By Blanche Schaefer, originally published in the January 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News
Barrel racers can spend months preparing themselves and their horses for a major event—setting goals, developing a training schedule, trying new tack, spending late nights and early mornings riding. Four months before the 2017 National Barrel Horse Association World Championship Show, Kathleen Rittenour was just trying to walk again after a serious car accident in August 2016.
“I tried to put my foot from the accelerator to the break pedal and hit a car in front of me, and the brake pedal twisted my right foot off as I went into the windshield,” Rittenour said. “I was brought back into the car, and both legs were affected by the crash with multiple fractures by the impact of the engine. It took 15 days before they reattached my right foot fully to my body. I laid in bed for eight months with many surgeries, not knowing if I would keep my foot or what range of motion I would have.”
The months were lengthy and painful. Rittenour’s body finally accepted her reattached foot and she began walking in June 2017. Her horses and competitive drive pushed her to get back in the saddle in July and start slow work on the pattern. However, life threw another curveball at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, physical education teacher.
“My mom was killed in a car accident in August 2017 when she swerved for a deer and fawn in the road,” Rittenour said. “I took another few weeks off to take care of family matters. I have been through so much to get to [the 2017 NBHA World Championships].”
Rittenour wasn’t about to give up her trip to Perry, Georgia, that she’d worked so hard for, thanks to her horse Rodeo Fireworks, whom she has since sold when “Zeus’s” powerful turns became too much after her legs were compromised in the accident.
“I received my first ‘wildcard’ invite on Zeus at the Heartland Super Show in South Dakota in May of 2016, so I started planning my NBHA World Championships Georgia trip then,” Rittenour said. “It’s a trip that takes a lot of planning, money, and support from those around you. One of those ‘bucket list’ shows for people up here in South Dakota.”
Rittenour gritted up and prepared for the late October show as best she could in the few months she had. She made the 24-hour drive to Perry with her daughter, Calie, who also competed, and three horses: Frenchys Frosty (“Frosty”), Honor UR Dynamic Cat (“Catman”) and Mitey Oak (“Titan”), who belongs to Calie. Rittenour placed in the Senior 4D Finals aboard Frosty. Though she didn’t qualify for the Open finals, she always keeps the bigger picture in mind.
“I’ve had some pretty difficult days but know there are easier roads ahead. I just want to have fun for now—ride horses and spend time with children and grandchildren,” Rittenour said. “I have a great deal more healing to do physically and emotionally. I know I’ll live in some sort of pain the rest of my life. I’m not going to let that stop me from enjoying the things I love.”
One aspect of returning to competition Rittenour struggles with is not running at the top of her game.
“I can’t ride the powerful 1D horses I had prior to the accident, and now I need to be happy just riding a horse,” Rittenour said. “I’m loving this 5D format of not being the No. 1 rider but still getting a chance for a ‘win’ in my division, even if it’s the 5D. But no matter what, I feel I’m a winner by just riding my horse into that arena.”
Rittenour credits her faith, horses and a strong network of family and friends for helping her in tough times.
“Words of wisdom through this: God does give us more than we can handle. But He provides us with faith, family, and friends—two and four legs—to help us get through… it is up to us to ask for the help,” Rittenour said. “I can never pay back all the wonderful things that so many have done for me but I will do my best to pay it forward when I can.”
Recovering from the life-changing accident will be a long process physically and mentally. Knowing her horses are waiting at the barn and another run awaits her in the alley makes each step a little easier.
“My mind says I can do it, but my body and my legs and my balance says nope, you can’t do that yet,” Rittenour said. “The horses are my therapy. They’re the direction to get me back in the saddle and doing what I love best.”
Blanche Schaefer is associate editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected].