Personal trainer credits rodeo experience with his success

Pete, left, and Ryan Ehmann spent time daily committed to building Pete's strength in hopes that he would walk again following a spinal cord injury while working cattle.
Courtesy photo |

In the 90s on a ranch in Sula, Mont., there was one horse no one liked to ride because he would buck from time to time. Ryan Ehmann thought it was fun and so began his career as a professional bareback bronc rider at the age of 20.

“I started late in my rodeo career,” Ehmann said. “I was 20. Most people start when they’re, like, 5 riding sheep.”

“We were living in Montana and we went to a rodeo up on the reservation and signed up,” he said. “I tried it once, loved the heck out of it, and was hooked. It was kind of like the country song ‘Hooked on an Eight Second Ride.”

The horse that started it all with what Ehmann calls “little bucking fits” was eventually turned into a practice horse for Ehmann to utilize between rodeos to improve his form and skills.

Eight years into his career, Ehmann had worked his way into pro rodeos and had moved to Texas to surround himself with rodeo’s top athletes and competitive rodeos.

“If you want to be the best and try to make the NFR, you have to be able to make it in Texas,” he said. “If you can make it in Texas, you have a good chance of making the finals in Vegas.”

Once in Texas, Ehmann began experiencing chronic back pain and though he visited numerous chiropractors, pain pills and time off were the only answers he could find.

“Two weeks off turned into two years,” he said. “It was two years I didn’t ride and by the time I got to the 15th doctor, they all had told me the same thing that I was going to have to live with a bad back and join the millions who have back pain. Two years of my life had slipped away.”

Ehmann said the chronic pain was unbearable, never ceasing and he found himself retired at 28 and at a low point in his life. Though he had always taken care of himself, he knew little about nutrition or training. In listening to motivational tapes, the advice of a speaker hit home: if you’re not getting the results you want, you need to change your approach.


Ehmann became certified through the Kenneth Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas, to be a personal trainer and he designed a program for himself. He dedicated himself to a program of exercise, nutrition, stretching and rebuilding his mental clarity.

“It was a pretty sad and lonely part of my life,” he said. “It was two years of living in basements and on people’s couches. My rodeo dreams were out the window. I used to ride on TV all the time, now I was sitting at home with a back problem.”

Three months later, Ehmann cracked out of the chute riding again in what was the best shape of his life at that point, without back pain. It was at that point he became a personal trainer at the Gold’s Gym in Austin, Texas. Ehmann said he felt like he had a second chance at life after rebuilding his life by rebuilding his body.

“I had immediate success as a trainer because when these people were coming to me, I just knew how they were feeling,” he said. “When someone is overweight it’s like someone with back pain. They just don’t feel good, life beat up on them, and they’re not 100 percent themselves.”

The majority of a trainer’s job, Ehmann said, is to motivate and the remaining time is giving them the tools to be successful. He was back.

“At that point, I approached the corporate headquarters of Gold’s Gym,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m trying to win a national TV title on Fox Sports. Will you sponsor me?’”

Ehmann set out to rodeos across Texas, his equipment emblazoned with Gold’s Gym logos, with his sights set on winning. In 2004, Ehmann won the Mesquite Texas Championship on Fox Sports as well as qualifying for the Texas State Championship Circuit Finals. He was back in the rigging, back on television, and had his dreams back.

Fifteen years later, he has trained thousands and has two gyms in Fort Collins and Loveland, Colo., called Cowboy Ryan’s Gym. The workout equipment is unique, comprised of cattle panels that allow a full body workout. Though he hasn’t ridden bareback horses beneath the Jumbo Tron for a number of years, his enthusiasm and style is undeniable.


In November, a call from the family ranch back in Sula changed Ryan’s plans. Ehmann’s younger brother, Pete, had sustained a broken neck after an accident while working cattle on the ranch.

After Pete was transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., Ehmann attended the first meeting with his brother and his team at the hospital.

“They said, ‘Here’s his spinal injury and there are five levels of injury and his is the second most severe,’” he said. “He was one grade away from being labeled as never walking again.”

The staff at Craig Hospital, one of the best facilities in the country, was prepared to help Pete learn to live with his injury and live life in a wheelchair back on the ranch. It wasn’t what Ehmann was hoping to hear.

“They also said the spinal cord has to naturally heal by itself,” he said. “When he said that, it hit me. I felt like I was sitting in the chiropractor’s office and it’s rolling over in my head the 15 different doctors I visited telling me that I would have to live with a bad back and there was nothing they could do to help me.”

Ehmann knew he had healed his own body and he knew his record as a trainer helping people lose weight and overcome chronic pain and various conditions. Sitting there in that meeting beside his wheelchair-bound brother, he said to himself, “We have a chance.”

Ehmann accompanied Pete to the gym with the in-house trainer for his first hour-long physical exercise session. Pete was one of 12 patients in the session with one extremely busy trainer. After that session, Ehmann secured permission to be Pete’s trainer at the hospital and pledged to be there daily, making the three-hour round trip drive from his home in northern Colorado.

The following three months put Ehmann’s 15 years of training experience to the test. The pair continued training in the hospital gym with an emphasis on upper body strength and nutrition.

“That first month, (Pete) had no upper body strength at all,” he said. “He could barely lift his arms over his head and could barely lift a fork. He had no core strength sitting in his wheelchair. He had no balance or core strength.”

Simple tasks left Pete exhausted. Even eating was a chore that left him feeling like he had just worked out for hours. Ryan found himself drawing on his creativity to train his brother considering his wheelchair, his lack of upper body and core strength, his weak grip strength, and his lack of balance.


Ryan was at Pete’s side all day for the first two months overseeing his exercise and nutrition. Pete, a junk food lover, found the diet difficult and frustrating at several points.

“It was a daily grind,” he said. “I told him, ‘your job is to eat, work out, and sleep.’ You need to get in the best shape of your life and don’t worry about anything else.”

Ryan watched Pete’s strength and stamina improve as their daily workouts continued. One day in the gym, Ryan looked over and saw the other hospital trainers had begun to incorporate with other patients the exercises he had been doing with Pete.

At the conclusion of Pete’s three month stay, Pete was working daily attempting to move a toe, exercising the signal to his lower body. His strength and stability caught the attention of hospital staff. A few days before he was to check out, Pete began to be able to wiggle one leg just slightly.

The journey at Craig Hospital was to end after 90 days but the family learned about an extended program available at the hospital. Given his improved strength, Pete was a good candidate but was at the bottom of a long list.

As the family prepared to move Pete back to Montana, an opening became available and they jumped on the chance. The extended program’s goal is to regain movement rather than just to prepare Pete for life in a wheelchair.

“Sometimes you think the easiest thing or the best thing or the smartest thing is to quit,” he said. “It’s the times you push through and you don’t know what the road ahead is or you don’t know what the way is or if it’ll work out. When you push through is when the miracles show up.”

About 10 days into the new program, Ryan received a text from Pete. It was a video of Pete’s leg moving.

“That was a life-changing experience for me,” he said. “We had worked for three months with no lower body movement and here we were. I told him, ‘I’m convinced you’ll walk again. It’ll be a long time but the signal’s getting down there.’”

Pete now has movement in his legs and is even able to stand in the pool and even take three steps on a walking machine used in the program.

“Determination and hard cowboy grit work,” he said. “He’ll walk again.”

The two have documented their journey together and are in the process of editing and filming a documentary titled “For Pete’s Sake.” The brothers are still waiting to film the ending, which they hope will be Pete’s first independent steps.

While Ryan spent months at Pete’s side, his gym’s business suffered with his absence. Ehmann admits he nearly had to close the doors but he was willing to take the chance. As both men round the turn, the business is rebounding as well. Ehmann just signed an agreement to franchise his gym, adding about 1,500 gyms over the next five years. He is back, again.

“It’s been a long road but if I think about how I got to where I am, it’s all because of rodeo,” he said. “People always think nothing will come of a career in rodeo but I always had the mindset that something would.”

Keep up with Ehmann on Facebook at Cowboy Ryan’s Gym-Ft. Collins, CO, or at