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Summer 2005 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Without Sight, Rider Has Vision: Blind Teen to Compete Today, While Looking to Her Future

By David Casstevens, Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Reprint courtesy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Abstract: Learn how a teen with blindness competes with others on horseback.

Keywords: blind, horses, barrel-racing, parenting

The horse knows the girl’s voice. He knows her touch and the loving way she lays her cheek against his neck and feeds him treats from the palm of her small hand. Dollar also knows what 14-year-old Brittney Holland will ask of him when they compete today in the American Quarter Horse Association Youth Barrel Race at the Stock Show.

Horse and rider will bolt from one end of John Justin Arena, circle three drums in a cloverleaf pattern and race the clock to the finish line, Dollar at full gallop, cheered on by the crowd, the wind kissing Brittney’s face and catching her long, blond hair.

Some say that seeing is believing. But one doesn’t have to see to believe.

Brittney believes in her well-trained horse and in her skills and experience as a rodeo performer. The ninth-grade honor student from Aledo High School also believes what Susan Holland, her mother, has told her since she was 3. When Brittney asked if she would ever be able to see Hayley, her older sister, her mother told her no. “Britt, you’re going to do greater things being blind than you ever would if you had total vision,” Susan Holland said.

When Brittney was 2 months old, Susan and Greg Holland took her to a pediatric ophthalmologist in Fort Worth. The doctor examined the infant’s teardrop-shaped pupils and explained that the backs of her eyes had not developed. Susan Holland didn’t understand. “Are you telling me she needs glasses?” “Read my lips,” the specialist said. “Your child is blind and will never see.”

After the doctor walked out the door, the grieving mother sat in the exam room, cradling her baby, rocking her, weeping for her. She thought about her pregnancy and wondered if somehow she was to blame. Was there something I did? Or should have done? She felt frightened. Completely unprepared. How do we raise this child?

During the year that followed, Susan Holland experienced her own visual impairment, myopia: She couldn’t see her daughter’s future. “I was blind, too.” The Hollands took Brittney to four other doctors. Each offered the same prognosis. At the suggestion of a vision teacher, the parents tried to stimulate Brittney’s eyes by holding a metallic pom-pom before her face and moving it side to side and up and down.

Every two weeks they returned to a doctor. No improvement. No change. Susan Holland quit her job to help her daughter find her way in a darkened world. The family prayed. Their faith sustained them.

Over time, Brittney began to see just a little bit from her left eye. She could make out faint, blurred images — sort of like peering through a straw — and discern a contrast of colors. Her mother taped pink paper to the bottom of door frames to help the crawling infant navigate through the family home.

Susan Holland had competed as a barrel racer for 20 years. Both her daughters grew up around horses. Brittney wanted to ride because her older sister did, and when she was 4, Susan Holland fitted her with a safety helmet and put her on a horse, alone. A year later, the girl participated in her first barrel race, sitting atop an old, gentle horse named Doc.

Brittney wanted to ride faster and become competitive. When she was 8, her mother — also her coach — developed a communication system using walkie-talkies. Brittney wears her device clipped to her rhinestone-studded Western belt. She hears her mother’s voice through an earpiece.

Susan Holland tells her when to loosen the reins. “Let him go!” When Brittney approaches a barrel — which she cannot see — her mother signals for her to turn by saying “Here!” If the instruction comes prematurely, the horse may strike the barrel and knock it over, incurring a penalty. Too late, and the wide turn costs Brittney seconds of precious time.

At 80 pounds, Brittney is no burden for the 1,300-pound animal beneath her. She has tumbled from the saddle in practice, but to her that’s no big deal. We all fall. The trick is getting up.

Brittney can make out only two letters at a time in her large-print school books. To watch television, she must sit so close that her nose almost touches the screen. But she can see, far better than many others can.

She sees her future. Going to college — with Dollar — on a rodeo scholarship. Studying medicine. Becoming a veterinarian’s assistant.

“Good barrel!” her mother says in her ear.

The girl feels the horse’s strength and power. The speed of the final sprint.

“Nice run. ... Good run, Britt!”

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