It was the 2003 world barrel-racing championships in Augusta, Georgia, and Sissy Georges, a tall, slender brunette rode into the horse arena on Roany, her 21-year-old red roan. Her cowboy hat bobbed up and down as she stroked the horse’s neck while she searched for the barrels.
She pressed the heels of her boots into the horse’s side and the two took off. One second. Two seconds. They rounded the right barrel, Sissy sitting back in the saddle, pressing her right leg against Roany’s soft hair, and gripping the saddle horse with her right hand. Three seconds, four seconds. They raced across the arena to the barrel on the left, Sissy leaning forward, pushing Roany to go faster, faster. Five Seconds, six seconds. Sweat dripped from both horse and rider as Roany circled the second barrel, Sissy’s leg planted firmly against his left side. Seven seconds, eight seconds. They flew down the alley of the arena, toward the barrel at the point of the triangle. Nine seconds, ten seconds. Sissy whooped and hollered at the gelding as Roany circled the final barrel from right to left, his strong hooves digging into the dir. Eleven seconds, twelve seconds. As if their lives depended on it, they flew back down the alley toward the finish lne, oblivious to the screaming crowd. Thirteen seconds, fourteen seconds, fifteen seconds, 15,667 seconds.
Sissy pulled on the reins, and slowed the horse at the end of the alleyway, as the crowd roared its approval. She raised her hand in the air and waved, knowing that her mom, dad, and cheering family members could see her, even though she could not see them. She couldn’t see anything, because Sissy Georges is legally blind.
Born prematurely in 1982, Christina Marie Georges (who would eventually be called “Sissy”) weighed just one pound, nine ounces, and lost her sight as a result of her premature birth. Her parents, Tom and Angel Georges, knew she had a fighting spirit the minute they laid eyes on her. She fought to live, to breathe, to stay with them.
When she got stronger, they took her home from the hospital, and decided to raise her just like any other kid. She was a scrappy little girl, a tomboy who preferred jeans and cowboy boots to skirts and black patent-leather shoes. She loved the farm where she lived, and did chores just like her four brothers. Even as a little girl, she fed and watered the horses, and took care of the other animals, like dogs, cats, and chickens.
During the week, she went to school in Nebraska City, at the Nebraska School for Education of Children who are Blind or Visually Impaired. On the weekends, she was all about the farm.
When Sissy was seven, Angel put her on a Shetland pony, and Sissy instantly found her passion.
“I guess that first time, I questioned whether or not she should ride a horse,” Angel said about Sissy’s first ride, “But because of her attitude, I never really questioned whether or not she could.”
No one even questioned her ability to do anything. But riding a horse was different—it wasn’t her ability that raised questions, it was her disability.
Sissy could see shapes and figures, bright colors, outlines, and images. But she couldn’t see details. In other words, she could see the outline of a person’s body, but couldn’t see the person’s face, not even up close. When she climbed on a full-size horse for the first time (at age ten), she could tell that an animal was beneath her, but had no idea whether it was a horse, a cow, or a Brahma bull.
“Someone could’ve played a joke on me by putting the saddle on backwards,” Sissy said jokingly, “Because I couldn’t see which end of the horse was up!” She soon learned that, and much more.
Before long, she became active in 4-H. Her leader, Susan Windle, shouted out instructions as Sissy prepared for pleasure class competitions, where contestants are judged on how smoothly they perform in a variety of categories. Sissy spent all of her spare time practicing with her horse, Gray, and the two quickly excelled.
“Gray was her best friend,” Angel said of the pair. “Sissy could’ve fallen asleep in the saddle because her lope with Gray was just that smooth.” Yet, pleasure class was the slow side or horsemanship, and Sissy wanted something more. She wanted something faster, more exciting, more challenging.
When she was sixteen, she and her mom traveled from their home in Barada, Nebraska, to Kansas to purchase Roany. Also sixteen, Roany had been a “rodeo horse,” and had competed in barrel-racing since he was three years old. But his experience was more of a detriment to Sissy than a plus. Roany bolted out of the gate, whereas Sissy needed time to get set in her saddle, to visualize the arena in her mind, and to see if she could catch a glimpse of the first barrel. So, for two years, Sissy retrained the gelding. Every day, after she got out of school at Southeast Consolidated in Stella, Nebraska (where she had transferred as a freshman), she raced home to her horse, then spend hours-on-end teaching him to follow her lead. The two needed to learn to trust each other.
First, Sissy had to re-teach Roany how to be patient at the gate, and to start the run only when she was ready. Then, the horse had to learn how to follow the pattern at Sissy’s pace. The two eventually trusted each other, and began competing. Since Sissy was unable to see the barrels until she approached within a few feet, Susan Windle or one of her friends often shouted instructions from the side of the arena.
“It had to be someone with a distinctive voice,” Sissy said, “Because I’m so focused when I’m racing that I can’t hear a thing.” Not the crowd, not the hooves pounding on the dirt. Nothing. So she focused on that one lone voice in the crowd.
Sissy practiced every day with Roany, and with Gray. The summer after her sophomore year, she qualified for the state 4-H competition with both horses. However, two weeks before the state competition, she and her mom were headed into town so that Sissy could practice for pleasure class with Gray, and the horse trailer came unhitched from the pickup. It raced down an incline, and crashed against a tree. Sissy’s best friend, Gray, was killed instantly.
“That was one of the worst times of my life,” Sissy said. “He was my constant companion, my best friend. And he was gone.”
Sissy lay in bed for a week, but finally decided she had better get up, so she could practice for barrels with Roany. He had earned his berth in the state barrel-racing championships. And Sissy had, too.
The two then traveled to Grand Island, Nebraska, with Angel. Sissy was finally poised to win a state championship. However, unbeknownst to her, the judges had placed orange cones in the arena, to signify the finish line, and no one had told her. When she saw the flash of orange as she approached the first barrel, she mistook the cone for the barrel, and she and Roany rounded the cone instead. The judges disqualified her. They wouldn’t let her run again. She was devastated.
“She could’ve given up right there,” Angel said. “It was such a blow after losing Gray. But that’s just not how Sissy works.” The disqualification only made Sissy more determined.
Although she practiced and competed for two more years, she never made it back to state. Then, after she graduated from high school, the Wrangler Corporation donated three bright yellow barrel covers so that Sissy could see the barrels more clearly, and that took Sissy’s game to a whole new level. She started competing in shows sponsored by the National Barrel Horse Association, and quickly became a contender.
She and Roany won two gold buckles together, one in 2002 at a Nebraska competition in Broken Bow, and another at the 2003 world championships in Augusta, where she reached the finals in the 4D division (out of 940 riders.)
“Some people go their entire lives without ever winning a gold buckle,” Angel said proudly. “And Sissy’s won two.”
Not only that, but Sissy’s participation made history. She was the first blind participant to ever compete in the NBHA World Championships.
After that competition, however, Sissy retired Roany because of a disease in his hooves called navicular. In 2004, she had to put him down.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Sissy said, “But I loved him too much to watch him suffer.”
It was almost a full year before she could bring herself to buy another horse, but in the fall of 2005, she and Angel traveled to eastern Missouri to check out two horses. When Sissy walked into the arena, a six-year-old mare nickered at her. But the owner didn’t think the horse would work for Sissy. The mare only had one eye.
“I knew right away that she was the horse for me,” Sissy said. “She had such a sweet disposition, and I’ve never seen (or heard!) a horse load so fast in my life! She ran into the trailer! It was like she couldn’t wait to go with me!”
Sissy and Angel named the horse Faith.
“I told Sissy that, every time she and the mare walked into an arena, she would literally be riding on faith, so that’s what we named her,” Angel said.
It took about four months before Sissy and Faith were ready to ride together, but eventually Sissy was back on the racing circuit. In 2006, the duo competed in the World Barrel Racing Productions’ Equine Race for the Cash in Guthrie, OK. But that time, Sissy faced a different challenge. The officials at the competition wouldn’t let her use the barrel covers. They said the covers would give her “an advantage” over the other riders.
“Sissy is blind, and Faith had one eye,” Angel said, “So together, the two had one good eye. But still, they wouldn’t let her use the covers.”
Sissy could’ve used that as an excuse. But that’s not how this girl flies. Instead, the announcer at the event encouraged her to use a two-way radio, and to take directions from a friend in the crow’s nest. So Angel duct-taped a radio to Sissy’s back. The announcer asked the audience to be as quiet as possible, so that Sissy could hear her friend, Billie Weaver, tell her when to turn.
When it was Sissy’s turn to run, the announcer introduced her, and the audience members quieted down.
“You could’ve heard a feather blow,” Angel said.
Then, horse and rider took off. Faith’s hooves skimmed across the dirt as they approached the first barrel. One second, two seconds.
“Set!” Billie said into the radio. Sissy pushed her leg into Faith’s side, and the horse responded. They rounded the first barrel cleanly.
“We can do this!” Sissy thought. Three seconds, four seconds…
Sissy’s heart pounded as Billie directed her around the second barrel, then the third, and back down the alleyway.
“That’s when the crowd erupted,” Angel said.
As soon as Sissy rounded the final barrel and headed back toward home, the audience could be silent no more. Moms and dads, daughters and sons jumped to their feet and yelled for the blind girl on the one-eyed horse.
“It was the loudest applause I’ve ever heard,” Angel said. “It made my ear soar.” Sissy didn’t win a buckle that day, but she won something much more important—the hearts and minds of thousands.
In 2009, Sissy had to put Faith down because of the pain in her knees. She is currently training a mare named Jacquine in barrels, and rides another just for the fun of it.
In addition, she has become a certified equine sports massage therapist, and breaks and trains horses for other people. She also teaches riding lessons.
Right now, she spends most of her time in the arena at home, holding onto the end of a longeing rope as one of her horses prances around her. She dreams of the day when this story will become a book and movie, so that she can build an indoor arena, where she will teach lessons, board horses, and help disabled children through equine therapy.
She also dreams of the day when she will win another buckle, the day when she’ll climb aboard Jacquine, visualize the arena in her mind, and take off.
She rounds the first barrel. One second, two seconds….