Barrel racers provide cool relief to Mainers with multiple sclerosis

Posted Aug. 14, 2011, at 4:22 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 15, 2011, at 11:06 a.m.

EXETER, Maine — The action in the horse arena was hot but the cause was cool at the state championship show of the Maine National Barrel Horse Association. A special fundraising event during the competition on Sunday raised hundreds of dollars in support of Mainers suffering with multiple sclerosis, a potentially disabling autoimmune disorder that affects mobility, sensation, vision and stamina.

For many people, symptoms of MS worsen in hot weather. The fundraiser was aimed at providing air conditioners and cooling vests with pockets for ice packs to Mainers affected with the disorder.

Barrel racing is a fast-paced, adrenaline-charged sport that requires strength, agility and balance from both horse and rider as well as split-second communication between the two. For someone with MS, it’s a real challenge.

Entering the racing ring at a gallop on her 9-year-old blue roan, Boo-Berry, Carolyn Richens of Pittsfield stuck close in the saddle as the horse cut three dime-tight turns around the cloverleaf course, kicking up a spray of dirt at each of three strategically placed barrels. After swirling past the last barrel, they streaked for the exit gate to whoops and cheers from a small but enthusiastic audience. Their time was 17.252 seconds — too long to be competitive, but still an exhilarating ride for 44-year-old Richens, who was diagnosed with MS when she was 27.

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“I’m not riding for the blue ribbon, I’m riding for the joy of riding my horse,” said Richens, who nevertheless stressed that she and Boo-Berry had scored the best time among all the contestants during Friday’s qualifying event.

Richens is the driving force behind the Ride to be Cool event at this year’s show, which raised money to help purchase 14 air conditioners and 12 cooling vests for Mainers with MS. In addition to the dollars raised by about 10 riders in the special event, money was donated by area individuals and businesses. MS patients learned of the opportunity at local support groups, and many of those selected to receive an air conditioner or vest traveled to the Exeter stables of Christina Waters and Larry Fettinger on Chamberlain Meeting House Road from as far away as Lewiston and Brunswick to accept their gifts.

The symptoms of multiple sclerosis include weakness, numbness and tingling in the limbs, as well as changes to vision and a general loss of physical energy, according to 60-year-old Andy Michaud of Auburn. Michaud was diagnosed with MS in 2001 and says he is lucky to still have the use of his legs. Heat makes all of his symptoms worse, he said.

Although he already has a couple of older air-conditioning units in his home, Michaud said he will hold the one he received on Sunday in reserve, either for himself or for others in the Lewiston area who suffer from MS. In addition, Michaud, who coordinates a local MS support and informational group, accepted cooling vests for two friends in the Lewiston area who have MS.

Stacy Buzzell, 33 of Waterville was diagnosed 10 years ago. She traveled to the barrel racing event with her father, Dale Patterson, who also has MS, and her mother, Sandy Patterson.

“Heat makes me very, very tired,” she said. “It makes it hard for me to walk, and my eyes don’t work right.” The family received two air conditioners, one for the Pattersons’ home and one for the home Stacy Buzzell shares with her husband and two young children.

For 50-year-old Rachel Putnam of Old Town, the early symptoms of MS began in 1990 when she was serving with the U.S. Navy. She was not diagnosed until 2003. Now retired and a gardener by hobby, she finds that hot weather makes her lose her balance and leaves her weak and exhausted. Her new cooling vest will help her stay active in warm weather, she said.

Carolyn Richens, glamorous in a sequined, tangerine-colored cowgirl shirt, black jeans and scuffed-up riding boots, said she is grateful to the horse-riding community for their support of her and other Mainers affected by MS.

When she was first diagnosed, Richens said, she didn’t want anyone to know. But since news of her battle with MS has spread, fellow riders and racers have been supportive and solicitous.

“People come up to me and ask ‘Have you been drinking your water? Have you eaten? Are you wearing your [cooling] vest?’”she said.

Her friends’ generosity in supporting the fundraiser, she said, further demonstrates their understanding of the problems associated with multiple sclerosis.

“I am so proud of the racing community, she said, “and I am proud of the MS community for showing up here today.”

Her disease can make it hard to ride, she said, because muscle spasms, weakness and loss of sensation in her legs affect her ability to stay in the saddle. But she has refused to give up her lifelong passion for horses.

“A lot of people think their life is over when they get a diagnosis of MS,” she said. “Then they see that there are limitations, but they can still get out and do the things they love.”

More information about MS is available on the website of the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America.

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