Tracy Abady and 'Fletch'
Barrel racer turns physical problems into doors, instead of walls.
By Cheryl Magoteaux, originally published in the October 1996 issue
Tracy Abady and 'Fletch'
For many barrel racers, competing in rodeos and barrel races is a dream come true. But for Tracy Abady of Uxbridge, Mass., barrel race competition is the realization of a goal that kept her going through unbelievably painful times.
Tracy has ridden horses—mostly English—since she was 5. In 1990, she was 24 and on the way to her restaurant management job when a tire blew out on her car. The force of the blowout whirled her Honda Accord directly into the oncoming traffic lane where she was hit headon by a van.
Mercifully, Tracy was unconscious during the near hour it took to cut off the car's roof and use the "jaws of life" to remove her from the wreckage. The nightmare continued with what lay ahead.
She was in a coma for a week, while the medical staff treated her injuries. The left side of her face was so badly damaged that her mother had to bring photos to show the plastic surgeon what Tracy was supposed to look like so he could begin the reconstructive process.
Another challenge of Tracy's healing process was overcoming the severe brain trauma she had suffered. The injury to her left side would force her to undergo years of therapy since she had lost most of her motor skills on that side— AND she was lefthanded. That meant she had to relearn a lot of simple tasks.
"I couldn't even brush my teeth righthanded," she remembers. "The other side of my brain had to pick up where it could."
Tracy left the hospital in a wheelchair, then with more therapy and a lot of determination, was able to walk again. The hospital personnel were amazed, but Tracy wanted more. The level of therapy she tackled was immense, but a year after the accident, she was riding a horse.
"I had to wear weights on my left side because I couldn't hold my left leg in place and it kept bumping my horse," she explained. "The weights helped keep my leg still."
Trying to stabilize her body was essential, because Tracy had found a new goal. She wanted to barrel race.
"I started practicing," she said. "I would hook my left thumb in my belt loop to keep that arm steady and ride one-handed through the pattern with my right hand. I was thrilled when I actually got to go to some shows."
Despite having only one hand to use on the reins and the balance problem with her left arm and leg, her times began to improve. One of her good friends, Randy Harding, "helped me all year in 1994." With Randy's support, Abady was able to move from "D" to "B" ranking in the local barrel racing organizations.
She soon decided she had progressed as far as she could with the horse she had. She saved her money, then went to where she'd been told the horses were—Texas. When she got to the Lone Star State, she soon realized that the reports of its size were not exaggerated and that Texas was much bigger than she'd expected.
"I had called different people looking for a horse you could ride onehanded," she said. "They were all in Texas. I didn't realize that they could be in Texas and still be 12 hours from where I was staying!" She tried a lot of horses, but unfortunately, most of the people she had talked to didn't realize how important it was to find a horse that would go completely one-handed.
Tracy's saddle now has a 'hand-hold' to assist her weakened left hand.
"Or the horse would ride one-handed—by that they meant one hand to the first barrel and the other hand to the second and third," she said. "They didn't understand that I had to use the same one hand because I don't have enough strength or coordination in my left hand to hold the reins. I kept getting there and finding that each horse I tried couldn't work with just being ridden righthanded throughout the entire pattern."
After a week of disappointment, Tracy was exhausted and out of horses to try. On the verge of coming home empty-handed, she had stopped at a convenience store in Libertyville, Texas. When a family pulled in with a loaded horse trailer, "We introduced ourselves and they said they were going to a barrel race in Giddings."
At their invitation, Tracy followed along and at the barrel race, she met Leanna Pack, who had a barrel horse for sale. Tracy knew immediately after trying him that "Fletch" (Lil Dab A Dad) was the horse she had been looking for.
She bought him, brought him home and had to sit and wait through some of the worst mid-winter blizzards in recent history. Finally, the bad weather passed and horse and rider began to adjust to one another. Soon, the duo began to show signs of being a team.
"My husband, Dave, was so patient with me," she said. "There were a lot of nights that dinner just wasn't on the table, but he stayed very supportive."
In spite of her dedication to her sport, Tracy admits to occasional frustration.
Even today, "I still get tired—I have to take naps or else I lose coordination," she said.
Simple physical tasks like saddling, or trailering or driving, take a toll and she must guard against becoming too fatigued. She also still has some problems quickly putting thoughts into words, especially when she's tired. Tracy has learned to treat each problem, not as a wall blocking her progress, but as a door she must find the strength to walk through. She trusts her horse—"He's so wonderful"—and depends on a great group of friends and supporters who are constantly coming up with new innovations to help her ride. This year, she had a saddle modified, changing the horn into a hand-hold that was much easier to grip with her weakened left hand. That hand-hold has helped her stabilize her seat as she makes the two off-hand turns. She also has been experimenting with some sort of modification to let her change her hand position on her reins with her right hand.
A thrill came early this year when she purchased her WPRA permit and competed in her first professional rodeo, and her wins in local and regional competition are getting more consistent.
Even with those victories, Tracy's road to barrel racing success has been—and continues to be—very challenging. Having physical limitations is discouraging, but Abady has the heart of a winner, in spite of all she's been through.
"Everything was—and is—tougher for me," she said. "It takes me longer to saddle, and I guess I have half of what everyone else does, strengthwise. But, you know, when you make a good run, there's no better feeling!"