WARREN — It wasn’t the best beginning for a baby — abandoned in a Russian hospital after being born 1 pound, 14 ounces at 24 weeks when her mother went in for an abortion. Kayla Wayment held the tiny, now 5-month-old infant in her arms and knew. She knew she was meant to give her a new beginning.
“It was like when you give birth to your own babies and hold them in your arms,” said Wayment of the first time she held Whitney. “A lot of miracles took place — unbelievable things took place. The minute I picked Whitney up in my arms, I just knew she was mine, that she was supposed to be part of our family. It was really, really hard what we went through to get her. But I never had any doubt; I knew things were going to work out.”
Eighteen years later Whitney’s face lights up from behind her iPad, her dark brown hair brushing the screen as she scrolls through the draw for the Silver State International Rodeo — the rodeo that Whitney had set as a goal for her senior year of rodeo season and that she qualified for at the Utah State High School Rodeo Finals.
“Look mom, Number 9,” Whitney said. “I’m No. 9, in Section 1.”
She scans the list quickly, listing off friends’ names who also qualified, and the rest of her numbers and sections for the poles and the barrels.
“She loves lists and numbers,” Kayla said, as Whitney continued to peruse the list. “They call it hyperlexia,” she said, acknowledging just one of the many characteristics of Whitney’s Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-level functioning autistic disorder.
When Kayla was finally able to bring Whitney home at 7 months, after a harrowing ordeal that involved being abandoned by their adoption agent in Moscow and months of Russian paperwork, she was just seven pounds. Doctors weren’t quite sure what to make of the tiny baby who had been fed with a propped bottle and mostly ignored.
“The first pediatrician I took her to when she was a baby said to me that she didn’t understand why I went clear to Russia to adopt a child so severely handicapped,” Kayla said. “I basically put her in her little carry-all and walked to door and said, ‘My baby is just fine, and I’ll prove it to you.’”
Kayla gestures proudly at Whitney, “And this is what our Whitney grew up to be. Everything they told us that Whitney couldn’t do, we told her she could do. They told us she would never walk or talk. We figured at lots of points that they didn’t even know. She graduated from high school this year.”
While doctors may not have known what to do with Whitney, her family did. Back home on their farm in Warren and with the help of some gifted therapists, they began working with Whitney, who was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s, a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others.
“Her dad put her on a horse with him since she was just a baby,” Kayla said. “He put her right in the saddle. They said that was some of the best therapy for autistic children. And we really believe she’s done so well because we’ve exposed her to so much. Just the fact that she’s lived on a farm — environmentally she’s had more sensory integration than you could ever imagine just from living with us and having all of these experiences.”
When Whitney was 9, she was riding with her dad when she spotted a buckskin colt in a pasture full of colts. She wanted to buy it. Her dad, Jim, told her she didn’t have enough money, but Whitney was persistent.
“I like buckskin horses,” Whitney said of why she chose that horse. “I like the color buckskin.”
Eventually, Jim approached the owner who told Whitney she could pay for half the horse now and then the other half after she showed and sold her 4H steer.
“So we bought him and brought him home, and she fell in love with the horse, Buck,” Kayla said. “We keep our horses at our in-laws, down the corner, and he was green broke, but she would go down to grandma’s and entice him to the fence and she would crawl onto his back.”
Whitney jumps in, smiling, “Yeah, no blanket, no saddle, no reins.”
“My mother-in-law would call me on the phone, ‘She’s going to get killed. Help!’” Kaylas said.
“He’s a special gift from heaven. I think God teamed us up when I was a baby,” Whitney said.
After Jim broke the horse and Whitney started riding him, she began competing in youth rodeo, where she and Buck worked to excel at weaving the poles, an event where the rider and the horse weave back and forth through six poles as fast as they can without hitting the poles.
Asperger’s syndrome is also characterized by difficulty with fine and large motor skills and Kayla said Whitney had to work hard to learn one of the most difficult events in rodeo.
“Whitney wasn’t the greatest of riders, her motor skills are not as good as a normal person’s, but she’s become a wonderful rider,” Kayla said. “And when Buck started running faster and faster, it was like he took care of her.”
“Yeah, my horse is that way,” Whitney said.
At first, Jim and Kayla just wanted to give Whitney some of the same experiences that their three other children had with rodeo. They told her to just take it easy and go slow. But that wasn’t Whitney’s plan. She’d watch the other pole riders and see what they did.
“As she watched them she’d say, ‘I’ve got to go faster; I’m not winning,’ so the next time she’d go faster. If somebody tells her she can’t do it, she says, ‘I can do it. I’ll try,’” Kayla said.
Whitney has won buckles and money riding the poles, and plans to continue racing after Silver State.
Kayla said rodeo has been a great fit for Whitney, even with the social difficulties Asperger’s can bring.
“She’s made so many friends. When she first started we were really worried because of her social differences, but that’s where she’s fit in socially. People have accepted her and cheered for her, and it’s been great because we’ve been able to expose her disability to rodeo families. And they have a better understanding. They see that kids with Asperger’s can be very high functioning in society.”
Two years ago, Whitney qualified for the Utah High School Rodeo state finals, and then this year she qualified for the Silver State International Rodeo, where placers 5-15 at the state rodeo finals ride and rope against competitors from across the country. (The top four places at the state rodeo compete at the national high school finals.) Silver State takes place July 2-7 in Winnemuca, Nevada.
Whitney lit up as she talked about Silver State, her horse, Buck, and her future plans to attend college. She grabbed a camera and playsed video of her running the poles.
Taking off on Buck, her hair streams behind her and she skillfully runs the course, looking confident and sure astride the buckskin as he winds through the poles. She watched the videos over and over again.
“If I win, I bring home a saddle,” says Whitney. “I’m hoping I can do good at Silver State.”
“She has nothing to lose,” Kayla said. “She’ll go for a win every run.”