Burnet Middle School student and barrel racer Riley Arrington with her horse, Lucy. Photo by Dave Jennings/Jennings Rodeo Photography
EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
The knots built in Shelly Townsend’s stomach as her young daughter, Riley Arrington, prepared for a recent barrel race in Sweetwater — her first competition since the Burnet Middle School student broke her arm in a rodeo accident in Taylor on January 31.
“Everything just came crashing down,” Shelly said of the night of the accident. “All our plans. We had things mapped out from there through the summer, and it just crashed right there.”
Riley and Gator were racing up to a barrel when the horse, suffering from an unknown injury at the time, careened into the pipe fencing just beyond the barrel as he executed a turn. He slammed Riley into the fencing, breaking her humerus clean through at a 60-degree angle.
Riley entered the Taylor barrel race as one of the dominant riders on the junior high school circuit. A leading contender in the Texas Junior High Rodeo Association’s Region X barrel racing division, she was lined up for a strong run in regional competition, a bid to the state event, then on to nationals. The crash in Taylor put that dream on hold for at least six months, according to doctors.
Despite the prognosis, Riley was unfazed, even in the emergency room after the accident. Her first two concerns were: Who was going to take care of her horses (she began giving Mom instructions) and what to do about schoolwork.
“I don’t know how she held it together,” Shelly said.
The injury required Riley to miss some school, but it also meant she couldn’t get on a horse anytime soon. Horseback riding at Riley’s level is more than a hobby.
She struggled to find the words to describe what riding and competing mean to her, but consider this: In the summer, she can get on as many as five horses a day before 11 AM. During the school year, Riley manages to find a way to squeeze in several hours of riding a day while maintaining an A-B average.
For Riley, horses are life.
She began riding when she was 3 but tried even earlier than that. When she was 2, she would sneak off to the stable just to be around the horses. When she got older and had a pony, Riley did the same thing just to sit on her tiny steed.
Taking six months off to heal, even if that’s what the doctors ordered, didn’t sit well with this equestrian enthusiast. As soon as she could, Riley began physical rehabilitation, never missing an appointment or skipping a workout. While things appeared to be moving forward on the surface, however, an X-ray revealed Riley’s humerus wasn’t healing like it should.
Her mom had an idea. She turned to a device used for horse therapy, the Magna Wave, which creates pulsed electromagnetic fields to aid recovery. The device is undergoing studies for medical use but isn’t FDA-cleared yet. Its effectiveness on horses got Shelly wondering if it could help with Riley’s human bones.
“In eight treatments, you wouldn’t believe the amount of bone growth she had,” Shelly said.
The X-rays, just a few weeks apart, showed incredible progress in Riley’s humerus. Hope returned.
On May 18 — 1½ months ahead of original expectations — Riley was cleared by her doctor for the Sweetwater competition.
“I could have thrown up the first time she got on Lucy,” Shelly said. “I also didn’t know what her mental game was since the accident.”
Riley focused on a bit of advice her mother offered before her barrel run: “Trust Lucy. Lucy won’t hurt you. And believe in yourself.”
Any doubt, any second guessing, fell away as Riley and Lucy raced into the arena.
The ride didn’t set any records, didn’t go down in the books, but it meant Riley was back. Despite not competing in five of the 10 junior high regional rodeos, Riley qualified for the TJHRA’s finals May 26-June 1 in Gonzales. She didn’t qualify for nationals, but considering she only rode competitively a week or two before the finals, it was a big step.
Her dad, Brandon Arrington, said Riley’s return to competition wasn’t a fluke.
“She overcame the fear and got back out there,” he said. “That’s probably the thing I’m most proud, to get back out there.”
Brandon pointed out it wasn’t just the few weeks leading up to her return that put Riley back on her horse and in the thick of competition. It was the work, effort, and dedication she put in all those years before.
“We’ll start getting ready for the (TJHRA) season, which starts again in August,” Shelly said, now much more confident in what the future holds for her daughter’s rodeo dreams.