Blazing a Trail

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

April 23, 2008|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun Reporter

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.

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