More MS news articles for Nov 2001

Horse and rider overcome disease to earn trip to championship

Thursday, November 08, 2001
Staff Writer

When Mary Marshall was on Fire last week, skillfully careening her quarter horse around barrels in a world championship rodeo-style competition, some observers might have assumed she was just another cowgirl determined to ride to victory.

And they wouldn't be wrong.

But the truth is, the fit-looking, 48-year-old Flagler County resident and her beloved mount had already beaten the odds. Despite the fact that both suffer from debilitating neurological diseases, horse and rider managed to rack up enough points in regional competitions to be invited to the prestigious National Barrel Horse Association World Championship in Augusta, Ga.

"We won just getting there," says Marshall, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in early 1999, just a few months before Fire was diagnosed with equine protozoal myeloencephalitis. Both of their diseases cause balance and fatigue problems, among other things.

Though they may not have been the best or the fastest at last week's World Championship, "we had two nice, clean runs," notes Marshall, who uses a special saddle when she competes. And for them, that's a real victory.

Marshall, who lives in a horse-friendly neighborhood north of Ormond Beach, just across the Volusia County line, has been a cowgirl most of her life. She and her husband, Jim, a computer engineer, have four horses, including Fire, on their property. And she's been involved in barrel racing since the mid-'90s, when their youngest daughter, now 17, took up the sport.

But shortly afterward, her life "began to fall apart," says the mother of three.

Marshall, who worked as a manager for a manufacturing company, began to have recurring bouts of vertigo, memory loss, terrible pains around her ankles, numbness on her left side, and overwhelming fatigue that "made me feel like my body was made out of lead," she says.

Doctors told her she had everything from an inner ear problem to chronic fatigue. But her "spells," as she calls them, kept coming back.

"I began to doubt my sanity," she says.

Then, in 1999, she suddenly lost sight in her right eye, and was referred to a neurologist who diagnosed multiple sclerosis, an auto-immune disease with no known cause or cure.

"I was devastated," says Marshall. "I thought my life, such as I knew it, was over." And the initial drug therapy she was put on made her feel worse than the disease. So she stopped taking it.

She also was told that it was "not a good idea to ride horses anymore." But between relapses, when she was feeling well enough, she continued to ride.

"I couldn't envision life without being on the back of a horse. Horses are my therapy," she says.

Then Fire got sick, too.

"What's ironic about it," says Marshall, is that although his disease was caused by a parasite, they share some of the same symptoms.

Tending to Fire, though, took Marshall's mind off her own problems. "It was easier to focus on his disease than mine, if you want to know the truth."

She became something of an expert on his illness, stuck by him and even sang to him in his stall, she admits with a smile. He especially likes Aretha Franklin's "Respect," and the theme from "Rawhide."

"A lot of horses just don't make it with this disease," says Marshall. But she was determined that Fire recover enough to compete.

"I have a bond with him. There's a closeness there that's emotionally healing. We know each other so well."

Meanwhile, Marshall began a different drug therapy that helped keep her relapses at bay. And she and Fire managed to accumulate enough points to go to the world championships.

Marshall says she promised Fire he could retire after they returned. From now on, they'll just go trail riding together.

"But we've achieved our goal," she says. "We've lived our dream."

And though getting back in the saddle may not be for everyone, Marshall says she hopes that what she's accomplished will inspire others to go after their dreams, too, even after life throws them for a loop.

© 2001 News-Journal Corporation