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Original Image courtesy of Turn Magazine

Carolyn Richens barrel-races with her 16-year-old American quarter horse gelding, Moses, or Mo, at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress in Columbus, Ohio, in 2002. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY JOHN CLARKE RUSS [Ed note: This photo is actually an NBHA State Final]

Carolyn Richens feeds a flake of hay to one of her American quarter horse geldings while making the rounds in her stable in Pittsfield on Monday afternoon. Richens, a Pittsfield resident, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nearly 10 years ago. With the help of drugs she remains a competitive barrel racer. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY JOHN CLARKE RUSS

Back in the saddle

Thursday, January 12, 2006 - originally published by the Bangor Daily News

Carolyn Richens sits cross-legged on the living room floor of her country farmhouse in Pittsfield, punching videos into a player. The screen leaps to life with Richens on the back of Mona's Little Guy, or Mo, a deep chestnut American quarter horse.

The duo is all movement: 1,100 pounds of galloping, racing horse beneath petite, blond Richens, who, with a slight touch of the reins or a big yell of encouragement, lets him explode from the gate, whirl around three brightly painted barrels and back to the gate again. The video shows the competition time: 20.4 seconds. [Ed note: The time refers to a Pole Bending Run]

That time sealed Richens' coronation as one of the top barrel racers [Pole Benders] in the country, and proved that Mo was one of the best horses in the sport.

But the video doesn't tell the whole story.

It doesn't show that seven months before competing and winning [placing] at the 2002 All-American Quarter Horse Congress in Columbus, Ohio - with 15,000 competitors - Carolyn Richens could barely walk; that she was at the end of her rope, suffering from multiple sclerosis that triggered brain and spinal lesions, caused her legs to shake uncontrollably with fatigue and caused her to take six or seven naps a day.

MS is a chronic, progressive disease of the central nervous system that affects an estimated 400,000 Americans. Since her diagnosis in 1995, it had turned Richens into a virtual prisoner of her own body.

Richens almost believed that she would never ride a horse again, something she had done since high school. "It was the lowest point in my life," she admitted. Then, according to Richens, three miracles happened.

The first miracle: Richens bought Mo, also called Moses, a former racehorse from Oklahoma who was so sociable that when he was leading a race he would turn around and wait for the others behind him. But racehorses aren't supposed to play nice, so Mo was headed to the slaughterhouse. Richens bought him for a mere $1,700.

The second miracle: Because the steroids she was taking to alleviate her MS would not allow her to sleep, Richens found herself one winter morning staring at the financial network on television at 4 a.m. "I thought I was going crazy," she said. Suddenly the anchorman announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had approved a new drug, REBIF, which had been having dramatic results for MS sufferers in Europe.

A telephone number was provided for MS Lifelines, an information hot line, and Richens "hit redial until 8 a.m. I was their first caller."

Richens said MS Lifelines was the answer to her prayers. "They did everything for me," she said. "My insurance wouldn't cover the drug because it was so new, so they paid for it. They sent a nurse to teach me how to care for myself and take the medication. Talking to the hot line was like talking to a bartender late at night. I could let out all my secrets. I wasn't alone."

With daily injections of REBIF and a regimen of six other drugs, Richens' symptoms began to recede. She still was unable to walk without shuffling, but she knew she was getting stronger.

Then came the April morning when Richens, an absolute whirling dervish before MS, grew sick and tired of being sick and tired. "I shuffled to the barn. I knew I just had to take Mo out. He was so excited and wiggling his rump around," she said.

She brushed him and talked to him and decided it really wouldn't hurt if she put the saddle on him. "I thought, what is the harm? I stood there and looked at him and said to myself, 'I can't do this,' but then almost immediately I thought, 'What have I got to lose?'"

Richens said Mo is the type of horse who was off and running the minute a foot went into the stirrup, so she knew she was taking her life in her hands. It was just her and Mo - her husband, Steve, was at work, and no nurse was there.

"I put one foot in the stirrup, grabbed the horn and was only able to collapse over the side of the saddle," she said.

"And that is when Mo decided I needed some help." Her beloved racer sensed her altered physical condition and began rocking from side to side, helping her get her right leg over the saddle. "He was the one that led me. He was my strength," she said.

The third miracle: It worked. Richens and Mo worked together until that 20.4 seconds in Columbus when they proved to each other that they were champions.

The sociable racer that Richens bought for $1,700 has prompted offers of more than $26,000. "But I will never sell him. He has earned a life here on our farm," she said. "Now, I'm training a younger horse, and when Mo tells me he's done, I'll retire him."

Richens, 38, said she is far from retirement and plans to attend the Quarter Horse Congress again this summer.

"The medications that I'm taking, they are not a cure," Richens said. "They slow things down."

It's hard to imagine her even using those words because slow is not what she is today. Wearing a telephone headset, gulping "high test" coffee, running her own international tack supply business from her dining room and kitchen, running (yes, running!) out to the barn for chores - this is just part of her day. She is also now an MS Lifelines ambassador, educating and motivating others and showing through her energy and her lifestyle that now, after 11 years, she can live with MS successfully.

Richens' journey was much more than following the adage "If you fall off a horse, you need to get right back on." It was following her destiny and her dream. It was becoming the best she could be. It was taking a horse destined for slaughter and a woman headed for a wheelchair and turning that future upside down.

"If I ever end up in a stupid wheelchair," Richens said with passion, "at least I know I lived. I lived, and MS took the back burner."

-- Sharon Kiley Mack

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