Teenager John David Kemp has defied doctors’ odds by fighting a rare vascular condition that put him in a wheelchair. Today, the barrel racer is able to walk and ride and has started a Facebook group to support other youth with similar situations.
John David Kemp, 16, looked forward to his first RFD-TV’s The American qualifier race at the Southern Most Barrel Race last summer. After a day of work, he arrived shortly before the race started. Just as he was about to make his run, his legs cramped up. His parents pulled him off the horse and began massaging his legs as the family talked of scratching.
“He just looked at us and said, ‘Hey, this horse is going to do this for me,’” John David’s father, John, recalled. “This horse has become an avatar for him.”
John David doesn’t remember a life before pain and muscle spasms. Until age 4, he was an active kid who loved playing in the yard and rebuilding his toy John Deere Gator. In 2008, his life changed forever. In the middle of the night he struggled to breathe and screamed in pain. His mom called 911, and he went limp in her arms while she waited for the rescue squad.
“The doctor put in my medical report that I was having exorcist-like pain,” John David said. “They said I had pneumonia but couldn’t find what caused the pain.”
Throughout the next five years, the pain worsened. Diagnoses ranged from scoliosis to a condition known as chiari malfunctions. Even with these “answers,” doctors could not pinpoint the source of pain. While most kids his age played baseball or football, he sat on the sidelines in a wheelchair.
In a twist of fate, his father began seeing a new doctor and mentioned his son’s condition during a routine visit. The doctor encouraged them to push for more answers. Multiple visits with different specialists eventually led the family to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. The final diagnosis was a vascular condition—one that was so rare it didn’t have a name. Doctors suggested an experimental surgery with an 80 percent chance of being paralyzed.
The first 48 hours following the procedure were touch-and-go. Upon his release, John David was shocked to walk more than 10 minutes without collapsing. The triumph was short-lived. Six months later, he was back in the hospital fighting for his life. His lungs filled with fluid, his resting heart rate was 180 and it jumped to 240 anytime he stood.
“These events gave me only two options in life. Be a victim or be a survivor,” John David said. “With all the fighting I have done, I decided to be a survivor and fight for everything.”
After John David’s release from the hospital, doctors were reluctant to sign-off on any sports. He tried competitive swimming, but lung issues interfered. A doctor mentioned therapeutic riding and John David convinced his mother, Jen, to attend an open house at a stable. They left having signed up for six regular riding lessons.
“The funniest thing was when Mom called my dad and told him ‘What’s the big deal about these lessons, it’s only going to be about $60 a week?’ he said there is no way this stays at 60 bucks a week,” John David said with a laugh.
The investment has easily surpassed $60 a week, but it’s an activity that brought the family into the horse industry for the first time. It’s also given them a break from focusing on medical issues. Lessons transpired into a lease and then the purchase of their first horse, Larks Rugged Hawk.
When the family looked at the now-5-year-old gelding, they were told nobody could ride him. The trainer and his parents were skeptical that a young, green horse would be a good fit for an inexperienced rider. When John David got on, the horse stepped right off to work. Both Jen and John describe horses as a blessing, something that has given their family something positive to funnel their energy toward.
“When you do something like [fight for your child’s life] for so many years, you become a team. Your mission is keeping somebody alive or getting them healthier, and you’re all focused on one person in the family,” John said. “With the horses, now we’re all taking care of something else together. And that horse is taking care of us.”
Jen agrees that having horses as a part of their life has added a joy and hopefulness that could have easily been diminished if they would have allowed the negativity and stress of life keep them down. Instead, they’ve continued to view life and horses as a blessing.
“Horses are giving us a community, and a different camaraderie than we’ve ever experienced,” Jen said. “We have had amazing people help us throughout the medical journey, but this has been a whole different experience.”
People without chronic pain often take for granted that someone who looks “OK” is struggling internally. Even when John David looks “fine,” he’s battling constant headaches, back and leg pain.
“People like me are just really good at hiding it or pushing it to the side and just moving on with life, because if we didn’t we’d always be on the couch,” John David said. “We’re always in horrible pain, and we push through and try to live a normal life.”
John David regularly runs in the NBHA District 05 in Florida. His competitive goals include the 2021 NBHA Youth and Open World Championships. He also has big plans for encouraging other riders with disabilities to chase their dreams through a Rolling to Riding Rodeo Team he created.
“So far, it’s just me, but I hope to have other people like me eventually participate,” John David said. “I would like to have a fundraiser to raise money to make it possible for people like me to barrel race.”
As this article was preparing to go to press, the Kemps became a two-horse family. They purchased a 14-year-old Quarter Horse named Wrangler from a local barrel racer.
“This is one step closer for all of us to ride as a family,” Jen said. “My heart is full sitting in a saddle next to my son. John [David] said he will teach me, and who knows, maybe I’ll even compete in the Senior division one day.”
This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue of Barrel Horse News.