The Miracle Season (Part One)

photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

I never imagined any of this—the good parts or the bad.

by Mary Walker


I still can’t explain it—how he knew! How he dared speak the words.

“Mary,” Byron said, “You’re gonna barrel race at the NFR next year.”

It was December of 2011, and we were at the NFR—the National Finals Rodeo—watching the world’s fifteen best barrel racers from seats that Byron’s family has kept for years. Byron, my husband, is a retired bulldogger, a Rodeo Hall of Famer, who made the NFR sixteen times. He’s a big guy with a big personality.

“I want you to study the arena,” he told me. “Pay attention to these girls and how they come down the alleyway.”

“What are you talking about, Byron?” I said. “That’s not going to happen.”

“Yep,” he said. “We’re gonna be here next year. You’ll see.”

I thought, Are you crazy? I was 52 years old and had not rodeoed professionally for more than a quarter century. I came close to making the NFR only once—in 1984! I was broken in spirit and body. So broken we had parked in a handicapped spot that night at the Thomas & Mack Center. Legally.

Back home, in Texas, Byron kept at it. Maybe he was crazy. Or maybe his heart hurt too much.

“What makes you think I can qualify for the National Finals Rodeo, Byron?”

“You deserve to be there,” he said.

“I deserve to be there? I don’t deserve anything. I just want to be healthy. All I want is to ride again.”

I had recently gotten back in the saddle, but only with Byron’s help. And I still wasn’t strong enough to ride Latte.

But I was getting stronger.

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

He Fit Me to a T

I’m sure my horse Latte figured into Byron’s thinking, too.

Latte first caught my eye at a jackpot barrel race about thirty minutes from home. That night, I saw something I really liked in that tall, lanky bay.

This was in 2010. A couple weeks later, I was at a jackpot in Terrell, Texas. This girl walked up to me. She had a knee brace.

“Will you ride Latte for me?” she said. She was injured and needed somebody to finish him as a barrel horse.

I was riding a decent horse at the time. I could win jackpots on him, but he wasn’t good enough to rodeo on. Besides, I had given up rodeoing a couple decades earlier to raise our son.

The first time I got on Latte, I fell in love. He fit me to a T. It was his style of running, the way he turned. We didn’t go fast that night, just loped through the barrels, but I could tell he was smooth and easy. He had an air about him. He was confident, a bit of a bully. He’s got these big brown eyes that make you melt. He was six years old at the time and had a couple of bad habits, nothing major.

But he didn’t know how to run. I had to teach him that.

Once I started working with him, my original impression proved true. He was a natural. He knew to rate his barrels, in other words to slow his pace for a turn without me having to cue him with the reins. He wasn’t a run-off. Some horses you really have to manhandle. He’s not one of those. He was laid-back. He liked to do his job.

But Latte wasn’t ready to rodeo. I put him on a new feed program, made sure he was eating well and worked him hard every day. I got him legged up and started training him to run. I’d put him through short sprints and turns. We ran barrel patterns. I taught him how to leave—run across to the next barrel—when I dropped my rein. Once he figured out what I was asking, he did it naturally.

About that time, a paramedic called. She said Reagon had massive head injuries and was pretty broke up, but he was still alive. I just drove. As fast as I could.

During the first part of 2011, I entered a few small rodeos and placed on Latte. Not first or second, but eighth or ninth. We were pacing ourselves. Besides, I was still riding Latte for his owner. The more time I spent on him, however, the more I wished she would sell him to me—and that we could afford him. You can buy a new truck for what some horses cost. Or a small house for what Latte would bring. And since I had no intention of rodeoing again, it didn’t make sense to spend that kind of money on a horse. Even one as promising as Latte.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen

What Just Happened?

I gave professional rodeoing a go during my early 20s. This was back in the 1980s. We didn’t have gooseneck trailers with fancy live-in quarters. We hauled a bumper-pull trailer and slept in a pop-up camper stacked on the bed of a pick-up. There were no cell phones. To enter a rodeo, you had to stop at a pay phone.

Rodeoing was a ton of fun but a hard way to make a living. That’s how I met my husband. He says he remembers seeing me and my horse at the Astrodome in 1983, the year I made the short-go at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. I don’t know if it was me or the horse that caught his eye. Three months later, up in Reno for the rodeo, we went to the courthouse to get a marriage license. The man in front of us had been married seventeen times and was picking up his eighteenth license. That gave me cold feet. I made Byron promise that if I wasn’t happy, he’d let me go on my way. I still remind him of that some days, especially when Byron tells me what to do. I’m 59 years old and can think for myself!

We had a son, Reagon, in 1989. He came six weeks early and was a tiny thing. I put barrel racing on the back burner to stay home with him, while Byron rodeoed. By the age of one, Reagon filled out. Then he got tall and skinny and stayed tall and skinny.

Reagon loved horses. Byron and I bought him a Welsh pony for Christmas one year. Our son was really tiny, maybe five years old. He would ride and ride and ride that horse. He’d climb the fence to get on. That or we’d throw him on! Nothing scared that boy.

When he was about seven, Reagon picked up a rope. He practiced all the time and got really good. He was a natural athlete. He loved football and baseball. But he always came back to rodeoing. He fit a horse really good.

We finally let him bulldog a steer when he was fourteen. He caught the first steer he ever ran. That boy made everything he tried look easy. He went to all the junior rodeos. As a freshman, Reagon made the High School Rodeo Finals in Abilene—in calf roping, team roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, saddle-bronc riding and cutting! Most cowboys either stick to the timed events or the rough stock. Reagon did it all. After his freshman year, he dropped the saddle-bronc events, but stuck with bull riding and the rest of it.

Reagon got his PRCA pro rodeo card when he turned eighteen. That first year, he rodeoed with his dad. Byron taught him how to enter and hazed for him when he bulldogged.

ByronMaryReagon Football pic.jpg
Reagon winning 2nd at Texas Circuit finals.jpg

After rodeoing professionally for two years, Reagon enrolled in Weatherford College on a full rodeo scholarship. He met a girl, Kaitlyn, from Weatherford. Her daddy raised cutting horses, and she competed as a cutter.

On April 22, 2011, a Friday, Reagon and Kaitlyn were headed to a cutting in Reagon’s truck and trailer. They weren’t forty-five minutes from her house when it happened. They were barreling down Jacksboro Highway. Four lanes with a median, Reagon in the passenger seat. A semi truck in front of them went to turn right and pulled wide. Have you ever seen one of those brick trailers with the forklift mounted on back? That’s what this was. Kaitlyn swerved and was headed for the median when the forklift ripped into Reagon’s truck. It tore off the whole passenger side, all the way past the live-in quarters of the trailer. And, of course, Reagon was on that side.

I was sitting at the vet’s office with my dog when my phone rang. A Fort Worth number. I answered and heard a lady’s voice. She said she was calling on behalf of Kaitlyn’s mother.

“Reagon and Kaitlyn have been in an accident,” the lady said. “Reagon’s being careflighted to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth.”

I headed straight for Fort Worth. I called Byron. He was playing golf and didn’t answer his phone. The pro shop had to track him down. About that time, a paramedic called. She said Reagon had massive head injuries and was pretty broke up, but he was still alive. I just drove. As fast as I could.

When I got to the hospital, they wouldn’t let me see him. They wouldn’t let me see my beautiful boy.

Byron arrived, and we waited, frantic. The doctors worked on Reagon for maybe four hours. When they finally let us see him, it nearly killed me. He was really beat up. Both his collar bones were broken. Both arms, both legs, broken. He lost all his teeth. No brain activity at all.

I knew it was bad when the preacher came in. He sat with us for twenty-two hours. That’s how long Reagon was alive before we gave them permission to take him off life support.

We donated Reagon’s organs. I don’t know who received them, but I wonder. I think about it all the time.

photos by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

You never in your wildest dreams imagine something like this happening. You leave the hospital, and you’re like, What just happened? Yesterday morning everything was fine, and now my son’s gone? This strapping young guy, with his whole life ahead of him. What in the world just happened?

Then you get home, and your yard’s full of people. Full of people. Everybody’s there. All of Reagon’s friends, too. That was one of the saddest things, seeing all of his friends there trying to make sense out of what happened.


Things Got Worse

Two weeks and a day after Reagon died, Mother’s Day rolled around. That afternoon, Byron called my cell phone. I don’t remember where I was.

“You need to pick up Latte and take him to get vet-checked,” he said.

“What for?” I asked.

“I just bought him for you. We need to get him looked at so we can get some insurance on him.”

I was so excited. But I was still sad—and not sure I could justify owning a horse of that caliber.

I had no plans to get back into serious rodeoing. I was on the back side of fifty and two years into a battle with rheumatoid arthritis that made my joints ache and my fingers curl into a claw. Byron and I were still in shock from losing Reagon. Our plan was to pack up and head to Colorado for the summer. We had some friends there who owned an RV park. I’d race barrels at some amateur rodeos, and Byron could doing a little roping. If we were lucky, we’d start putting our lives back together.

That was the plan at least.

But plans change.

Go to Part 2 of “The Miracle Season” by clicking here.