Going into a riding competition with an injured arm and a retired horse with a lung ailment probably wouldn’t be ideal conditions for a rider.
But, sometimes, if the horse has heart and the rider the desire, amazing things can happen. It’s often the stuff of folklore.
“We grew up in Midland City, and we had horses because my older sister loved them.”
Rita Coleman and her sisters Becky and Rhonda rode with the Silver Dollar Rodeo “for Delores and Harold Henson, over in Kenney, and their daughter Penney.”
“Becky and Rhonda were my babysitters, so they’d take me with them to trick ride and put me on a horse in the corner, Rita says.”
From that point, horses were always in Rita’s life.
She got married and had children, “and, I rode with the drill team and rode and showed horses all the time.”
“My husband passed away in 2005, and I needed something. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat.”
Rita took her horse out into the cornfield, “and started doing tricks on her.”
“It made me think and made me tired and helped me focus. It was a good thing for me.”
Up to that point, Rita hadn’t really done any trick riding, apart from helping her girls and working with Penny Henson.
“I was 40 years old. I trick rode for a while and trick rode with my son and with the rodeo over at Hensons.”
But, Rita says, everybody grew up and quit.
She talks about the development of trick riding through the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
“It started at the ‘wild west’ stage, whenever they would just mess around on horses, and then it became a rodeo sport, and then it was judged.”
Trick riding was immensely popular, particularly in the American West.
“These guys would go to Madison Square Garden and hold these ‘crazy as you could be’ trick riding competitions.”
Eventually, those kinds of shows faded away.
“And, there are hardly any rodeos in Illinois.”
Rita’s first was in Carthage, Mo. “And, I had just decided to do it.”
“I wanted to do it, but I was older. I was 50 at the time.”
Her oldest competition was in her early 30s, and the rest were kids.
“And, they are awesome.”
Time isn’t always kind
“Although I can still trick ride, I’m not young. My body doesn’t move as a young person’s does.”
“I’m good, flexibility-wise, but I’m not 20. I can’t compete with a 20-year-old.”
But, a “Legends” division was introduced to make it possible for older riders to compete.
“I was so excited and so afraid, too.”
She said many of the riders at competition approach riding as a job, so they are at their peaks and always well prepared.
Rita considers herself “hard core” in her interest in riding, “but, for me, it’s a hobby.”
She enjoys the challenge of learning tricks and going back to perfect those tricks.
“It never stops because it’s never perfect, and that’s what is so fascinating about it.”
Rita went to Carthage, and was nervous because she had never competed.
“I’ve never done dinner theater; I’ve never been part of a big troupe. Just me and my kids did it, and I loved it and it was fun.”
She attended a number of riding clinics, “ and met a lot of great people.”
Rita describes trick riding competition as similar to a gymnastics contest.
“They’re looking for how fast your horse is, how pointed your toes are? How perfect is the trick? How did you get into it? How long did you hold it? How fast did you get out of it? Did you wave at the crowd?”
“Here, the judges were trick riders, and not just trick riders, it’s what they did, it’s part of their family blood. So, they know what they’re looking at and what they’re looking for.”
Riders had to score 1,100 points to make it to the finals.
“And much to my shock, I did.”
Her favorite part of competition was meeting all the kids.
“I was the oldest person competing, and I felt out of place and awkward, but these kids glittered my horse, talked to me and made me feel welcome.”
“We were all a group of people doing what we love.”
Rita came up with her series of tricks, a shoulder stand (a hand stand off the side of the horse) – full fender (ride the side of the horse with no hands) – hippodrome (stand with hands in the air) – one foot stand.
“And I made up a little series of fenders. They’re just little tricks you do on the side of your horse, and I had a lot of fun with that one.”
She also does her favorite she calls a “no-hand.”
“I just lock my knee into my saddle, and I go over his neck and then put my hand down to the ground.”
“Sometimes I don’t make it; sometimes I hit the ground on that one.”
“You’re leveraging your own weight against the movement of the horse.”
Rita began trick riding on a mare named “Cinder.”
“I used her for a lot of years. Until she had a shoulder injury and was going blind.”
Her sons Gabe and Jared started helping her. Gabe was riding a horse name Lakota.
“Lakota: I’ve had him since he was four months old.”
“We just started using him.”
They also used a horse named “Mariah,” but Rita describes her as a hard, even rough horse to ride.
“These horses just took to it; they didn’t have a problem with it.”
“Two weeks out of training, we went to our first rodeo.”
She said a lot of horse don’t catch on to trick riding and that a good trick-riding horse if difficult to find.
She said her two horses were good horses to begin with and weren’t disobedient, so they just went right into teaching them.
“You teach them a pattern, and you spend time teaching that pattern.”
The horses learn their “home pocket” in the ring and the pattern of looping and running and then returning “home,” where they rest and their riders reward them.
“You turn, you burn, you run to the corner, then you pet and relax and come back to line.”
“But, Mariah is a hard-running horse, and she beat me up. I wanted a smoother running horse and a faster horse.”
That’s when she switched to riding Lakota.
“We’ve been together for five or six years, now.”
But, Lakota has an asthma-type lung disease. He takes medication for it every day, but it can still affect his breathing.
Lakota ran well for Rita at the Carthage competition, “until the last day.”
He got colic, which can result in a twisted bowel and death in some cases. Lakota was given a shot that relieved his stomach pain, making it possible for him to finish the competition.
At Carthage, riders completed five tricks a day, one run, for each of the three-day event.
“I was in seventh place, and I was thrilled. I couldn’t even believe I placed.”
Lakota’s lung problems, though, caught up to him later.
In Rapid City, South Dakota early in 2018, Rita learned they changed out the bedding in the horse stalls each night. The resulting dusk got into Lakota’s lungs and made him sick.
“We tried to qualify for one day, and that was a mess. He would run, get to the corner and cough.”
His breathing would clear long enough to run again.
“I was trying to get my qualifying runs in so I could qualify to go on to the finals.”
“We made five runs, and they were terrible. We just got the job done the best we could.”
Rita was sad the things didn’t work out there, but encouragement was close by.
“One little girl came over and sat down beside me and said, ‘It’ll be alright; you did just fine’.”
“I was thinking, ‘This is a little kid. Stand up and get yourself together and behave like an adult’.”
She retired Lakota and went back to riding Mariah in preparation for the North American Trick Riding Competition in September.
“I couldn’t get comfortable. She beat the tar out of me. She’s fast, but she’s not smooth.”
In late July, Rita ended up borrowing a horse named Bubba from a neighbor boy, who had initially helped her and her sons train.
“This horse hadn’t been out in a long time, but he worked with me, and we got that horse going.”
Unfortunately, Bubba developed a bit of an attitude that caused Rita to sustain an arm injury, and she had to give up on him for the time being.
“I’ll be working him next spring, though, you bet.”
She brought her 18-year-old paint Lakota out of retirement “and started working him.”
“I love this guy. He gives it all he’s got.”
“I thought, if I could do five no-handed tricks that didn’t involve any pulling with my arm, I could probably do this.”
Rita said she got to ride with some amazing riders, “the best in the world in my opinion.”
Rita praised the atmosphere at competitions, including the riders, the judges and parents of younger riders.
An awesome horse
On the third day of National Championships, Rita was performing a “death drag.”
“They call it that because you can die. You put your foot in a strap on one side and drop back over the other side. Now you’re strapped to a running horse. You can’t unstrap your foot.”
A rider can get flung back over the other side of the horse and dragged under the animal.
“My hands are in the dirt, and I’m thinking, ‘this is perfect’.”
“But, then, he starts slowing down, and I’m, ‘no, git, git , git’, and then he stops completely.”
But, when Rita was able look up, she realized her saddle had slid so that it was over on the side of Lakota.
“He saved my life. So, I ride an awesome horse and a wonderful partner.”
Rita finished fifth in the open women’s class, and while she thinks she’s probably retired now from trick riding, she’s overwhelmed by the people she met and the experience of competing.
“There we were, just me and little Lakota.”