Tribute to Michel Otten. When you meet someone with an incredible zest for life, they leave an impression that lasts forever. Michel Otten was one of those people. She was a strong, independent woman who had a love of life and laughter and a generous spirit. Michel was known for several aspects of her life. But my family knew her best for her love of horses.
When the Matthews were traveling to barrel races every weekend, they met Michel. She was riding a crazy mare she called Trixie and her buckskin gelding, Slick, at that time. Slick had an annoying habit of ducking the first barrel and it was Michel's goat to fix that problem. Anyone who remembers her riding that horse remembers that plastic bat that she used to use. In true Michel style, through grit and determination, she broke that gelding of his bad habit and went on to do very well with him. Michel's hauling buddy, Julie, went on to ride Trixie until she had a barrel horse of her own. While Michel was riding Slick, my mom was riding her little black horse, Cool. Just like Michel and Mary Jo, Slick and Cool became best friends. They would squeal like little mares when they saw each other. It didn't matter how long they'd been apart, they were always excited to see each other, just like their riders. My mom often says that those were some of the best times of her life, sitting around at barrel races telling stories, sharing laughs, and evaluating and reevaluating their runs.
My mom told me about a barrel race that Michel was running once where her shirt got caught on the saddle horn. It popped all the buttons off her shirt and it flew open in the middle of her run. In true Michel fashion she never skipped a beat and continued driving her horse through the rest of the run. Later she told everyone, "I was getting a good run, I wasn't gonna let that stop me!" When Slick got hurt, Michel began riding her big black horse, Smoke. She would tell everybody that he was a registered paint, but you couldn't always see his one spot. If you knew Michel, you knew that she had a colorful explanation of where that spot was located. Watching Michel ride that gelding, you got a true sense of what a tremendous rider she really was. That gelding had so much power, but she just stayed with him. He would get so excited at the gate, but Michel never got flustered; she just waited until he was ready to make his run, and boy the runs she made on Smoke.
Michel's love of animals didn't end with horses, she loved her dogs, too. Everybody knew Michel's bulldogs as well as they knew her. she treated them like her children. They went with her everywhere. They rode shotgun when she traveled, she lifted them (all 75 pounds worth or more) into the bed at night, and they ate better than most people I know. Which brings me to another memory of Michel that many people have, her cooking. she loved to cook for her dogs and everyone else. Anyone that's ever traveled with Michel or parked by her at a barrel race knew to plan on some great meals. Nothing would do until she convinced Bruce to drag out the full-sized grill that they hauled with them, and she would fire it up and cook some of the best food you'd ever tasted. There were times that everyone else should have been waiting on Michel and fixing meals for her, but she wouldn't hear of it. She would insist that it wasn't any trouble.
That was the thing about Michel, she would do just about anything she could for the people she met throughout her life. She would be your biggest cheerleader when you ran a barrel race. You could hear her above anyone else. She would laugh with you during the great times and lift you up and support you during the low times. Michel and my mom shared many joys and laughs throughout the years. But Michel was a true friend, and true friends are there when times are hard. They comforted each other through the loss of pets, each knowing that special bond that the other shared with their animals. They comforted each other through the loss of great horses when only a fellow cowgirl can understand, and Michel was a true cowgirl.
She was one tough cookie! She didn't let chemo treatments stop her from doing what she loved. I don't know very many people that could go out and barrel race a week after a treatment, but Michel could and she'd beat the pants off ya! But I think the real reason Michel was able to do so much during that time was because God sent a guardian angel to look after her. Bruce came into Michel's life and it was forever changed. She was so used to doing things all by herself and just the way she wanted that only a very special person could keep up with her, but Bruce did. She had a traveling partner, someone to cook for and someone to love and take care of her the way shge loved and took care of everyone else throughout her life. If it weren't for Bruce, Michel wouldn't have been able to travel and barrel race for as long as she did. He hauled her to races so she could qualify for the NBHA World Show. That was a dream he helped her fulfill. It doesn't seem possible that not even three months ago, Michel was in Perry, Georgia, where she qualified in the top 100 in the 2D and was just a couple hundredths of a second away from winning a saddle. She did come home with a belt buckle and lots of great pictures, videos, and memories.
Bruce didn't just haul Michel to the barrel races, but he also trained one of the last horses she rode, sweet Stoli (although if you asked Michel she always had to retrain him after Bruce rode him for awhile). Stoli was such a great mount for Michel. Sometimes it was almost like he sensed that she wasn't quite riding the way she used to and he'd slow up just a little and wait on her. If you ever heard Michel tell the story of the beginning of Stoli's life and how rough it was, it's like he knew she rescued him and he was taking care of her in return.
Michel also had other very special people in her life that helped her through her treatments and were there to take care of her when she needed them. Michel's aunt, Margie, spent many hours by her bedside and at the hospital with her making sure Michel had everything she needed. Her cousin, Nancy, made many trips in the wee hours of the morning to get Michel to and from her chemo treatments, and was there to help Michel with anything she needed. To all those people who helped Michel and stood by her through the hardest time of her life, those of us who cherished her friendship will be forever grateful. It's not easy for me to think about barrel racing without Michel. The arenas will be a little quieter during our runs, the food won't be as good, and the all the stories will be without her colorful additions, but Michel would want us to ride on. She would want us to laugh and remember. So, to you Michel Otten, one of the greatest cowgirls I've ever known, I say: Ride on, cowgirl, ride on.