How a new life on the range in Wyoming—and the loyal companionship of a paint horse named Toby—helped Chance Gilliland get back in the saddle after a debilitating injury.
By Samuel Martin
“Flesh and blood need flesh and blood, and you’re the one I need.”
Most cowboys can relate to stories of broken bones. When you’re working with horses, cattle, and large equipment, it’s not a question of if you’ll get hurt but when.
For Chance Gilliland, the fateful moment occurred on a late spring day in 2019 at home in central Missouri. A storm was rolling in, but he just couldn’t fight the urge to ride. “I had gone to the local rodeo the night before and had the itch to be on a horse. When I started to saddle up and mount [my horse], I got thrown and broke my back. I had to be air-evaced to St. Louis, where I had to undergo an emergency spinal fusion.”
The aftermath of his accident was a stark disentanglement from horses and the way of life he knew. Gilliland’s parents, George and Julie, both raced and competed in rodeo and horse shows throughout Chance’s childhood, and he spent his youth riding horses and working with his father. No matter how far he wandered away from home later in life, horses were a constant. Until that day in 2019.
Chance spent the next year and a half in recovery, and for the first time in his life, he experienced anxiety and depression. He spent six months in a brace as he learned how to walk again, and struggled with sleeping and constant pain after returning home from the hospital. He was forbidden to lift anything, so he focused on walking—going a little farther each day.
After a year of grueling recovery, it was time for a change. “I grew up watching cowboy movies about the American west and always had this dream of riding my horse through that same open and vast landscape,” recalls Chance, who knew that this was the time to act on that dream. So he pulled up stakes and moved to Wyoming, taking a job as a wrangler on a ranch near the Colorado border, hoping that living and working in the Cowboy State would rekindle his love for riding.
“I’ve never been scared of horses, but after the accident, I was terrified to even be around them. I was fragile. I had lost a lot of confidence, and I didn’t feel like myself,” he says. “As the saying goes, Get back on the horse, but I’ll tell you it’s not easy after an accident like that. You can’t help but consider the possibility of it happening again, and maybe I won’t be as lucky this time.”
“I’ve never been scared of horses, but after the accident, I was terrified to even be around them.”
When Chance arrived at the ranch, he was paired with a large red horse from the wrangler herd. As he tried to throw a blanket on him, he bolted off across the ring. Chance knew this wasn’t the one. A few days later, he heard rumors about a horse named Toby—a hidden gem within the wrangler herd that hadn’t been ridden in a few seasons.
“The next morning in the dusty air of the stampede, my friend leaned in and said, ‘That’s him,’ and I saw him: white, black, and brown. A galloping paint coming up from the meadow. We met outside the corral and he gave me a nudge.”
Besides their unique coat patterns, paint horses are known for their friendliness, intelligence, and calm demeanor, and Chance’s confidence started to return the moment he climbed onto the saddle. “I saddled him up and went on our first ride and it was just smooth sailing. I felt like myself again,” he recalls.
Toby liked to be at the front of the pack and have a strong presence with the other horses, a dynamic that allowed Chance to give Toby the lead while he relearned the lessons of his youth. The two quickly became familiar with one another and spent the summer riding the 30,000 acres across the ranch.
“Toby was there for me when I needed to learn how to ride a horse again,” Chance says. “He helped me lope and trot again—all basic stuff, but in a way that was comfortable and safe. A rider and a horse should work together because they’re coworkers, trying to get the job done.”
For Chance, the definition of job is an ever expanding one. He recently added “actor” to his résumé following an appearance in the Yellowstone spinoff series 1883, and when not on set, he spends his time at home in Missouri or working on the ranch in Wyoming, riding the open range with Toby.
After an eventful few years, does he have any advice for the rest of us? “Everyone out there can find that horse for you if you look for it, and put the effort into building the relationship.”