Cowboy Showcase:  No keeping Don Billings out of the saddle
Cowboys moving cattle using their horses and dogs.
Don Billings: Back In the Saddle
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Don Billings: Back In the Saddle

Avid roper Don Billings suffered a medical problem that resulted in the amputation of his right leg at the knee.  Many of us would have wallowed in self-pity.  An inspirational example to all of us, Don wants to keep being active, riding horses, and team roping.  Toward this end, he was thinking of having a special saddle designed for him.  His prosthesis does not work in the correct way to use in a stirrup like a real leg.  Instead, Don has fabricated a leather scabbard attached to his current saddle for the amputated leg.  Here is his story in his own words.  The photos were taken by his wife Laura Billings.

Nuts and Bolts of the SituationDon Billings riding JW Hobbit
by Don Billings
In October of 1999, an ongoing problem I was having with pain in the calves of my legs was causing me more and more discomfort. I had pain whenever I walked and even had trouble just feeding my roping steers. I went to my family doctor for a physical and, after several tests, learned I have hardening of the arteries.  Doctors performed a procedure called angioplasty, where they clean out the clogged artery and put in stints to keep the artery open. But, doctors were unable to fix the right leg with this procedure. In the right leg, I needed a new plastic artery to replace the bad artery. The bypass artery reached from my groin to my knee. Everything was going fine and I never felt better. I was back roping within a couple of weeks and practicing up to go to a USTRC roping in Scottsdale, AZ. Then, two months after the bypass surgery, I started getting pains in my right leg and the lower part of my leg lost color and felt cool to the touch. Within hours I was in extreme pain. My wife, Laura, rushed me to the emergency room in our little town of Wickenburg, AZ. From there, I was flown by helicopter to Phoenix.

I woke up three days later in intensive care and realized I was late for the big USTRC roping. And, I saw that my leg had been cut up both sides. After doing tests the doctors found that a blood clot had formed in my leg and cut off all blood flow. They removed a vein in the back of my leg to graft to the damaged, blocked artery. The graft produced adequate blood flow, but not until too much damage had been caused to the muscle in my lower leg. I was given the option of letting the doctors try to save my lower leg (but they didnít give this possibility too much hope and even if it could be saved I would never be able to walk on it). My other option would be a through the knee amputation. This was what I chose to have done because I would be able to get around better with a prosthesis than by dragging around a dead weight.

Don cutting leather for the scabbard.Loosing a limb is like loosing a member of your family.  And, after being home from the hospital a week, I received the news that my sister died. This felt like a double whammy. I went through several emotions relating to these very difficult events in my life. Anger, frustration, etc. I went through a two week spell where I couldnít stop crying. I think my wife and my friend Anson Thurman (an old time roping hero) were ready to send me to the "Booby Hatch".  I felt I needed to make changes in my life style. I sold my roping steers and two of my horses. I came very close to selling my best horse, JW Hobbit. But now, Iím thankful I didnít. Gradually, as the pain started lessening, I began healing and knew I wanted to ride again. My physical therapist, Rick Blakely, gave me great encouragement to get back to a life as close to what I had before, as possible. And, my friend and neighbor, Albert Duell, simply wouldnít take "No" for an answer about having us be a roping team. I had to have my wife saddle my horse, and found that by hopping up on the fence I could get myself onto my horse. People have always told me "when you fall off your horse, get back on."  I found this to be true in all of lifeís setbacks. Once I started riding again, ideas started popping into my head faster than I could control them, as to how to get around having one leg. I was 66 years old. I knew I had to do something. My love for horses and roping prevailed.

I found that my prosthesis didnít work well for riding and I started looking for a saddle maker to build me an apparatus for my saddle. I wasnít having any luck, so some friends of mine, Darryl and Sherrie Jack, showed up at my house with some leather and fleece. They said, "Here is some material, build it yourself". My wife and I started measuring, cutting, and punching holes for lacing. Four hours later we had it attached to my saddle. We put a bolt through the inside of the scabbard and into the saddle skirt at the swivel point of the leg. We attached a car seatbelt to the back of the saddle seat and threaded it through the scabbard to go around my waist, for added security.  Bucking rolls were added to the swells of the saddle to provide more control.  We also removed the stirrup and stirrup leather from the amputation side of saddle so that the saddle is less cumbersome.

So, I am back to roping again. And, after less than three months of being released from the hospital, I am almost back to peak performance. I have made a lot of new friends and realize how much my old ones care about me. I am having trouble with being patient. And, learning to walk again on my prosthesis is harder than it looks. Driving my 6-speed, manual, diesel pickup gives me a little bit of a problem, too.  But, I am learning how to accomplish these things, as I will all others.

Checking the position of the scabbard while the saddle was on a saddle stand.

JW Hobbit gettin' down

Success in the arena

Swinging for a catch
Don catching the heels
Don heeling a steer for Albert Duell
CAUTION:  This technique worked for Don, but all riding can be a dangerous activity and you should consult your physician and a trained saddle maker before starting on a project such as this.


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