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Cowboy’s injury in Fargo altered his life, inspired movie

Brady Jandreau suffered a serious brain injury when he was bucked off a bronco at a professional rodeo in 2016 in Fargo. His story is the basis for the movie, "The Rider," in which Jandreau and members of his family star. Jandreau trains horses on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Special to The Forum1 / 2
Brady Jandreau's performance in "The Rider," based on his recovery from a brain injury, has been lauded by critics. He has hired a movie agent and is open to appearing in more films. Special to The Forum2 / 2

FARGO—Concealed by his cowboy hat, the three-inch scar on Brady Jandreau's head serves as a reminder of the day his professional rodeo career came to an abrupt end—the day he almost died.

Jandreau was thrown from a bronco during a rodeo inside the Fargodome on April 1, 2016. His foot got caught in the stirrup, tethering him to the horse, which stepped on the right side of his head.

Jandreau remained conscious throughout the ordeal.

At first, those coming to his aid thought he'd suffered a neck injury. "It's my head," he told them. His head was bleeding internally.

Eleven minutes later, Jandreau suffered a seizure while in the emergency room at Sanford Medical Center. Fortunately, a brain surgeon had just finished another operation, and Jandreau was rushed into surgery.

Five days later he woke up with a plate in his skull.

"They saved my life," he said in a recent interview. Before regaining consciousness, his prognosis had been guarded. "They didn't know if I was going to be dead or brain dead."

Jandreau woke up to the realization that his rodeo days were over. But he had no idea that it would turn out to be the beginning of something else.

Upon waking in his hospital room, Jandreau immediately wanted to leave. "Hospitals and me don't work well," he said. "When I woke up, I basically demanded to be let loose."

Jandreau's doctors wouldn't release him, however, until he was able to wean himself from a breathing tube. Once that was accomplished, he still had obstacles to overcome. The vision in his left eye was bad. His speech was impaired. His balance was unsteady. He was on seizure medication, and he couldn't hear in his left ear on the first day outside the hospital.

"Things wouldn't work well," he said.

The doctors told Jandreau, a 20-year-old who lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota, that he would have to severely restrict his physical activity while recuperating from the brain injury.

During discharge, Jandreau was told not to lift more than 10 pounds or do anything as jarring as jog for the next six months. Anything more strenuous would risk damaging his bruised brain, with possibly catastrophic results.

How was a cowboy, whose life was spent in a saddle, riding and roping, a life spent in rigorous opposition to sedentary pursuits, supposed to accomplish that and earn a living?

***

Three years before his traumatic brain injury, Jandreau met someone whose background was entirely foreign to his own. Yet they would form an unlikely professional association that would alter the trajectory of his life.

The chance encounter with Chloé Zhao, a native of Beijing and a graduate of New York University film school, happened at an odd location—an Angus bull sale at Pine Ridge, where she was filming her low-budget debut movie, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," a story involving a Lakota Sioux brother and sister.

Zhao was immediately struck by Jandreau, a wiry Lakota cowboy whose steely toughness is masked by an amiable nature. The director wanted to cast him in a future film project. But the right role didn't come along until Jandreau's rodeo accident.

"She didn't really have a story until this injury," he said.

Jandreau, whose entire life was horses and ranch work, was not even remotely connected to acting or filmmaking. Yet he was cast in the leading role of Zhao's second film as Brady Blackburn, a bronco rider who suffered a serious brain injury in a rodeo and then was told by a doctor that a return to the saddle could prove fatal.

"The Rider" opened earlier this year in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics. It will become more widely screened later this year. "The Rider" has earned critical acclaim and won 12 awards, including the top prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

It also has changed Jandreau's life. He has flown to Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, San Francisco, Austin, Texas and New Mexico to attend film festivals. It turns out there's a movie circuit, not altogether different than the rodeo circuit, Jandreau said.

But the journey from Pine Ridge to Cannes and beyond was anything but smooth or certain. Gradually — stubbornly — Jandreau reclaimed his life in the saddle.

A big moment came just six weeks after his release from the hospital, when Jandreau got back on a horse.

The feat was both momentous and entirely ordinary for someone who had a near-fatal brain injury after being thrown from a bronco. But he had been placed on a horse for the first time at 15 months, started riding in competition at the age of three and was training wild horses by 12.

What explains his rapid and seemingly miraculous recovery?

"I think a lot of it had to do with the fact I wasn't down very long," Jandreau said. Horses were his physical and emotional therapy.

In addition to the riding he did for the movie, Jandreau regularly rides horses to earn a living through his business, Jandreau Performance Horses in Rockyford, S.D., not far from scenic Badlands National Park. He raises and trains American quarter horses for all levels of riders.

Juggling the two occupations was a challenge while he was still recuperating. He rose every morning at 5 a.m., went to work training horses from 6 a.m. to noon and then started filming at 1 p.m., working into the night and enduring bad headaches.

"I was busy as hell," he said.

Riding a bronco or bull in a rodeo arena and acting for the screen are not as different as they might seem, Jandreau said. "They're both very similar. You have to be all there in the moment. I was all there on camera."

As part of his preparation, Zhao showed Jandreau a few movies, including "The Wrestler" and several films starring Joaquin Phoenix. Jandreau estimates that 60 percent of "The Rider" is based on his life, with a few embellishments to adapt it to the screen.

"It's not a documentary," he said.

That doesn't mean the movie lacks authenticity. Footage of Jandreau's fateful bronco ride in Fargo, his last in the rodeo arena, appears in "The Rider." The ride was captured on video by his wife, who shot it from the stands on her phone.

***

Jandreau's life as a horse trainer is not without its risks. Recently, he roped a colt that somehow managed to step on his face.

"I've got a pretty skinned-up face," he said, chuckling. In fact, he doesn't see riding in the rodeo as being significantly more dangerous than his work as a horse trainer. Nothing is guaranteed when you get on a horse, especially one that is being broken.

In training a horse, he doesn't try to dominate the animal. He tries to build a bond with the horse. He can look a horse in the eye and have a conversation. "It's like I have a spiritual connection with them," he said.

His appearance in an acclaimed movie, although a small independent film, has helped him financially, enabling him to beef-up his horse business.

"It helped a lot," he said of money from "The Rider." After his injury, "I was completely broke." Now, he added, "We've got a lot of horses."

He enjoyed acting, and even hired a manager during his most recent trip to Los Angeles.

"I could probably go ride broncs now," he said, his voice wistful. "I feel like that's what God put me here to do — be a horseman."

He misses riding in the rodeo. "I think about it every day," he said. "I loved it so much."

He enjoyed the challenge of taking on ornery bulls and broncos. In fact, Jandreau said, he's been thinking of riding one of the bulls raised by his father-in-law.

"I feed those bulls every day, so I know them," he said. It's a risk, but not one he considers foolhardy. Still, he will take precautions. "I'll be wearing a helmet," he said.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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