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Riding With MS: The Day a Cree, Bareback Rider's Life Took a Dramatic Turn

Orville Memnook, Cree, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but continues to compete in rodeos.
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Canadian cowboy Orville Memnook was born about the time Weebles were introduced -- those toys that could be knocked down, pushed down, or kicked down and always rose back up. And Memnook, a Cree bull rider/bareback rider from Good Fish Lake, Alberta, embodies what Weebles stand for, resilience.

“I got started in junior bull riding in my early teens, left school and told my dad I wasn’t going back unless he bought me a rodeo membership,” Memnook said in a news release. “He purchased me a Lakeland Rodeo Association semi-pro card, and I never looked back.”

With a day job as a journeyman carpenter, he rodeoed for the Lakeland College team until he was 21, and then started competiting in events across the country. Memnook, who is now 36, said that his rodeo career didn’t kick into gear until he was about 28. But shortly after that, he said that his life took a dramatic turn.

“I was packing for a rodeo in Las Vegas when things hit me,” he said. “My back was sore, and I felt feverish. I thought I was coming down with a cold. My wife (Candace) pleaded with me not to go, but being the stubborn guy I am I hit the TransCanada 4-lane highway and set the cruise control. Things got worse. I got really dizzy, and disoriented, and objects started getting blurry. When I got to Edmonton, I checked into a hospital and after an 8-hour series of M.R.I.’s and CAT Scans, neurologists diagnosed me with MS.”

His initial concern after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis was ‘will I ever ride again?’

Doctors told him: “It’s totally up to you. Some people, when they are diagnosed, go down and stay sick, while others fight it.” And Memnook is the fighter kind of a guy. “Right then and there I said no, I’m not going to lay down and take a beating. I’m going to fight back because I couldn’t see myself being pushed out of rodeo for something that wasn’t my fault. If there was a way to fight it and beat it, I made up my mind I’d do that.”

And he hasn’t slowed down since. “I’ve been to seven rodeos in the past month with about two scheduled for every weekend. If anything, MS, for me, was a blessing in disguise once I accepted and respected it.”

Stop for a moment and re-play that statement: “MS was a blessing in disguise.”

”The disease turned my life in a different direction. It was a wake-up call, and I started appreciating life more than ever. I went from a grumpy, miserable, son-of-a-gun to where I am now. Ironically, part of the condition is that MS makes my face form a smile. I don’t cuss or swear any more. It’s helped me make a spiritual connection. I’ve always believed in God, but now I try to live a better life. And the renewed spirituality is helping me ride better. My rodeoing is the best it’s ever been because I have somebody else riding with me.”

Memnook has seen how MS can be a crippler and he’s not taking anything for granted. “I don’t have any unrealistic expectations of how it might turn out. I just live every day to the fullest and make each day as good as I can. A big part of this MS thing is in your head, where all you do is think about it, but rodeo helps me heal my mind. When people see me suit up, they’re shocked at my motivation, but I have a passion for rodeo that’s off the charts.”

So far off the charts that his goal this year is to be at the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas November 3-7. “I’m doing everything I can to achieve that goal, hitting association events and INFR tour rodeos in an attempt to qualify,” said the 2011 bareback INFR Tour title winner. “I’ll do everything in my power to be there.”