True grit in a wheelchair

The indomitable spirit of Wyoming cowboy, rancher, entrepreneuer, Henry Poling

By Ray Hunkins

On a September day in 1993, Henry Poling became a paraplegic. He was part of a crew loading exotic yearling cattle onto trucks in Garrett, as isolated a place as you can find in Wyoming. Henry describes those cattle as having “bad dispositions.” By 2:30 that afternoon, the gathering and loading were completed and Henry was crowding the last steer onto a stock trailer. His recollection is vivid: “When I got the last one loaded, the trucker’s helper was slow in dropping the gate and one of the wild ones decided to come out. I pulled myself up on the chute to let him go under me but he jumped and caught me in the midsection, folding me over his head.”
As the steer charged back down the loading ramp, it slammed Henry against a latched gate at the bottom. Henry’s vertebra shattered, his spinal cord permanently damaged. As he lay on the ground, conscious but unable to move, attended by truck drivers and cowboys 90 miles from the nearest ambulance, he wondered if there would be a future for a crippled cowboy. About six that night a life-flight helicopter finally landed next to the corrals where Henry lay. It took him to Casper. The next day he was flown to Colorado for surgery and specialized care.
“The morning after the operation I asked the surgeons: ‘What do I have to do to get out of here? I have work to do!’ Their reply was that I had to be able to live independently.” So living independently became Henry’s goal. A month after he arrived, the doctors in Fort Collins released him to return to Wheatland where his mother lived.
Henry recalls spending months lying on a couch watching TV and feeling helpless. “I woke up one morning and thought, ‘You’ve got a long time before you leave this earth and you had better get busy and do something again.’” He started the process of rehabilitation. For Henry it was painful, but not very long. Within eight months, with help, he was mounting his horse. Within 10 months he was putting up hay.
In 1997, using the proceeds of a modest settlement for his injury, Henry purchased a small ranch west of Wheatland in Platte County. He bought a four-wheeler and, between that and his horse, he was able to move his cows. He expanded his carrying capacity by leasing summer pasture in the Laramie Mountains. “The cattle needed me. Those cattle gave me a reason to get up every morning.”
Henry has always been drawn to the “high lonesome” of the Laramie Mountains and adjacent Laramie Plains. He decided very soon after his hospitalization that his lifestyle was not going to change any more than his injury made necessary. Raising livestock in a remote location and severe environment presents challenges for the able-bodied; those challenges can present serious risks for the disabled.
Since Henry’s injury, there have been many obstacles and many stories told around Wheatland about how he has overcome them. Here’s one that illustrates Henry’s courage and spirit.
In late August 2009, Henry was summering his cows on leased pasture 17 miles northwest of Garrett. He “had work to do,” and had driven the pickup to his summer pasture. As usual, he was alone. He loved that beautiful rugged country. At his cow camp he unloaded his wheelchair and rolled to where his four-wheeler was stored. He drove the four-wheeler to the far end of the lease, opening gates through which he planned to move the cattle, and started to gently push his cows to fresh pasture. There also began an odyssey.
Henry crossed an old irrigation ditch and his four-wheeler high centered on its edge. With about an hour of daylight left, Henry dropped to the ground, and with all the upper body strength he could muster tried to dislodge the machine. Nothing he was capable of doing would budge it.
With no four-wheeler or wheelchair or means of communication, a mile and a half from his cow camp with dark coming on, Henry was in a fix. He retrieved his lariat, dropped to the ground, and with his rope on his lap began his journey, on his butt, pushing himself backwards toward camp. It was slow going. He marked his progress by counting the fence posts he passed. As the pain increased he became discouraged, but told himself, “OK, I can make it for two more posts,” and so he did, post by post, as the minutes turned into hours.
As darkness fell temperatures dropped and Henry, wearing only a light jacket, got cold. He was also wet from sliding on the damp ground that had received rain the evening before. Shortly after nightfall, he came to Mule Creek. He crossed it the only way he could—on his backside, using his hands and arms to get through mud and cold water. Now he was soaked and shaking uncontrollably.
After crossing the creek, Henry struggled to close the wire gates he had previously opened. It’s not an easy thing to do sitting down. Why would someone in Henry’s dire circumstances be worried about closing gates? “I couldn’t leave a gate open and risk having my cattle get into my neighbor’s pasture with his cattle. It wouldn’t be right.”
Shortly after he went through the first gate, a big, ornery Hereford bull came to check him out. He charged to within 10 feet, bellowing and pawing the ground. “I thought I was going to be gored. I hollered and picked up rocks and threw them at the bull.” It left, but soon returned with reinforcements—two Black Angus bulls. With three angry critters threatening him, Henry thought, “This is going to be the end; they’ll take me for sure and folks will laugh at my stupidity when they come to my funeral.” But it was not to be. Henry eventually chased the bulls off with lots of yells and a few well-aimed rocks.
Around midnight, Henry had another visitor and this time it was airborne. “I was dive-bombed by a big bird.” Perhaps an eagle or an owl, it swooped down on him as if to attack, and frightened him. The experience wasn’t all bad, however. “It got my mind off how much I was hurting and motivated me to keep on moving.” Throughout the night, Henry continued his agonizing journey.
Hope mounted with the rising sun. Henry was within sight of his camp. Being able to see it was the good news; the bad news was that at his rate of travel it was still several hours away. Henry had one more gate to close and it was more difficult because he was in great pain. The effort to push himself backwards with his sore, cold hands and aching body, dragging his useless lower limbs behind him, had become an agony of will. The heels of his Justin boots were almost gone thanks to the rough terrain. But he could see his wheelchair several hundred yards away and knew that he would complete his journey.
The last several hundred yards were painfully slow: 20 feet and stop to rest, 20 feet and stop to rest, over and over again. So it went until midmorning, when he reached his wheelchair. Exhausted beyond our understanding, Henry pulled himself up into the chair and slowly wheeled himself to the house. His throat was raw from thirst. He took a big drink of water, made a pot of coffee, and took a hot shower. He pulled himself onto his bed and slept for the rest of the day. Unable to get into his pickup and drive himself, he spent the next several days at the camp, recovering from his ordeal. Finally someone showed up to check on him. They found a man who had found the strength of will to crawl backwards over 15 long, mostly dark and terrifying hours, back to his camp, his wheelchair, and life itself.
Today Henry is a fiercely independent man. At the same time, he is grateful for the assistance he must have to be a stockman who happens to be disabled. He has no choice but to innovate. He has developed systems and routines for accomplishing just about all the duties involved in operating his ranch. He harvests his own hay, feeds his own cattle and does the calving. When help is needed, Henry asks for it. That is a big change. Before his injury, he was hesitant to ask anybody for anything but, he says, “I’ve learned my limitations.”
Henry is always looking for a product he can raise, make or produce on his ranch to augment his income. He constructed a greenhouse within wheelchair distance of his home. He grows fresh vegetables and strawberries year-round in a hydroponic system and sells the harvest at a small stand in the parking lot of the Laramie Peak Museum in Wheatland. He raises tilapia in tanks in the heated greenhouse. He bakes pies and sells them at his stand during the holiday season. This year Henry started offering homemade chokecherry jelly. He harvests the fruit in August in Palmer Canyon near his ranch and makes the jelly when he isn’t chasing cows. Motivated by the desire to enhance his financial independence and self-reliance, he is always searching for opportunities.
The last 23 years of Henry’s life have been a profile in unyielding courage in the face of hardship. The good people of Platte County know Henry and they are right when they say “Henry Poling has true grit.”  

Ray Hunkins is a distinguished alumnus of the University of Wyoming and in 2006 was the Republican nominee for Governor of Wyoming.  He and his wife have owned and operated the Thunderhead Ranch for over 35 years. For the past ten years, Henry Poling has summered his cattle on the Hunkins’ ranch in the Laramie Mountain Range of Northeastern Albany County. This article is a chapter in Hunkins forthcoming book, “The View From The Thunderhead – Reflections On The History, People and Politics of Wyoming” which will be published in 2018. The article was originally published in condensed form in the Summer, 2017 edition of Range Magazine.

ABOVE: Henry Poling on horseback.

(Courtesy photo)


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