was the first competitor in bareback riding.
“He nodded his head. The gate opened,” College of Southern Idaho head rodeo coach Steve Birnie said. “The horse didn’t leave like they do.”
The horse reared up that Aug. 31 night and smashed Nielsen against the back of the chute.
“Braxten got his hand loose out of the rigging, landed in the sitting position and couldn’t move,” Birnie said.
The 24-year-old’s spinal cord was compressed and twisted, and he broke vertebrae in his back.
Quickly, Nielsen — a Roosevelt, Utah, native and member of the CSI rodeo team — was surrounded by bullfighters, emergency medical technicians, a physician and paramedics.
Emergency responders loaded Nielsen into an ambulance, got him stabilized and sedated. “He was in excruciating pain at that point,” Birnie said.
After arriving at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center, he was airlifted to the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, the rodeo at the Twin Falls County Fairgrounds in Filer hadn’t even ended.
Nielsen underwent a five-hour surgery to have rods inserted into his back.
“The doctors have pretty much given him a very, very slight chance, if any, to ever walk again,” Birnie said Thursday. “He’s paralyzed from the waist down right now.”
But Nielsen is an exceptional young man who’s positive, outgoing and always working hard to improve, Birnie said. And he was the one cheering up his first group of visitors at the hospital.
“He’s going to have a long road ahead of him,” Birnie said. “He’s determined he’s going to walk again. There’s no doubt in my mind. He’s that kind of person.”
Braxten’s father, Rick Nielsen, said Friday his son has been doing well. “He’s upbeat about the situation. He understands exactly what it is. He still has the outlook that he’s going to walk again someday, but understands his limitations.”
After getting out of intensive care, Braxten started physical therapy, but his chest was hurting. An X-ray revealed he had a dislocated sternum.
Now, he can’t push or pull more than five pounds for four to six weeks, Rick said. “That has put him a little back.”
But he’s still undergoing physical and occupational therapy at the Salt Lake City hospital, including using equipment with electrodes on his leg muscles to make them trigger.
“They’ve been doing quite a bit of therapy,” Rick said. “That keeps him mentally and physically going.”
Members of CSI’s rodeo team can also compete in pro rodeo events. That night at the Magic Valley Stampede when Nielsen was injured, a few other CSI rodeo athletes and alumni were also competing.
Nielsen was competing professionally for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Wilderness Circuit. “He was sixth in the standings there up until his injury,” Rick said.
Nielsen’s injury is by far the worst any CSI rodeo team member has suffered in recent years, Birnie said. They’ve experienced injuries such as broken bones and torn knee ligaments before, but they’re “things repaired with time and surgery.”
Since the accident, community members have rallied around Nielsen. The CSI Foundation has set up a recovery fund for him. And through an online GoFundMe page, 460 people have made a total of $46,989 in donations toward a $50,000 goal.
The CSI volleyball team has also been fundraising at its home games. The CSI rodeo team is planning a concert and dance for November at the Expo Center. And at recent rodeo competitions, 50-50 raffles have been organized to help Nielsen and his family.
The CSI rodeo team plans to continue organizing fundraisers throughout the year, including at its rodeo this spring.
“This type of injury will require some support for a long time,” Birnie said. “We want to make sure it’s not going to happen all right now when it’s the buzz. When things calm down, he’s still going to need some help. We’re going to keep doing fundraisers throughout the year and help him as much as we can.”
Nielsen is a tremendous person and every little bit donated helps, Birnie said, and he encourages community members to also keep him in their thoughts and prayers.
“It’s going to be a long road to recovery,” he said. “He’s bound and determined to make it happen, and that’s a huge bonus.”
Rick said it’s awesome to see the outpouring of love and support. “The support is what keeps him going and it makes him motivated.”