The early morning mist enveloped the valleys in central Kentucky where Rikki had her farm. Having put up the horse in the barn the night before, she only had to saddle him up and hit the trail. As she walked in the barn, the familiar scent of hay and horse wafted past her making her smile.
“Good morning ‘Mater. How are you this morning,” she asked of her beautiful copper sorrel. ‘Mater walked up to the gate and stuck his head out. Rikki took him in both hands and rubbed the sides of his head and kissed the bridge of the horse’s nose. ‘Mater grunted his approval and swiped his head against Rikki in a playful gesture. Rikki laughed and opened the gate, leading the horse out.
She quickly and expertly lifted her trail riding saddle on ‘Mater and buckled everything nice and snug giving him a pat on the rump when she finished. Rikki hopped up with all the enthusiasm she remembered having when she used to ride on her papaw’s farm when she was a girl.
It was because of her papaw that she was doing this now. After he died, Rikki’s dad had given her a box labelled “Rikki Ann” in her papaw’s scratchy handwriting. It was full of things that they had shared as she grew up. Things that reminded her of him the instant she saw them. At the bottom were some things that she had never seen before though. There was a picture of him and Rikki’s mamaw when they were young from before they were even married. There were other photos of her family, including some of her dad. But what most intrigued her was a program from The Kentucky State Amateur Rodeo. She looked through it and under the heading “Adult Roping and Bronco Riding” and the third name from the top was Pete Berry. “Papaw was a rodeo cowboy,” she asked herself out loud.
She didn’t know why, but after seeing that, she decided she wanted to be in a rodeo also. She always loved barrel racing when she went to a rodeo, so why not try that. With the help of a family friend, she bought ‘Mater, an already experienced barrel race horse.
She trained with ‘Mater every day and her friend trained her every weekend for two years before finally feeling comfortable with entering an actual rodeo.
And here she was, the day before her first rodeo. She was nervous and she knew ‘Mater could sense that. So she took him out for an early morning trail ride to help calm both their nerves. She hopped up and rode ‘Mater right out of the barn.
They rode to the back of the property about a half mile away to a place where Rikki always felt her papaw’s presence. This morning was no different. She got off the horse and draped the reins over the horn on the saddle and stood there soaking in the early morning light filtering through the mist.
“Well Papaw,” she said out loud. “Tomorrow is it. I’ll be in a rodeo just like you.” She pawed around at the brush with the toe of her boots, her hands stuffed in her pockets. “I just want you to know I’ll be thinking about you and I hope you can help me out. Keep me calm, you know how I get in front of a crowd. Well, I guess that’s about it. I love you Papaw.”
She got back on ‘Mater and already felt at ease. ‘Mater sensed Rikki’s calmness and mirrored it in his gait. They headed back to the barn where Rikki would clean ‘Mater up and then load him in the trailer and head out for the hour and forty-five minute trip to Louisville.
They came over a ridge and within sight of the barn and Rikki leaned forward and patted ‘Mater on the back of the neck. “You want to run, ‘Mater?” Horse and human were so connected to each other that ‘Mater took off without Rikki doing anything to spur her on.
She closed her eyes, completely trusting ‘Mater, and felt the cool wind blowing through her hair. Time seemed to slow down and she could hear the steady but heavy breath of ‘Mater swiftly carrying her toward the barn with each powerful stride.
When they reached the barn, she got down and patted ‘Mater on the neck and scratched behind his ears. “Come on, ‘Mater,” she said and walked into the barn to the washing stall with ‘Mater following close behind.
Rikki washed and combed him and led ‘Mater to the trailer that was already hitched to the truck. “You ready for this,” she asked ‘Mater. ‘Mater bobbed his head up and down in the very human gesture. “Ok, come on,” Rikki laughed as she walked the horse into the trailer.
Rikki waited down at the back of the chute and made ‘Mater walk around to burn off some of the excitement they both were feeling. ‘Mater walked around feeling completely at home in the loud and massive arena. Rikki, however, had never done this before, had never been in front of such a crowd, and had never been more nervous in her life.
She got in line as her name was called. There were two riders in front of her who seemed like they were going on a trail ride back home. They showed no signs of nervousness. She wondered how they could do that, and decided to try to not be nervous by concentrating on her ride.
She envisioned herself riding ‘Mater through the chute and up to the first barrel, she saw ‘Mater carry her through to the second barrel and deftly stop and change direction to the third barrel. She saw the same thing happen on number three and then ‘Mater run as fast as he can past the first two and back through the gate. She saw it all in her mind and repeated it once more.
She found she was more calm and at ease now. ‘Mater felt it and looked over his shoulder at her and seemed to say, “You’ll be fine. I’ll take good care of you.” Rikki smiled and patted him. She was next up.
As the horse and rider came back into the alley after their ride she got ‘Mater into place. Rikki took a deep breath, closed her eyes and thought of her papaw. She knew he was watching her and looking over her right now. She could feel his presence right there in the arena. She heard the buzzer signaling that they were ready for her run.
She opened her eyes, took another deep breath and said to herself as much as she did to ‘Mater, “Let’s do this.”
She kicked ‘Mater with both heels and hollered “Come on!” He took off faster than she had ever felt him move. She held on tighter than she had ever done before. Half way to the first barrel she felt time slow down just as it had earlier when ‘Mater took her to the barn.
The wind whipped past her causing her hair that was being held down by her Western cowboy hat to flap up and down on her back. She heard ‘Mater’s breathing again and felt the power as his hoofs pounded the dirt below them. It was the most exhilarating feeling she had ever had.
The first barrel was coming up quickly. At the last second she cried, “Woah,” and neck reined the horse. He stopped almost on a dime and rounded the first barrel missing it by mere inches. As he came around the barrel, Rikki lined him up with the second barrel and kicked him again. She kicked with each stride and ‘Mater obliged giving his all for her.
They repeated the turn on barrel number two and then she felt something, something that wasn’t supposed to happen. She didn’t know what it was, she couldn’t nail it down. The saddle felt soggy the way a car feels when you drive it with tires with very low air pressure. Her first thought was she missed something while tacking ‘Mater out of the trailer. Panic welled up in her gut as the third barrel got closer and closer.
‘Mater was sprinting and she didn’t know what to do. If she stopped the run she could go flying over ‘Mater’s head. If she kept going she could be flung off the horse and into the wall or she could slide off on the other side and crash into the metal 55 gallon drum.
She didn’t know what to do so she trusted her horse. She knew ‘Mater had to have felt the same thing she did and even though ‘Mater was a horse and didn’t think like a human, she knew he did everything he could to protect her just like she did for him. They were connected somehow, whether it was through her papaw or just one of those rare connections some people have with their horses. So she trusted the horse. And the horse kept going.
Rikki slowed ‘Mater at the last possible second fully expecting to be flung over his head but she wasn’t. Then came the turn and after she wasn’t flung off before she thought this was when she’d be flung into the wall. But ‘Mater turned on a dime for the third and final time and once again she stayed in the saddle and the saddle stayed on the horse. When Rikki lined him up with the gate she kicked him with both heels and ‘Mater went flying to try to shave every tenth of a second he could from the time.
They raced through the gate and came to a stop in the alley under the arena stands. She came out of her time slowing trance and hopped off ‘Mater to see what happened with the saddle. She was vaguely aware of the crowd in the arena erupting with cheers but figured they were cheering for the next racer.
She looked under the horse and couldn’t believe what she saw. The girth was gone! It just wasn’t there. It had somehow snapped at two different points at the same time. It was a miracle she was still alive! She stood up straight and looked at her horse and reached around his neck and pet the side of his head. He bent his neck and nuzzled her and then straightened out as two men came running up to her.
“Miss! Are you alright, Miss?” They came running up to her panting. One of the men held the girth that had broken off and went flying as ‘Mater kicked it up right after rounding the second barrel.
“I’m fine,” Rikki said still not quite believing what happened.
“We thought you were a goner! Hol-y Cow! I saw that strap break loose and I turned my head. I thought you were going to go flying off. I really thought you were gone.”
“I didn’t know what happened. I mean, I felt something, but I didn’t know what it was. I just trusted my horse. He’d never do anything to endanger me but I don’t even know if he knew what had happened,” Rikki said still in shock.
“Well, you are one of the luckiest riders I’ve ever seen. It’s a miracle you didn’t go flying off that horse. Someone’s watching over you.”
She instantly thought of her papaw. Could it be that he held the straps or held the saddle in place? She had this vision of him riding behind her on ‘Mater lighter than air but with the strength of an angel, holding the saddle while she rode.
The thought brought tears to her eyes and she was fully aware now of everything around her. She started shaking as the realization that she could have been paralyzed or worse, dawned on her.
After about five minutes of just standing there stroking ‘Mater and trying to calm her nerves, another man came up to her. He was older and seemed official and had that air about him as a man that is used to giving orders and having them followed without question.
“My name is Bob Dressler and I’m the senior executive for the rodeo. You, my dear, are the luckiest young lady I’ve ever seen. I wanted to tell you personally that you came in with the fastest time today. Young lady, you won this contest by two tenths of a second. Two tenths. Do you hear that crowd out there? That’s for you.”
She was aware of the crowd but wasn’t aware of what they had been chanting for the last minute. She could hear the feet stomping like thunder above her. She made out the sound of the chant, “Rik-ki Ann! Rik-ki Ann! Rik-ki Ann!”
She took the man’s outstretched hand and shook it. She smiled and didn’t didn’t say a word.
“We’d like to present your trophy out in the arena if you’re up to it.”
“Sure,” Rikki said. “I’m up to it.” She turned to ‘Mater and smiled at the horse she felt connected to even more if that was even possible. “Come on, ‘Mater.” She walked toward the arena with ‘Mater following, his reins draped over the horn of a saddle that was still on his back that shouldn’t be.
As she came out of the alley and into the arena with ‘Mater following behind her, the arena erupted with cheers that was deafening. She would normally have felt so out of place in this situation but strangely, or not so strangely, she wasn’t nervous or embarrassed.
Once again, she felt her papaw’s presence and attributed it to her feeling so calm. She grinned and waved to the crowd. She turned around, took her cowboy hat off and waved it at the crowd grinning like a little girl who just got a pony for her birthday. Rikki turned again and looked at ‘Mater who had turned with her and she could almost see her papaw standing next to him.
“Thank you, Papaw. I love you,” she said to the seemingly empty space beside her champion barrel riding horse.