Mary Walker has been a barrel racer seemingly forever, riding professionally since 1983. Yet she’d never made it to the season-ending National Finals Rodeo, unless she was accompanying her wildly successful husband, Byron, a 16-time NFR qualifier in steer wrestling.
This year, finally, it’s her turn to ride and the retired Byron’s turn to watch.
It marks a stunning turn of fortune for the 53-year-old Walker, who has seen a lot in her 53 years. In fact, it’s only taken the last two years to experience the most tragic and desperate lows, followed up with perhaps one of the most inspiring comebacks in the history of professional rodeo.
“I don’t know what the word is to describe it,” Walker said. “You’ve waited your whole life to get to this point, and then it happens.”
What happened before qualifying makes this tale even more amazing. On April 23, 2011, Mary and Byron lost their only child, 21-year-old son Reagon, in a car accident. As one might expect, it was almost more than a mother can bear, having to bury her child.
“You feel like at times that your life is ruined,” Walker said, choking back tears. “But there’s other plans out there.
“So even after the passing of Reagon, I continued to ride. It was kind of therapeutic - very, very therapeutic, getting out with friends, getting out doing what you love to do.”
But less than two months after Reagon’s death, on June 9, 2011, Walker was competing at Crosby, Texas, when her horse, Perculatin, reared up and fell on top of her. She suffered two fractured vertebrae and a crushed pelvis. Her surgeon, Kyle Dickson, had his work cut out for him; she required eight plates and 10 pins.
“He put me back together,” noting the only thing he couldn’t fix were her two broken toes – perhaps the most painful part. “Don’t forget those toes. I’m telling you, those toes hurt worse than the hip. The doctor said, ‘I can fix that hip, but I can’t fix those toes.’ I said, ‘I know, and they hurt so bad.’ I do complain about my toes. It’s kind of funny.”
There wasn’t a lot of fun during the next several months, though. Walker spent four months in a wheelchair, then started therapy, advancing to a walker, then to a crutch, then to a cane. Riding a horse again, even for pleasure, didn’t seem to be a likely outcome.
“You say to yourself, is there a reason this all happened?” Walker said. “Is it the good Lord’s way of making me appreciate life more?”
If so, you can bet Walker has delivered on that challenge. She couldn’t compete the first couple of months this year while finishing off her rehabilitation, so that already put her well behind in the money standings, which are used to determine the 15 NFR qualifiers in each event. But once she got back atop her horse and got going, it wasn’t long before she has having the time of her life.
“Starting out the year, I was pretty weak from the accident,” she said. “But then you start seeing yourself finishing (high) in the standings, and you think, ‘I’m gonna make it.’ Then you hit that point where you say, ‘I know I’m gonna make it.’
“That point for me was at Cheyenne.”
Ah, yes. Frontier Days. One of the most renowned rodeos of all. And one that has made the year of more than a few cowboys and cowgirls over the years. Walker, less than nine months removed from a wheelchair, 13 months from a harrowing rodeo accident and just 15 months from the devastating loss of her son, won Frontier Days.
“I’m thinking, ‘I was in a wheelchair last year,’ ” she said. “I just couldn’t believe from the year before that I’d completely turned it around, and I’m living the dream. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Walker kept riding well the rest of the year, consistently cashing good-sized checks from rodeo to rodeo, and she finished the regular season with $127,296, good for third in the world standings. That’s the kind of year normally reserved for renowned riders such as reigning champ Lindsay Sears, or current leader Brittany Pozzi or Sherry Cervi – both of whom own multiple barrel racing world titles.
“To watch those girls and think, ‘I’m gonna be there with them this year,’ it’s unbelievable,” Walker said. “The last two years have been an up-and-down roller coaster, and this year, that roller coaster just took off, and it hasn’t slowed down.”
It certainly won’t slow down during the 10-day “Super Bowl of Rodeo” at the Thomas & Mack Center – not that Walker wants it to, anyway.
“It’s a fairy-tale dream. Everyone who races barrels wants to ride at the National Finals Rodeo,” she said. “You never think after losing a son, wrecking on a horse and being 53 years old that you can still do it.”
While Walker isn’t the type to take anything for granted, the experience has still enhanced her appreciation for life.
“That’s been my whole year. Everything that’s come my way, I’m just so thankful for each day,” she said. “I can put my boots on and climb on my horse. So many people can’t do that.”
She trails first-place Pozzi in the standings by about $44,000, which sounds like a lot. But the NFR has a total purse of $6.125 million, and with a few hot rides, any competitor can start piling up money quickly and suddenly have a shot at a world title.
“I have thought about that. Being out there with my husband and knowing how much it pays each night. We counted on the money it pays when he was competing,” said Walker, whose Perculatin – nicknamed Latte – was named the barrel racing Horse of the Year.
“At my age, we’re fine (financially), not in a position where I have to win. But the money is so big, and it’s in my mind that I’m not so far out from winning a world title.
“It’s always in the back of your mind that you can keep climbing that ladder.”
What’s more important to Walker – more than any ride, any victory, even a world champion’s gold buckle – is showing people that you can overcome tragedy and difficult circumstances. You can live to ride another day.
“If I can help just one person get through the death of a child or get through a severe injury, I want to help them,” she said. “I want to let them know that it’s OK to go on with your life. I’d give it all back for a million years to have Reagon back, but you can go on. I truly believe that.
“I was lucky to have him for 21 years.”Playing Favorites With Mary Walker
Home: Ennis, Texas
NFR Qualifications: One
Favorite Rodeo Moment: “Winning Cheyenne this year. Oh my gosh, I was so ecstatic. My husband, Byron, was standing there, we were screaming. Cheyenne is the daddy of ’em all. It was great.”
Favorite Rodeo Superstition: “I put on my horse’s boots the same every time. Left front boot, left back boot, right front boot, right back boot. Front to back, front to back, and I always start on the left side. I don’t know why I do it, I just do. I’m not changing it, and nobody better put his boots on for him. That’s my job.”
Favorite NFR moment: “I think it will be my first Grand Entry. That’ll be the NFR experience that I remember forever.”