Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Blazing a Trail

By Abigail Tucker | Baltimore Sun Reporter

n order to get back into the saddle, horseback rider Kathy Bowie made the stunning decision to have her leg amputated...

She would give up her leg.

Kathy Bowie knew this even before the specialists at Mercy Medical Center outlined the options. They could fuse her arthritic ankle into place, vastly limiting her ability to ride horses, or amputate below the knee.

If she kept the leg, she'd lose so much more: the view from Kennedy's Peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she and her Appaloosa mare could gaze down on the winding Shenandoah and look eagles right in the eye.

She'd lose the thrill of seeing cougars flash across the bridle path, and of out-galloping swarms of angry ground bees. Never again would she startle a newborn fawn in a field of ferns.

She'd forfeit all the places across America that other riders were scared to go: boulder-studded inclines, ravines so steep that she had to lean back until her head touched her horse's hindquarters.

And she'd give up the fellowship she found back at camp, where other trail riders -- her husband and her best friends -- strummed guitars around the fire, told stories and barbequed venison or turkey.

The doctors could have her leg. It had troubled her since she'd shattered it in a swimming accident more than a decade earlier, when a wave smashed her into the sand. A fused ankle would do if she stuck to the pancake terrain of sidewalks and shopping malls, but she wanted to be able to mount up and move fast over hard ground.

"People thought I was crazy as a loon," the 56-year-old recalls. Sometimes in the days after she made the decision to amputate, she wondered if they were right.

Before the operation last winter, Kathy and her husband, Kenny, met with a prosthetist. To prove that many things are possible after an amputation, he played a video of a ballerina pirouetting on a plastic leg.

Two weeks after the surgery, Kathy, still groggy from pain medication, announced what her own next steps would be.

She would ride in the Great Santa Fe Trail Horse Race.

Santa Fe-bound?
Kathy considers herself better suited for life in the Old West than in modern-day Westminster, where she makes her home. With her flame-colored pixie cut and stooped frame, the professional dog groomer doesn't much resemble the cowboys of yore. But she has vehement opinions and a gruff manner, and she bursts through the saloon-style doors to her kitchen with convincing bravado, dispensing rawhide treats to a yapping pack of Chihuahuas and Australian cattle dogs.

"Shut it, monkeys!" she yells in her smoker's voice.

She bought her snug country house from a farrier who cemented horseshoes into the front steps. The place is decorated with antique harnesses and rusty bits and photographs of all the treacherous places she and Kenny, a retired master sergeant in the Maryland National Guard, have trotted with their friends.

"To Ride Or Not to Ride?" a placard on the wall muses. "What a Stupid Question."

Provided they can raise the money (no small task, considering the price of diesel for the horse trailer these days), the couple will leave home for Wagon Mound, N.M., in August. The 515-mile Santa Fe Trail race crosses three states over 14 days, cutting across desolate ranches and major roads to trace the famous path that once funneled adventurers through the Wild West.

Even today it is rough riding. New Mexico is mountainous; terrific thunderstorms detonate over the Kansas plains. Last year -- the first time the endurance race was run -- at least five riders were sent to the hospital with dislocated hips and broken collar bones and various other maladies, and two horses had to be euthanized.

"All for bragging rights and a belt buckle," says Kathy, who's never competed in an endurance race before. "And only a few people know what you're bragging about."

But whatever New Mexico holds can't be more daunting than getting back in the saddle again 10 weeks after the amputation. Kathy, naturally, was way ahead of her recovery schedule, but none of the other big milestones -- like shooting pool on crutches -- mattered compared to climbing back on a horse.

She decided to try while visiting a daredevil friend in Tomball, Texas. Using a 55-gallon racing barrel as a mounting block and with her friend's help, Kathy hoisted herself up onto the animal's back.

Their subsequent stroll through a cattle pasture of scrub brush and sandy loam was nothing special, and yet it was spectacular. Kathy was still sore from the surgery, but she didn't have to grit her teeth and gulp down Ibuprofen as she used to when her ankle was bad. Two days later, she went for a full-blown trail ride.

She came home to Maryland with a damaged artificial leg -- John Logue, the prosthetist who had shown her the dancing video, had given her a temporary model not designed for such rigorous activity.

"Most people, I tell them they can walk around the house or go to the store," he says. "Well, Kathy went to Texas and rode horses every day." She also used a chainsaw, to help clean up after a tornado that followed her into town.

Logue chuckles, recalling this.

"As you can imagine, a lot of the people I work with are severely depressed," he says. "Kathy has made up her mind to be happy. All the other things that can happen to a person don't matter as much as that."

"I wish we could bottle her spirit," he says.

A few months ago, Logue videotaped his patient on horseback. He is now designing a new limb with a rotation device that Kathy may be able to use in the big race. Her version will work with stirrups and spurs, but Logue says he hopes that other amputees will apply the technology to bicycles and motorcycles and ride off into the sunset any way they can.

Life changes
Kathy is the kind of woman who grew up in love with horses -- the rare kid who saved her money and actually bought a pony, a nasty little Welch mare named Queenie that she rode bareback at breakneck speeds through the fields of Carroll County. She seems like the type who would surrender her last appendage before she would give up riding.

Except that, for 15 years, she did give it up.

She didn't have time -- at least, that's what she told herself. In the 1970s and 1980s, she was married to her first husband and managing her own business, and although she shepherded her daughter through the horse show circuit, she stayed out of the ring herself. The marriage was increasingly unhappy -- her first husband was "a couch potato," a characterization that, coming from Kathy, is damning indeed.

Not long after she broke her ankle, the family took a trail-riding vacation down to Buffalo River, near Waynesboro, Tenn. Kathy had been laid up for a long time; riding, she figured, would hurt less than walking. Everyone assumed that she'd canter around for a few hours and then be a camp bum for the rest of the trip. But she wound up on horseback more than anyone else. She hadn't even realized that she'd missed it.

"It was Mother Nature and the middle of nowhere, and having a batch of fun with a bunch of people," she says.

Every year since, she's ridden the trails around Buffalo River. Her first husband, though, never returned. The two split a few months afterward -- "he went left, and I went right," as she put it.

So she bought a big horse trailer that she had no idea how to drive and packed up her new Appaloosa mare, Two. That year she rode more than ever, logging more than 1,000 hours -- enough for a mention in Appaloosa Journal. Her farrier couldn't believe how fast Two wore through her shoes.

Meanwhile, all Kenny managed to salvage from his ex's barn in Manchester was his roping saddle. Though the women he dated just after his divorce favored outlet malls over the outdoors, he kept the saddle on a stand in his various bachelor pads, diligently conditioning the leather.

Why not sell it? his friends asked.

"I might just ride again," he told them.

The online dating ad that caught his eye said "Cowboy Take Me Away," like the Dixie Chicks song. He and Kathy met at a Ruby Tuesday; they talked about everything, Kenny says: Fords versus Chevys, "exes, horses, the world." Kathy soon discovered that Kenny met her three dating requirements: He knew how to ride, liked country music and could back up a gooseneck trailer.

They were married at Buffalo River on Oct. 18, 2004. She carried daisies, and they both wore cowboy hats. Afterward, their friends lifted rocking chairs into the bed of a pickup truck and drove the newlyweds around. Instead of rice, guests threw pinto beans.

Rob Phillips, the Kansas man who pioneered the Great Santa Fe Trail Race, has macular degeneration and is going blind. One rider who competed last year had Parkinson's disease. Kathy's own gang of wrangler friends includes a renal cancer patient and a colon cancer survivor, and Kenny has withstood two heart attacks.

Horses trot three times faster than humans walk, as Kathy is fond of pointing out, and so riding is a way to see more of a beautiful world in a short lifetime.

She is buying extra lottery tickets, but if the Bowies don't make it to Wagon Mound this year, plenty of other places are on their list. They'd like to sign on for a cattle drive through the Rockies, and Kathy toys with training for a horseback sharp-shooting competition.

Now that Kathy has recovered, the Bowies also contemplate leaving the little house with the horseshoe -- just packing up their mounts and disappearing into the countryside for a year or so. The trailer contains a kitchen and a queen-sized bed, plus all the bridles, girths, feed tubs and stirrup covers they could ever need.

The best thing about riding with his wife, Kenny says, is not her bravery or disregard for pain, but rather her uncanny ability to read maps.

She sees "where the hills and valleys go, and that going down this ravine and that hill will get you there," Kenny says.

Sometimes the couple like to go "no trailing" -- riding off into woods in search of the shortest and swiftest route from this destination to that. "There's no trail existing," Kenny explains, "but you make your own."

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