COZAD, Neb. - Imagine wanting a job so bad you'd walk miles every day for three years just to prove your worth.
Such was the case for Brad Thomas of Sumner, Neb., when he starting walking the pens in 2005 at Darr Feedlot Inc. near Cozad, Neb., waiting for clearance to ride a horse like the rest of the pen crew.
Why keep a guy off a horse who had been riding horses most of his life and owned and worked with a handful of his own? Just that, he had no hands or arms and the insurance company considered him a liability, noted his boss and feedlot manager John Schroeder.
Schroeder came to work at Darr nine months after Thomas. "It was a frustrating thing. It was three years before the insurance company would let us put him on a horse," he said. "The irony was he was going to cuttings on weekends the whole time!"
Thomas grew up at Oconto, Neb., where he spent lots of time at his grandparents' farm. He lost both arms in a grain auger accident in 1980, six days after his fifth birthday. Doctors tried to fit him with prosthesis arms, but they just seemed to get in the way.
"I was 10 or 11 when I decided I wasn't going to use them anymore and was going to figure things out on my own," he said.
Over the years Thomas learned how to handle many tasks using his mouth and the stub of his left arm. When riding, he flips the reins to his mouth and also uses his legs to direct his horse, using pressure not unlike that used in the dressage method of riding. Driving is also managed with the stub and some knee action.
"In a weird way I guess I was lucky it happened when I was so young because I grew up this way. I really don't know anything different," Thomas said.
He went on to graduate from Callaway High School in 1994 and that is when life's challenges hit hard. "I bounced around from one job to another trying this and that," Thomas said. "In 1999 I realized I liked feedlot work and would volunteer my time riding pens on weekends."
Thomas absorbed as much as he could from other feedlot cowboys and pen riders. He learned how to pick out a lame steer or heifer, how to tell when a droopy ear, runny nose or mattery eye was just a matter of aggravation from insects or dust or when it meant the animal was getting sick and needed treatment.
In 2005 Craig Uden offered Thomas a post at Darr. "He's one of a kind," noted Uden, part owner of the feedlot.
That year Uden and Schroeder went to bat for Thomas so he could ride like all the other pen employees. "Sometimes we just have to get out of the way and let the human spirit go. We have to put those barriers aside we sometimes put up," said Schroeder.
Thomas' duties include riding the pens looking for sick cattle, getting them pulled and taking them to the feedlot hospital for treatment. "He's got that knack, an exceptional sense of when an animal isn't feeling well," noted Schroeder.
Indeed the pen rider takes it personally when he misses even one steer or heifer that might be ailing. He feels keenly for each critter in the 40-plus pens he rides every day. There are 177 pens at Darr and four riders divide up the duties checking those pens, explained Schroeder.
Thomas still feels responsible for the last steer that died on him - and that was two years ago. "It was really dry and dusty and the cattle were really bunched up. The dust was so thick it would choke you. Trying to see every head in all of that was really tough and I missed that one guy. By the time we pulled him to treat him it was too late," he recalled.
His boss notes Thomas pushes himself daily and is not scared to try anything. "On take backs from the hospital you'll often see three guys and he's the one driving the pickup. The other day he was driving a Terrigator watering the alleyways down."
For his ingenuity, tenacity, dedication to the welfare of animals in his charge, and respect for fellow workers, Schroeder nominated Thomas for the Arturo Armendariz Award. The Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame developed the award to recognize feedyard employees who go above and beyond the call of duty to help improve the cattle-feeding industry and the beef they provide to American families. Armendariz, the award's namesake, was a long-time, devoted employee of Poky Feeders in Scott City, Kan.
Thomas was presented the award this summer at the Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame dinner in Denver. The event was a special experience for Thomas. He notes he's a pretty simple guy and dressing up for the banquet was a bit out of character. "All in all though it was a fun experience. I saw my first hockey game, got to meet all kinds of people and well, let's say I enjoyed myself."
His motto and advice to others with disabilities is "Never give up. Trust me, there's been times when I felt like throwing in the towel. I still don't like getting up in front of people to do things. I don't want them to stare."
But those who know Thomas, those who work with him on a daily basis, soon forget he has no arms. "He runs the Bobcat, he helps clean pens. He's always asking, 'What needs to be done, what can I do?' That says a lot about his character. He has an exceptional attitude and I have a tremendous respect for this guy," concludes Schroeder.