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Barrel Racer Mary Walker Turned Tragedy and Injury into Triumph

I still can't explain it — how he knew! How he dared speak the words. “Mary,” Byron said, “you’re gonna barrel race at the NFR next year.”

It was December of 2011, and we were at the NFR — the National Finals Rodeo — watching the world’s fifteen best barrel racers from seats that Byron’s family has kept for years. Byron, my husband, is a retired bulldogger, a Rodeo Hall of Famer, who made the NFR 16 times. He’s a big guy with a big personality.

“I want you to study the arena,” he told me. “Pay attention to these girls and how they come down the alleyway.”

“What are you talking about, Byron?” I said. “That’s not going to happen.”

“Yep,” he said. “We’re gonna be here next year. You’ll see.”

I thought, are you crazy? I was 52 years old and had not rodeoed professionally for more than a quarter century. I came close to making the NFR only once — in 1984! I was broken in spirit and body. So broken we had parked in a handicapped spot that night at the Thomas & Mack Center. Legally.

Back home, in Texas, Byron kept at it. Maybe he was crazy. Or maybe his heart hurt too much.

“What makes you think I can qualify for the National Finals Rodeo, Byron?”

“You deserve to be there,” he said.

“I deserve to be there? I don’t deserve anything. I just want to be healthy. All I want is to ride again.”

I had only recently gotten back in the saddle, but only with Byron’s help. And I still wasn’t strong enough to ride Latte. But I was getting stronger.

“I never imagined any of this — the good parts or the bad.”

Mary Walker

My Horse Latte: He Fit Me to a T

I’m sure my horse Latte figured into Byron’s thinking, too. Latte first caught my eye at a jackpot barrel race about thirty minutes from home. That night, I saw something I really liked in that tall, lanky bay.

This was in 2010. A couple weeks later, I was at a jackpot in Terrell, Texas. This girl walked up to me. She had a knee brace.

“Will you ride Latte for me?” she said. She was injured and needed somebody to finish him as a barrel horse.

I was riding a decent horse at the time. I could win jackpots on him, but he wasn’t good enough to rodeo on. Besides, I had given up rodeoing a couple decades earlier to raise a son.

The first time I got on Latte, I fell in love. He fit me to a T. It was his style of running, the way he turned. We didn’t go fast that night, just loped through the barrels, but I could tell he was smooth and easy. He had an air about him. He was confident, a bit of a bully. He’s got these big brown eyes that make you melt. He was six years old at the time and had a couple of bad habits, nothing major.

But, he didn't know how to run. I had to teach him that.

Once I started working with him, my original impression proved true. He was a natural. He knew to rate his barrels, in other words to slow his pace for a turn without me having to cue him with the reins. He wasn’t a run-off. Some horses you really have to manhandle. He’s not one of those. He was laidback. He liked to do his job.

But Latte wasn’t ready to rodeo. I put him on a new feed program, made sure he was eating well and worked him hard every day. I got him legged up and started training him to run. I’d put him through short sprints and turns. We ran barrel patterns. I taught him how to leave — run across to the next barrel — when I dropped my rein. Once he figured out what I was asking, he did it naturally.

During the first part of 2011, I entered a few small rodeos and placed on Latte. Not first or second but eighth or ninth. We were pacing ourselves.

Besides, I was still riding Latte for his owner. The more time I spent on him, however, the more I wished she would sell him to me — and that we could afford him. You can buy a new truck for what some horses cost. Or a small house for what Latte would bring. And since I had no intention of rodeoing again, it didn’t make sense to spend that kind of money on a horse. Even one as promising as Latte.

  • Reagon earned second place at the Texas Circuit Finals. As a freshman, Reagon made the Texas High School Rodeo Finals in tiedown roping, team roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, saddle-bronc riding and cutting.

  • Byron and Mary with their son Reagon, who they tragically lost in a car accident in 2011.

What Just Happened?

I gave professional rodeoing a go during my early 20s. This was back in the 1980s. We didn’t have gooseneck trailers with fancy live-in quarters. We hauled a bumper-pull trailer and slept in a pop-up camper stacked on the bed of a pickup. Nobody had cell phones. To enter a rodeo, you had to stop at a pay phone.

Rodeoing was a ton of fun but a hard way to make a living. That’s how I met my husband. He says he remembers seeing me and my horse at the Astrodome, in 1983 — the year I made the short-go at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. I don’t know if it was me or the horse that caught his eye. Three months later, up in Reno for the rodeo, we went to the courthouse to get a marriage license. The man in front of us had been married seventeen times and was picking up his eighteenth license. That gave me cold feet. I made Byron promise me that if I wasn’t happy, he’d let me go on my way. I still remind him of that some days, especially when Byron tells me what to do. I’m 59 years old and can think for myself.

We had a son, Reagon, in 1989. He came six weeks early and was a tiny thing. I put barrel racing on the back burner to stay home with him, while Byron rodeoed. By the age of one, Reagon filled out. Then, he got tall and skinny and stayed tall and skinny.

Reagon loved horses. Byron and I bought him a Welsh pony for Christmas one year. Our son was really tiny, maybe five years old. He would ride and ride and ride that horse. He’d climb the fence to get on. That or we’d throw him on! Nothing scared that boy.

When he was about seven, Reagon picked up a rope. He practiced all the time and got really good. He was a natural athlete. He loved football and baseball even more. But he always came back to rodeoing. He fit a horse really good.

We finally let him bulldog a steer when he was fourteen. He caught the first steer he ever ran. Reagon made everything he tried look easy. He went to all the junior rodeos. As a freshman, Reagon made the Texas High School Rodeo Finals in Abilene — in tie-down roping, team roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, saddle-bronc riding and cutting! Most cowboys either stick to the timed events or the rough stock. Reagon did it all. After his freshman year, he dropped the saddle bronc riding but stuck with bull riding and the rest of it. Reagon got his PRCA pro rodeo card when he turned eighteen. That first year, he rodeoed with his dad. Byron taught him how to enter and hazed for him when he bulldogged.

After rodeoing professionally for two years, Reagon enrolled in Weatherford College on a full rodeo scholarship. He met a girl, Kaitlyn, from Weatherford. Her daddy raised cutting horses, and she competed as a cutter.

On April 22, 2011, a Friday, Reagon and Kaitlyn were headed to a cutting in Reagon’s truck and trailer. They weren’t forty-five minutes from her house when it happened. They were barreling down Jacksboro Highway. Four lanes with a median, Reagon in the passenger seat.

A semi truck in front of them went to turn right and pulled wide. Have you ever seen one of those brick trailers with the forklift mounted on back? That’s what this was. Kaitlyn swerved and was headed for the median when the forklift ripped into Reagon’s truck. It tore off the whole passenger side, all the way past the live-in quarters of the trailer. And, of course, Reagon was on that side.

I was sitting at the vet’s office with my dog when my phone rang. A Fort Worth number. I answered and heard a lady’s voice. She said she was calling for Kaitlyn’s mother.

“Reagon and Kaitlyn have been in an accident,” the lady said. “Reagon’s being careflighted to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth.”

I headed straight for Fort Worth. I called Byron. He was playing golf and didn’t answer his phone. The pro shop had to track him down. About that time, a paramedic called. She said Reagon had massive head injuries and was pretty broke up, but he was still alive. I just drove. As fast as I could.

When I got to the hospital, they wouldn’t let me see him. They wouldn’t let me see my beautiful boy.

Byron arrived, and we waited, frantic. They worked on him for maybe four hours. When they finally let us see him, it nearly killed me. He was really beat up. He broke both collar bones, both arms, both legs, lost all his teeth. He had no brain activity at all.

I knew it was bad when the preacher came in. He sat with us for twenty-two hours. That’s how long Reagon was alive before we gave them permission to take him off life support.

We donated Reagon’s organs. I don’t know who received them, but I wonder. I think about it all the time.

You never in your wildest dreams imagine something like this happening. You leave the hospital, and you’re like, what just happened? Yesterday morning, everything was fine, and now my son’s gone? This strapping young guy, with his whole life ahead of him. What in the world just happened?

Then, you get home, and your yard’s full of people. Full of people. Everybody’s there. All of Reagon’s friends, too. That was one of the saddest things, seeing all of his friends there trying to make sense out of what happened.

Mary Walker and Latte fell during a rodeo in Crosby, Texas, leaving Mary with a crushed left hip, fractured right hip, broken femur, two fractured vertebrae and broken big toes on both feet. Mary spent two weeks in the hospital. Above right, it took eight metal plates and eleven pins to fix her left hip.

Things Got Worse

Two weeks and a day after Reagon died, Mother’s Day rolled around. That afternoon, Byron called my cell phone. I don’t remember where I was.

“You need to pick up Latte and take him to get vet-checked,” he said.

“What for?” I asked.

“I just bought him for you. We need to get him looked at, so we can get some insurance on him.”

I was so excited. But I was still sad — and not sure I could justify owning a horse of that caliber.

I had no plans to get back into serious rodeoing. I was on the back side of fifty and two years into a battle with rheumatoid arthritis that made my joints ache and my fingers curl into a claw. Byron and I were still in shock from losing Reagon. Our plan was to pack up and head to Colorado for the summer. We had some friends there who owned an RV park. I’d race barrels at some amateur rodeos, and Byron could do a little roping. If we were lucky, we’d start putting our lives back together.

That was the plan at least.

But plans change.

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?”

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.”

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?

  • Mary's first time back on a horse.

  • Mary's first time back on Latte.

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.”

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, toward 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.

“The first time I got on Latte, I fell in love.”

Mary Walker

Letting Go

That December, we went to the NFR, parked in a handicapped space 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 a 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.

Mary Walker's & Latte's 2012 WNFR Performance

In 2012, Mary started Round 1 ranked third in the world, more than $43,000 behind the leader. Over the 10-day National Finals that features the top 15 barrel racers, she won four go-rounds and ended up placing second in the average. In the end, Walker won the World Championship by nearly $70,000.

  • ROUND 1 — 1st Place (13.75 seconds)
  • ROUND 2 — 1st Place (13.80 seconds)
  • ROUND 3 — 1st Place (13.69 seconds)
  • ROUND 4 — Hit a barrel (18.90 seconds)
  • ROUND 5 — 4th Place (13.89 seconds)
  • ROUND 6 — 2nd Place (13.76 seconds)
  • ROUND 7 — 1st Place (13.72 seconds)
  • ROUND 8 — Didn't place (14.10 seconds)
  • ROUND 9 — 3rd Place (13.90 seconds)
  • ROUND 10 — 6th Place (14.01 seconds)
  • Finished second in the average with total earnings for the 10 days at $146,000
  • Earned Top Gun Award & Dodge Ram Truck
  • Mary named 2012 AQHA/WPRA Barrel Racing World Champion
  • Latte named 2012 Barrel Horse of the Year.

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. Afterward, Byron was like, “you can win all ten rounds!” The fourth night I hit a barrel. That brought me back to Earth.

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 10 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.

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, giving me strength, filling me with a sense of peace, a feeling that everything's okay.

Everything's going to be okay.

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

Mary Walker
On becoming the 2012 World Champion Barrel Racer

Mary's Formulas for Success

Mary supplements Latte with various Platinum Performance® formulas depending on his current needs. He has a standard regimen, and from there, she adjusts his supplement plan based on whether he's traveling extensively, competing heavily or overcoming illness or injury. Check out Latte's programs!

  • Standard Supplement Plan

    • Platinum Performance® CJ (Spice Flavor) The Equine Omega-3 Wellness & Performance Formula + Complete Joint: Platinum Performance's most potent joint support formula combines a whole-horse wellness formula with comprehensive joint support.
    • Platinum Longevity® This formula is chosen for high performing equine athletes to help maintain normal levels of inflammation and support the horse’s response to oxidative stress and muscle breakdown.
  • When Additional Support for Recovery is Needed

    • Myo-Vet® Designed with the equine athlete in mind, Myo-Vet® supports muscle development and function.
    • Hemo-Flo® Hemo-Flo® helps horses maintain proper circulation by supporting the production of nitric oxide.
    • Vitamin E Vitamin E works as an antioxidant, helping to enhance cell activity, and protects cell membranes from free radicals.
  • During Intense Travel/Exercise Periods

    • Platinum Gastric Support® Platinum Gastric Support® helps maintain healthy gastric acid levels in the stomach, as well as normal intestinal protein levels.
Mary Walker
  • by Mary Walker