When Amanda Ritter was 9 years old, she was granted a wish through the newly founded Make-A-Wish Foundation. Her wish was to own a barrel horse.
“I’ve always loved horses, but my family wasn’t really into rodeo or anything like that,” Amanda says. “But, I started watching the Mesquite rodeo on our satellite TV every weekend and decided I wanted to be a barrel racer someday. So, when our family friend told us about the Make-A-Wish Foundation, I knew exactly what to wish for.”
The Make-A-Wish Foundation not only helped Amanda’s family pick out the perfect barrel racing horse—a palomino mare named “Pal”—but they also purchased her an outfit, tack set, and barrels—all in Amanda’s favorite color of pink.
“I remember the first time I saw Pal. I crawled up on the fence and wrapped my arms around her neck and instantly she became my best friend. And I actually still use those pink barrels in my arena today,” she says.
Beating the Odds
Today, the paint on those pink barrels is chipped and faded from nearly 30 years of use and borrowed time that doctors never dreamed Amanda would have. When she was 3 months old, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and given a life expectancy of 13 years.
“Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that causes thickened mucous throughout your body. It primarily affects the lungs and your ability to breath and the pancreas and your ability to absorb nutrients from food,” Amanda says.
Horses Give Her Purpose
In order to ride her horses and do all the work that goes along with owning them, Amanda undergoes at least an hour and a half of breathing treatments every day and takes enzymes to keep her weight up. Even though she remains vigilant about her treatments, cystic fibrosis has taken a toll on her body and her lungs currently only function at about 40 percent of normal.
Although barrel racing brought Amanda into the horse world, it was showing hunter-jumper horses that captured her heart throughout college and into adulthood.
“Until about 2008, my lungs were functioning at about 75 percent. But eventually, they started declining to the 40 percent function I have now. At 75 percent, I could complete an entire jumping course. At 40, I needed to choose an event that I could complete in seconds, not minutes,” she says.
So Amanda pulled out her old pink barrels and started training her jumping horse, April, on the cloverleaf pattern. April actually took to the pattern quickly and allowed Amanda to ease back into the speed events while she started looking for a horse bred for the event that could help her compete at the top level she wanted to be in.
“I knew I wanted to be highly competitive, but I also knew it was going to take a special kind of horse to compete at that top level without requiring a lot of physical strength from me before we ever go in the arena to compete,” she says. “I went through several horses before I found Hank, but he is definitely what I was hoping to find. He is so honest and makes barrel racing so fun for me. And he seems to know when I am strong and when I am not and he actually adjusts his speed and power accordingly.”
Completing a barrel racing pattern takes every ounce of breath Amanda has and she says after she finishes a run, she has to go sit by herself because she is so out-of-breath she is unable to talk. But, she says, the thrill she gets every time Hank makes a good run is worth it and that feeling is what keeps her going.
“I definitely attribute my health status and the fact that I am still here to my involvement with horses,” Amanda says. “Doctors are constantly baffled that at my lung function I am able to haul hay, load feed, ride and run my horses, etc. There are many other cystic fibrosis patients out there with 40 percent lung function who can’t walk across their living room floor.”
Strong Enough to Be a Cowgirl
Some might call her stubborn, but Amanda has true cowgirl grit—even though it would be easy and justified for her to ask for help, she won’t.
“I could easily ask my partner, Mike, to help me load hay into my trailer or put away bags of grain or clean pens, and he would do it in a heartbeat. But exercise and an active lifestyle are critical to living life with cystic fibrosis. So, it might take me an hour to move eight bales of hay, but if I am able to do it myself, I am going to. And I might be blue in the face from lack of oxygen by the time I get done riding my second horse, but if God gave me another day to ride, I am going to do it,” Amanda says.
Due to a lifetime of infections, oral antibiotics are no longer effective in Amanda’s body, so she has a permanent port in her chest so when she is sick she can take intravenous antibiotics. Cystic fibrosis has also weakened her immune system enough that her hospital stays are more frequent and she usually ends up having three to four extended stays in the hospital each year. But even when she is in the hospital and can’t do the horse chores that keep her strong, she walks flights of stairs to fight the weakness that so many others succumb to.
“When I can walk six flights of stairs, three times, that is when I know I am almost strong enough to go home,” she says.
Celebrating Life Every Day
Although many competitive riders may not consider this a goal or take the opportunity for granted, Amanda recently purchased a living quarters trailer and is excited to go to consecutive-day barrel races, stay in her trailer, and compete throughout the weekend.
“Because I am the kind of person to never let the word ‘can’t’ creep into my mind, it can be hard to not compare my physical ability to that of others. I would love to haul a trailer full of horses to a barrel race and ride and run them all. But every day that I get to be with my horses is a God-given gift. So, I remind myself of the way this whole journey started. When I had one wish and that was to own one barrel racing horse and to be able to compete. And I am doing that and I am so grateful.”