The Miracle Season (Part Two)

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


This is the second and final part of “The Miracle Season.” If you have not done so already, please start with Part One.


Now that Latte was mine, I entered a few local rodeos that May. It took my mind off our loss. Then came Hawaii.

Before the accident, Byron and I planned a trip to Hawaii with Reagon and Kaitlyn. We booked a condo and bought four plane tickets. After Reagon passed away, I thought, I don’t want to go on vacation. I just lost my son.

“No, let’s go,” Kaitlyn said. “Reagon would want us to go.”

We went. And it was hard. We spent ten days trying to be happy, knowing we left someone behind.

We arrived home from Hawaii at 6:00 a.m. on June 9. That night, I was entered in a rodeo in Crosby, down by Houston. I felt jet-lagged and didn’t want to go, but I went anyway. Byron stayed home. Our friend Josh drove me.

Nobody has any video of my run that night, so I don’t know exactly what happened. Latte and I made a beautiful first barrel and a beautiful second barrel. But when Latte rounded the third barrel, it felt like someone jerked his legs out from under him. He slammed into the ground, broadside, with me underneath. I got pinned against the barrel. My body had nowhere to go.

My first thought was, Just don’t kick me! I could feel Latte scrambling to get up. I could see his hooves. Just don’t kick my head!

He caught his feet and took off running.

I lay there, catching my breath. The paramedics came running out.

“Are you okay?”

“I think so,” I said. “If you’ll help me get up….” I felt like if I could walk out, it would make people feel better. When someone gets hauled off on a stretcher, you know it’s bad.

They stood me up. That’s when I heard the cracking. I wasn’t in pain—maybe it was the adrenaline—but I knew something was bad wrong. “You guys gotta set me back down and take me out of here,” I said. I lay there and tried to stay calm.

I kept asking, “Is my horse okay? Where’s Latte?”

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

Latte was fine. A friend found me in the ambulance and told me she would trailer him back to my house. Someone called Byron.

“My toes are broken,” I told one of the paramedics. “They’re killing me.”

“You’ve got other worse things wrong,” he said. “We’ll worry about the toes later.”

He was right. At the hospital, x-rays showed a crushed left hip, fractured right hip, broken femur, two fractured vertebrae—and broken big toes on both feet.

Somehow, the surgeon pieced me back together. It took eight metal plates and eleven pins to fix my left hip. I was in the hospital for two weeks. By then, the pain was excruciating. For one thing, they cut my arthritis medication, which caused my joint pain to flare up. They worried the medication might cause complications. Every time the sheets touched my two big toes, I about came out of bed!

The nurses spent days teaching me to get into a wheelchair. I had this plastic brace around my chest and stomach—I guess to keep my back from breaking in two—and every time I tried to sit up, I’d vomit. They would lay me down and we’d try again, and I would get sick.

Somehow, things got even worse.

After I was released, Byron drove me home. He had gotten me a hospital bed. I told him, “I’m not staying in a hospital bed. I’ve been in one for two weeks. I want it gone.”

Somewhere around Cody, Wyoming, I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I stopped feeling guilty. I stopped being afraid. Finally, for the first time since Reagon died, I let go.

I spent four months in a brown recliner. We kept a commode chair next to it, because my wheelchair wouldn’t fit into our bathroom. I had a major arthritis flare-up. I couldn’t lift my shoulders. I couldn’t wash my hair. I couldn’t use my fingers. I had to lift my water glass with my wrists. Our friend Josh spent the summer with us. If I didn’t have my wheelchair, he and Byron just carried me.

I had nothing to do but sit and think. I missed Reagon. Dark thoughts haunted me. God, what did I do to make you mad at me? I’m a pretty decent person. Maybe I don’t go to church every Sunday. What did I do? How did this happen? Just how did this happen?


Back in the Saddle

Weeks passed. One day that summer, I asked Byron if he would ride Latte for me. I wanted to watch.

Latte’s got a funny deal—when you get on him, you have to pull his head to the right and then to the left, and then he’ll go. The first time Byron mounted Latte, I wheeled myself onto the back porch and watched. They didn’t move. The two of them just sat there. Byron pulled out his phone and called me from the pasture.

“How do you get him out of neutral?” he asked.

I explained the deal, and soon Byron and Latte were loping across the pasture. He did that two or three times a week.

Did Latte wonder where I went all of a sudden? I thought. Did my horse miss me, the way I missed Reagon?

The first time I saw Latte up close, he spooked. Byron rolled me up to the stall, and my beautiful horse ran to the back and snorted. Oh my gosh, I thought. He doesn’t love me anymore. Or maybe it was the wheelchair.

Rehab was torture. I worked at it three hours a day, three days a week. But it was necessary, and my rehab team was incredible.

One of the guys had a wife who had been kicked in the head by a horse and killed. Four months in, as I was transitioning from wheelchair to walker, he told Byron, “She needs to get back on a horse.”

“There’s no way,” Byron said.

“I’m telling you, she needs to get back on a horse.”

Despite the man’s own loss, he was convinced sitting astride a horse would help my hips heal. And maybe my heart. “She’s not getting on a horse!” Byron said.

When Byron calmed down, he called the doctor.

“As long as the horse is gentle, she can try,” the doctor said. “But why would you put her on a horse?”

“That’s what she was doing when she got hurt,” Byron said. “That’s what Mary does. She’s a barrel racer.”

photos by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

I didn’t dare get on Latte. Instead, I started on our old black-and-white gelding, Paint. Byron had to lift me into the saddle and swing my leg over. It did feel good, but I was shaky and weak and got down after five minutes.

I finally mounted Latte, with Byron’s help, towards the end of November, nearly six months after our accident. Latte was full of himself and a bit spooky. We walked, and I held tight to the saddle horn, cautious for the first time in my life. What if I fall off? What if I hang a foot in the stirrups, and he drags me?

I took things real slow. After a time, we advanced into a trot. As the days passed, I tried loping in straight lines. No circles yet. I finally loped big circles. Then smaller circles.

“I think it’s time to see if you can run barrels,” Byron said one day. We had begun talking about me rodeoing again. I kept my WPRA pro card active, paying the dues every year since the 1980s just in case.

“I don’t think I’m ready,” I said.

“If you’re not going to run barrels, we need to sell the horse.”

“You’re not selling the horse!” I told him.

We went to the arena at Terrell, where I first rode Latte. My left leg was still too weak for me to mount on my own.

I made a run. It felt fast. My spirits lifted.

“You’re gonna have to go faster than that,” Byron said, “if you plan on entering at Odessa.”

That really busted my bubble.

But I went faster.

first time back on latte.jpg

Letting Go

That December we went to the NFR, parked in the handicapped and Byron made his crazy proclamation about me qualifying for the 2012 NFR. In early January, when I entered at Odessa—the Sandhills Stock Show and Rodeo—we were already three months into the 2012 NFR qualifying season.

My first run was way too slow. I pushed myself and Latte, and we placed in the second round. It was start.

After that, things went slow. In late February, I made the short-go at Tucson. In March, I won at Arcadia, Florida. But I was inconsistent. I kept hitting barrels. In the run-up to summer, I hit barrels at a string of rodeos. Hitting barrels hurts. They’re metal, and if you’re going fast, they’ll cut you wide open. You don’t want to look at my legs. They’re covered in scars.

Byron was getting on my ass for hitting barrels, but I didn’t need to hear it from him. I was angry with myself. I felt distracted. One thought in particular cycled through my head: Reagon’s dead, and I’m getting to enjoy what I love to do. It’s not fair. Feelings of guilt were holding me back.

And deep down, I was afraid of falling. Byron and I both noticed that if a rider fell, I would unconsciously safety-up during my run and hit a barrel. That’s what happened in Wyoming, at the Cody Stampede Rodeo over July 4th. This girl fell, and, sure enough, I hit a barrel.

Back at the trailer, I was steaming mad, stomping around with a bucket in my hands. I couldn’t take my anger out on Latte, so I flung the bucket. I didn’t say a word, just got in the trailer while Byron loaded the horse and drove. I’m pretty easygoing, but I was so frustrated. This is stupid, I thought. Just because her horse fell doesn’t mean Latte’s gonna fall. Just go hard, and if he falls, deal with it. Enough is enough!

We drove west to Nampa, Idaho, for the Snake River Stampede. At Nampa, I didn’t hit any barrels. And I won the rodeo!

The next week, I won Cheyenne Frontier Days. I placed at Deadwood. Won at Omaha. Things were clicking. Somewhere around Cody, Wyoming, I had stopped feeling sorry for myself. I stopped feeling guilty. I stopped being afraid.

Finally, for the first time since Reagon died, I let go.

Latte must have felt the shift in me, the way horses do. Maybe he took it as trust in him, which it surely was, because from then on he ran like a champion. And I let him.

Not long ago, I taught Latte to run.

After Cody, Latte taught me to soar.

photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

A Sense of Peace

On September 30, when the 2012 season ended, I was the third highest-earning barrel racer in Pro Rodeo. Latte and I were headed to the National Finals Rodeo.

Byron’s prediction was coming true.

Byron converted our arena back home into a replica of the Thomas & Mack Center, home of the NFR since 1985. He arranged the fencing, strung banners, recreated the alleyway and placed barrels in the same tight cloverleaf pattern that Latte and I would soon face ten nights in a row. Latte and I practiced daily, running the alleyway, loping through the pattern. The whole time, I felt an inner peace, like I had done this a thousand times before.

The calm continued even after we got to Las Vegas. Everyone told me the NFR can be a real pressure cooker. But after losing my son and clawing back from my accident, the stress of competing was nothing. Getting to the NFR is every barrel racer’s dream. I had made it. My goal was to be at the NFR!

And then, on opening night, Latte and I won Round One.

I couldn’t believe it! I was in tears. If you win the round at the NFR, you’re supposed to mount a special victory-lap horse, but I was so shocked that I rode Latte instead. I got in trouble for that. Then they swept me off to do TV interviews. Holy smokes! The whole night was crazy.

The next night, I won Round Two.

What? No way! I thought. You just don’t do that.

Round Three: I won again!

By then, I had the routine down—jump on the victory-lap horse, head to the media room. Afterwards, Byron was like, “You can win all ten rounds!”

The fourth night I hit a barrel. That brought me back to Earth.

winning round 3 at NFR.jpg

In the fifth and sixth rounds I placed, and I won Round Seven. My prize money was piling up. I knew I had a shot at winning the world championship. But you don’t want to imagine wearing that gold buckle until you’ve actually won it. You never know what can happen. Your horse might fall during a run. He might fall on you. You do your best, and whatever happens, happens.

I placed in rounds eight and nine. The money pile grew higher.

During Round Ten, Latte and I were in the alleyway, waiting on our go, when this stranger walked up and whispered to Justin, the guy helping me. Was I in trouble for something? I hadn’t been nervous all week, but I could feel the jitters coming on.

“What did he say, Justin?”

“I really don’t want to tell you,” Justin said.

“I need to know!”

“They think you’ve got the Top Gun Award won,” he said, referring to the fancy Ram pickup truck that goes to the individual, across all events, who wins the most money during the NFR. “But only if you don’t fall off during your last round.”

“Well, thanks a lot!” I told him.

The whole time, I was thinking, Just don’t fall off! Just don’t fall off!

I didn’t fall off. Back in the alleyway, everybody was hollering, “Get off your horse! Get in the back of this truck so we can drive you around the arena!”

By not falling off, I finished second in the NFR average. That boosted my total earnings for those ten days to $146,000, which won me the truck and vaulted me into first place.

It was official. I was the 2012 barrel racing world champion. The gold buckle was mine to wear.

And Latte was named 2012 Barrel Horse of the Year by the American Quarter Horse Association.

I could hardly believe it. I always imagined Reagon reaching this milestone, never me. But he felt very close.

When we got home, Byron filled Latte’s stall full of fresh shavings.

“That’s enough shavings, don’t you think?” I said.

“As much money as Latte just won, he can have as many shavings as he wants!”

We pampered and babied that horse. The vet said he was in fantastic shape, acting like those ten runs were nothing. I couldn’t have done it without him.

I couldn’t have done it without Reagon, either. I felt his presence throughout that season and even stronger at the NFR.

He’s still with me today, giving me strength. His presence fills me with a sense of peace, a feeling that everything’s okay.

Everything’s going to be okay.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen