Hands, Hearts & Horses

As a right-handed woman, it's a bit awkward for Rae Ann Bartz to slip a halter over the head of a sleek bay Arabian named Starman with her left hand. But with her right wing in a sling following surgery on her clavicle, and healing still taking p...

As a right-handed woman, it's a bit awkward for Rae Ann Bartz to slip a halter over the head of a sleek bay Arabian named Starman with her left hand. But with her right wing in a sling following surgery on her clavicle, and healing still taking place on seven broken ribs and a punctured lung, Bartz has managed quite well one-handed -- thanks to the many hands of volunteers who've been by her side since May 4.

That's the day when Bartz was bucked off a young horse she was training at her rural Olivia farm and business, Equine Connections.

"It was an accident," said Bartz, who is quick to absolve the horse of any wrong-doing. "It wasn't his fault." As a seasoned rider, trainer and farrier her first thought was to get back on the horse and resume riding.

"I wanted to catch my breath so I could get back on," said Bartz, in an interview this week at her kitchen table.

Excruciating pain, and the persistence of a close neighbor who saw Bartz lying injured on the ground, made that impossible.


Instead of getting back on the horse, Bartz was whisked away in a helicopter to a metro hospital where she spent 10 days, leaving behind the 12 horses in her barn, a long list of riding clients, customers who needed their horses' hooves tended to and hundreds of 4-H members and their families who have been guided by Bartz since 1975 in all things related to horses.

Given that her love of horses is matched by her love of working with children, leaving that all behind was difficult.

Horses have been "my life," and teaching children her "passion," said Bartz, who uses the same calm, steady voice whether she's talking to nervous horses or anxious people. It's a trusted voice that makes one feel comfortable.

This time, however, others are bringing comfort to Bartz.

Just before the door closed on the emergency medical helicopter, Bartz was told by her friend not to worry about the farm. "She said it'd be taken care of. And it has," said Bartz.

Past and present 4-H members, friends and clients have "rallied" to create an incredible network of support to make sure the chores get done and Bartz has time to heal.

"There's literally a hundred people who've been extremely helpful," said Bartz, admitting that it was a bit tough for someone who's used to being independent to accept the generous help of others.

"I'm really blessed," she said.


Everyday a crew of volunteers arrives to feed, groom and exercise the horses and clean out the well-kept stalls.

A sign-up sheet is tacked onto a wall in the barn with time slots, duties and names of volunteers. She's even had meals delivered and household chores taken care of.

Some drive 50 to 60 miles one way to volunteer their time and give back a portion of what Bartz has given to them through the years.

"It's been pretty remarkable," said Bartz, who is amazed that people who have their own busy lives are taking time to help her. "It's pretty humbling."

After 10 days in the hospital, she was invited to spend two weeks in the home of a Kandiyohi County 4-H family to recuperate, even though they were preparing for a high school graduation.

Surgery on June 12 put an extension on her restricted activities, but she does go to the barn to visit the animals "and see how wonderfully they've been taken care of."

The response of 4-Hers who organized the volunteer efforts is a tribute to Bartz's years of donated time and education to the 4-H program, said Jodi Bakke, 4-H coordinator for Kandiyohi County.

"She is the reason we have such a strong horse program in Kandiyohi County," said Bakke.


For 33 years Bartz has been a volunteer with Kandiyohi County 4-Hers who have shown horses at 4-H competitions or competed in equine knowledge bowl, judging, or speech and demonstration activities. Even though she moved to Renville County 5½ years ago, Bartz makes the drive to Willmar to serve as the county leader for the 4-H horse program, having led several teams to national competitions. She also teaches adult equine care classes at Ridgewater College, on top of her private riding lessons for children and adults at her farm.

"I've worked with a lot of kids and horses and families," said Bartz. "4-H has been like a family to me."

She is also a favorite horse judge of 4-Hers from around the state, said Bakke. "She has touched the lives of youth across the state -- not just Kandiyohi County."

Although she has no children of her own, Bartz jokes that she is a surrogate mother to 5,000 Minnesota 4-H youth she's met throughout the years.

Bakke praises Bartz for having "youth development in her heart" and always doing "what's best for the kids."

In addition to taking care of her chores, 4-H families are hosting an omelet breakfast and auction on July 20 at the American Legion in Willmar to help raise funds for uninsured medical expenses and lost income.

Bartz has yet to get back on a horse and doesn't know if she'll have the upper body strength to resume her farrier business, which was a substantial part of her income. Being self-employed, there is no paid sick time.

Yet this past Monday evening she was back in the arena at the Kandiyohi County Fairgrounds. With a hands-free microphone broadcasting her smooth voice, Bartz conducted a 4-H class on English riding.


As young riders cantered around the oval arena on their long-striding horses, Bartz gave gentle reminders about posture and posting.

Every Monday for about two months prior to the Kandiyohi County Fair, Bartz volunteers her time to conduct classes at the fairgrounds to prepare the 4-Hers for their various competitions. Families bring their children's horses in trailers and sit on the bleachers, holding onto every word and piece of advice Bartz dispenses.

While Bartz hasn't gotten the medical OK to get back on a horse, she said there's no way she'll stop working with horses or kids because of the accident.

"It's my passion," she said.

A benefit omelet breakfast for Rae Ann Bartz will be served from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on July 20 at the American Legion in Willmar. An auction will be held at 1:30 p.m.

Donations may also be sent to Rae Ann Bartz Benefit, Bremer Bank, 500 Willmar Ave. SE, Willmar, MN, 56201.

To contribute to the auction call Karla Ohden at 320-894-6748.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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