Among a collection of gleaming belt buckles, one shines a little brighter for Tori Sue Olson.
It’s proof she survived.
On that silver buckle, embossed in gold and black letters, are these words:
NBHA World Championships Finalist.
Thirty letters Tori never thought she’d live to see, let alone see used to describe her.
It was unthinkable 10 years ago when she fell into the grip of cocaine addiction.
It was unthinkable three years ago when her horse and partner, Flit the Leader, was on the verge of being euthanized after suffering a devastating injury.
And it was unthinkable in January when her mentor, and the only man who had ever been a father to her, died and threw her life into chaos again.
Through all the tumult and the heartbreak, Tori has held on to one constant: her innate bond with horses.
They keep her safe. They keep her alive.
“I found refuge with the horses,” she said. “If I was out with horses, I was safe.”
As an infant, Tori sat in the saddle in front of her mother until she was old enough to ride by herself. She first rode a pony at 3 years old and first galloped a year later.
Tori’s parents divorced when she was young, and trips to her grandparents’ farm to spend time with their horses were brief moments of happiness during an otherwise unpleasant childhood. There was physical abuse—spankings that “went too far.” She bounced from school to school while living with her mother. She fell out of contact with her father and siblings.
She felt rejected, abandoned, unloved and unwanted.
But there’s hope in this story, too.
It’s the story of a 53-year-old burnout on a horse with a broken hip—and how the pair forged an unlikely path to barrel racing’s biggest event.
Tori never had any formal horseback riding or barrel-racing training—nothing like what young riders have access to now. She learned through trial and error, which she said has led to many bruises and bloody knees over the course of her riding career. She got into barrel racing as a teenager and was 23 when she bought her first barrel-racing horse.
By then, she had been estranged from her family for years. She had a son, Ricky, and got more involved in the competitive rodeo scene, traveling to compete in small shows across southern Wisconsin.
After riding for several years, her racing career faded, replaced by vices that have gripped so many across the country. Years of feeling neglected had taken their toll, and one of her best friends, Tracy Fay (Hadden), died in a car crash.
Tori went out partying, hoping alcohol and drugs could wash away her pain.
Her drug of choice was cocaine. She still thanks God she never made the next step to meth or an opioid such as heroin.
“I just stopped caring for myself,” Tori said. “I didn’t feel pain. I didn’t feel sorrow.
“It takes that away.”
Cocaine nearly did take everything from Tori. Her son went north to live with his father. Her daughter, Tiffany, went to a special-needs home in Janesville. Tori was homeless for a time and sometimes crashed at the home of Ida Ransom, one of the few people she could call a close friend. The two met while working at Vegas Gentlemen’s Club in Darien.
“I had used cocaine with her initially,” Ida said. “We were drinking quite a bit during the day. A bump of cocaine would keep you going. When she took it to another level, I didn’t go.”
Ida tried several times to deter Tori’s drug use. Tori later wrote she “was not ready” at the time. On some days Tori had nothing. She was broke and emotionally spent.
“I literally didn’t have anywhere to go,” Tori said. “I had no money. I had a storage unit of whatever I had left of my life belongings.”
It took several tries, but she eventually checked into Janesville AlcoCare, an inpatient drug rehab center. There she faced some harsh realities.
“It was hard to hear what I was hearing,” Tori said. “I said, ‘Now lock the doors, and don’t let me leave.’”
After a 30-day stay at AlcoCare, she moved to a secondary house and spent two months there. She earned cellphone and car privileges and began preparing for life after rehab.
“She had to go through all that loss to find herself and to find what she’s really made of,” Ida said.
Tori was released from rehab on a Friday and started working the next day. She got her GED and earned credits at UW-Rock County.
She was even able to reconnect with her sister, Angela, and her father, Roger, after not speaking to them for many years.
“She did it for her,” Angela said of Tori’s successful rehab. “She thought about her children, so she made a decision. She knew she wanted to be more than what she witnessed growing up.”
Tori wanted to rededicate herself to barrel racing, too.
Tori met Flit the Leader—Leader for short—in February 2013. She had to have her horse, Scarlet, euthanized and wanted to find a barrel-racing horse that wouldn’t have to be trained from scratch. The tall bay fit the profile. Tori brought Leader back from Florida and began conditioning him.
The duo found success on the District 02 circuit in southern Wisconsin. Tori rode Leader at the state finals at Madison’s Alliant Energy Center in August 2014.
Then, during a pole-bending event at a rodeo in Elkhorn in September, Leader stopped while rounding the halfway turn. Tori could see fear flash across his eyes.
Leader trembled. The crowd went silent.
His injury—a fracture of the pelvis in his right hind leg—was especially concerning because it involved the hip joint. According to a medical report obtained by The Gazette, University of Wisconsin veterinarians expected Leader to develop osteoarthritis and other chronic limb problems. He would live in constant pain. An athletic career was out of the question.
Tori remembers when UW doctors delivered the news. She feared the worst—that Leader would have to be euthanized.
“They suggested that I put him down,” Tori said. “They gave me a moment alone with Leader in the hospital stall up there … to basically say goodbye.”
Tori said Leader’s eyes met hers.
“I felt him tell me, ‘I won’t give up if you won’t give up,’” Tori said.
She ran out of the barn and told the stunned veterinarians she was going to take Leader home to begin rehab.
A personal friend, Tod Daniel, let Tori keep Leader and her other horses at his rural Janesville house, which had a large barn and space for the horses to run. Tori referred to it as “the hospital.”
Leader was confined to his stall for the first few months of his rehab. Tori would take her phone, a book and a blanket and sit with him for several hours each day, even in the dead of winter. She would talk to him, and he would tousle her hair while she read.
By March, his pelvis had calcified. Veterinarians said he could be hand-walked to the end of the barn and back. So Tori led Leader back and forth for several weeks until the vets said she could walk him to the end of the driveway.
By April, vets said Tori could start ponying Leader—leading him while mounted on another horse—around the pasture.
Leader, though, had had enough of walking. He broke away the first time Tori tried to pony him. He charged around the field, bucking and kicking, while Tori watched in horror. She knew that if he rebroke his hip, there would be no saving him again. She went back to the barn and prepared to call the vets when Leader returned. He stopped in the doorway, nostrils flared, and stared at Tori.
“He was telling me, ‘Screw you. Don’t leave me in a stall. I want out,’” she said.
The vets were amazed when Tori told them what happened. They said he was ready to be saddled and ridden again.
After several months of conditioning, Tori and Leader returned to racing in August at Showtime Arena in Deerfield.
The road back
Tod Daniel, a trial attorney prior to retirement, raised and raced horses as a hobby. Naturally, he and Tori had plenty to talk about. They became good friends.
Tori came to see Tod as a father figure she never really had growing up. She said he was an intelligent and down-to-earth man, and he helped her rebuild her racing career, even letting her take his horse carrier—Leader was too tall for the carrier Tori owned—to rodeos.
He supported and encouraged her. He saw what she was capable of.
While Tori and Leader continued to travel for races, Tod was weakening. He had been diagnosed with melanoma—skin cancer—a few years before. Meanwhile, Tori and Leader clinched a berth at the world championships by winning the Wisconsin Second Division District 02 Open championship.
Tod died Jan. 21, 2017. His death threatened to overturn the life Tori had carefully reassembled in the years after drug rehab.
“This was someone who came in—in just a few short years—he showed me what it was like to have a father,” Tori said.
Tod’s children wanted to sell his property, so Tori would have to find a new place for her horses. She couldn’t keep them at her home in Janesville, and rent anywhere else was almost certainly going to be out of her budget.
She picked up everything and moved the horses to a farm outside Footville, but the horses hated it there. Tori hated it there.
Life started to crush her again.
Tori remembers driving home one night. She began crying so hard her glasses fogged up, and she had to pull over to the side of the road. She looked to the sky for answers. Why did she make it this far, only to be derailed again by events out of her control?
“I cried because my world as I knew it was done,” Tori said. “I just felt like my world was crumbling all around me. I’m trying to move forward and cope with everything in a productive way without falling apart.”
She was still mourning Tod and trying to keep her racing career afloat.
A couple in Palmyra heard about Tori’s situation and invited her to come see their farmhouse. They gave her a deal on rent, and the property had everything her horses would need.
Finally, Tori caught a break.
Still, Tori had to scrape together the money to make the 1,800-mile round trip to Perry, Georgia, for the National Barrel Horse Association World Championships, which opened Nov. 5.
Friends donated what they could, and a Palmyra bar held a fundraiser. Tori had enough to make the trip.
The World Championships bring together riders from across the globe. Some arrived with million-dollar RVs and horse trailers. Some rode valuable horses bred specifically for barrel racing.
Tori, the backyard barrel racer, said she pulled in with “a tin can with a mattress in it.”
She wasn’t nervous about competing. This was a dream come true, and regardless of the outcome, she had made it to her sport’s highest level.
None of Tori’s three senior division rides were fast enough to advance her to the second round. Her first ride in the open division wasn’t fast enough, either. She had one chance left—one last ride with Leader.
The result was a 14th place finish in the fourth division. They advanced to the finals.
Tori and Leader finished 33rd in the third division during the finals. A 53-year-old burnout on a horse with a broken hip.
“I lived it, and I still have a hard time believing it,” Tori said. “The buckle is right there; the horse is right there. I went to Perry, Georgia.”
Others might find it hard to believe, too.
But there’s a gleaming silver belt buckle to prove it was all real.