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Competing as a Paraplegic in Barrel Racing

This article is from the February 2024 Horse Deals magazine.

Kristy and Bob at the Bell Rodeo in 2021. Photo: Ropes N Spurs Photography

Kristy and Bob at the Bell Rodeo in 2021. Photo: Ropes N Spurs Photography

After a horrific race fall, Kristy Banks was determined to get back on a horse, despite being a paraplegic. And now the former successful jockey is a champion barrel racer, competing against able-bodied riders in events across the country.

Kristy has had a life-long affinity with horses, and even after her accident, she knew she would get back to doing what she loved. For years before she became a complete T11/12 paraplegic, she raced across Queensland, winning more than $500,000 in prize money. “I left school early, and I wanted to be a jockey,” she tells Horse Deals. “I started working for my dad and was apprenticed to him for four years. Then my career was about 15 years.”

She remembers the day she fell at QLD’s Clifford Park Racecourse on New Year’s Eve, and her life changed forever. “The fateful day in 2011 was when I had a fall and broke my back,” she says. “It was the first race. I was on the outside alley. I was coming across to pick up a position, and I clipped the heels of the horse in front of me and unfortunately fell. I remember laying on the track. I was fully conscious, but I couldn’t move my legs. I was really concerned.” 

Kristy was sent to Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital, where there is a specialist spinal unit. Her prognosis for a full recovery was not positive.

“I was craving for someone to say there was a chance I would walk again, but all the doctors I talked to were adamant that with the spinal injuries I had, it was something you couldn’t recover from,” she says. “They said to learn how to live in a wheelchair.”

Throughout the long months of recovery, Kristy began to plan getting back into the saddle again. “The doctors gave me some goals to achieve, and I said one was to get back on a horse,” she says. After getting out of the hospital and learning to adjust to her new life in a wheelchair, she worked toward riding again, but that wasn’t without its challenges. “I went to RDA. It wasn’t a real good experience,” she recalls.

“I had people on either side of me, we were walking, and I was very unsteady in the saddle. It was disappointing to think it wasn’t like it was before. I knew it was going to be a lot harder if I wanted to ride again.” After this experience, she took a break from riding again, but she soon became determined to achieve her goal.

“I put it on the back burner for a few weeks, but a friend told me to have a look at a girl called Amberley Snyder from the United States of America,” Kristy says. Amberley is a champion barrel racer who was paralysed from the waist down in a car crash in 2010. She competes regularly on the American rodeo circuit, has guest starred on the hit TV show Yellowstone and is now a motivational speaker. “She barrel races with a seatbelt on her saddle,” Kristy says.

“As soon as I saw that, I knew that was what I was going to do. Within days, I was ordering a saddle with a seatbelt.” Kristy drew inspiration from Amberley and found a new horse to take up barrel racing with.

Kristy and Bob at the QBRA Barrel Race Kalval Arena in 2017. Photo: Linda Zupanc

Kristy and Bob at the QBRA Barrel Race Kalval Arena in 2017. Photo: Linda Zupanc

“I was on the lookout for a new horse, and I found a lady in Queensland who had a few horses for sale, and there was a trained barrel horse,” she says. “He was only young, but I gave her a call, and while talking to her, she didn’t run for the hills when I told her I was paralysed and wanted to barrel race. We flew up to Dingo (a rural town in the central highlands of QLD), and I was really impressed, it was just fate that I came across a perfect horse.”

Bob, as he was known, was purchased and made his way to Kristy’s. “I wasn’t the greatest rider yet; I still had to regain balance; it was only eight months after my injury,” she says. “But Bob is amazing. He’s a Quarter Horse, he’s bay, and he’s 15hh. I still compete with him now.”

She says when she first started competing, she was determined to be successful. “I had it in my head I was going to win. Then I started riding, and I wasn’t going as fast as I wanted to, but I was grateful to be back in the saddle. I was able to canter and ride independently, so I was grateful for that. Bob and I took it easy the first few years.

“We were picking up a few cheques and gradually improving. I fell pregnant, so I had a bit of time off then.” After giving birth to her son Nash, she soon returned to barrel racing, and more success followed.

It’s not common to see para riders in the discipline of barrel racing, so there is no separate division. “I won my first race in 2015, beating all able-bodied riders,” Kristy says. “That’s the amazing part about it; there is no category for me; I just go and compete as best as I can. I’ve won three 1D titles in the Queensland Barrel Racing Association.

But there have been a few little setbacks - I rode a young horse, and he bucked, and I broke my wrist. It was a nasty incident. I had a few little setbacks, but at the moment, I am being competitive. It’s definitely possible.”

Having a role model such as Schnyder or being able to see someone else achieve can inspire riders to have a go, Kristy says. “A few years ago, I had a lady contact me, and she was a quadriplegic who wanted to ride again. I really thought, ‘I don’t know how you do that’,” Kristy says. 

“She told me to Google a man in America who does cutting and reining. I saw that and said go for it; you can do it. Seeing other people do it gives you the inspiration to have a go. She competes in reining now and has been successful.” 

The barrel racing season will start up again in March. “I am looking forward to starting again and to keep on riding,” Kristy says. Now, she enjoys being able to live her passion with her whole family. “Nash is ten, and Nova is my younger son, who is 19 months. They are both involved - Nash is a little bull rider. He loves that, and I get him on the horse every now and then. Nova has his own little pony. My husband puts me on the horse, and I can’t do it without his help. It really is a family affair.”

Article by: Rachael Houlihan

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