By Bridget Kirkwood
Horses aren’t just a habit for Heather Leeper; they’re a disease. At least that’s how her non-horsey parents, Glen and Carrie Ford, have explained their daughter’s fascination with creatures of the equine variety to their friends for the past 26 years. Growing up in Dumas, Texas, it’s Leeper’s grandmother, Joyce Ford, whom everyone blames for Leeper’s affliction.
“My dad is an electrician and he hates horses. My mom is a nurse and she grew up a city girl, but my grandmother used to show horses and she’s the reason I have the so-called ‘disease of horses,’” said Leeper, who is the oldest of four sisters: Leah, Allyson and Makenzie. “My family, even though they don’t care for horses, has always supported what I do, and I appreciate that.”
Initially following in her grandmother’s footsteps took Leeper to the Western pleasure and horsemanship arenas. At age 12, she added show jumping to her repertoire and qualified for the AQHA World Show twice in that event. It wasn’t until her junior year of high school that a classmate introduced her to the cloverleaf pattern.
“Me and a girl in my class had a little rivalry going on,” Leeper said. “She kept saying she was a better rider than me. I kept saying she should show horses against me.”
With neither girl willing to concede, Leeper pulled a horse out of her grandmother’s pasture, worked it on the barrel pattern, then started running and winning at high school rodeos. That horse, Madame Tamara (“Cheetah”), won the prestigious Ogden 8 & Under barrel race in 2011 for Hadlee Gomez.
“Showing horses was always somebody’s opinion of whether you could ride or train a horse, and I hated that,” Leeper said. “With show jumping, you need jumps and a whole lot of things to go with it. With barrel racing, it only takes three barrels, you and your horse.”
Last September, when her sister, Allyson Ford, was killed in a car accident, Leeper’s priorities shifted forever from merely tuning horses in the barrel pen to convincing people to tune out from their cell phones while driving.
“She was texting and driving. She hit a Tahoe head-on and was killed instantly. The driver of the other vehicle walked away, thankfully,” Leeper recalled.
Allyson was the homecoming queen of her high school. At the time of her accident, she was taking pre-med courses, and her lowest grade was a 92. The message Leeper and her family want people to hear is that it doesn’t matter how good you are at school or at your job, no one is capable of texting and driving safely. To help carry their message of “One text or call can wreck it all,” the Ford family established the Angel’s Grace Scholarship in Allyson Ford’s name, which is based on a poster drive where students pledge not to text and drive.
“Texting and driving is a common habit, but you don’t realize how one glance at a phone can change your entire life and your family’s life. If you are in a car with somebody who is texting and driving, take their phone away from them. Do not stand for somebody texting while you are in the vehicle,” Leeper urged. “If someone isn’t driving responsibly, do something about it. It’s life or death.”
To help cope with the pain of such a tragic and needless loss, Leeper relies on help from her horses.
“I’d go insane without my horses,” Leeper said. “If all I get to do at the end of the day is go out and see my horses, then I go out and see them. I literally can’t go a day without my horses. They’re part of me; they keep me going.”
Now living in Wilmore, Kansas, with her husband, Andrew, whom she married in October 2013, Leeper rides horses for a living.
“We run a ranch. I have cow horses and show in ranch horse competitions as well as run barrels. Andrew has been a huge support and is the reason I can continue to do what I love to do. Because of him, I don’t have to have a 9-to-5 job,” Leeper said.
Leeper’s main mount is a 6-year-old brown gelding, Fire The Pilot (“Shooter”).
“Shooter makes it fun. You never leave the arena mad on Shooter because he’s so sweet and tries so hard every time,” Leeper said. “When you walk out to the barn, he’s the first one to greet you and he wants to know what’s going on. He has the sweetest, kindest eye. He’s the horse everybody wants to ride. When I run barrels on him I don’t care if I win the show or don’t do good at all.”
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