By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
It was time to prepare the goats. Faith Snapp, 12, stepped into the pen and slid her hand along the rump of cream- and toffee-colored Mac, checking to make sure he was clean. Her twin brother, Caleb, stood in the corner feeding Pi his formula while the twins' parents and sister scurried around getting ready for the San Antonio Livestock Show. Faith tossed back her long blond hair, while Caleb, a couple of inches shorter than Faith, clambered onto the gate to get out of the way.
This is old hat for the twins and the rest of the Snapp family. Working with livestock and a love of animals are two of the things Brent and Angie Snapp had in common when they met in college more than 20 years ago. Since then they've tried to pass those passions on to their children. Faith and Caleb have been making the rounds of the livestock-show circuit since third grade, and their older sister, Jacey, 15, started competing at an even younger age. When Jacey said she wanted to try her hand at raising goats, the whole family got into it.
The twins grew up helping their big sister with her animals out in Lubbock — where the family lives — and when they were old enough, they were eager to get out there in the ring and compete on their own. The family travels six months out of the year, crisscrossing Texas to enter livestock shows and jackpot competitions. They hit all the big shows — San Antonio, Dallas, Austin — and as many of the small ones as they can. It gives the twins a chance to get out in front of audiences, and Angie has watched as over the years they've gone from being shy and uncertain to stepping out with absolute assurance in themselves and the goats they are leading. "This teaches them so much. They learn responsibility in caring for their animals, and they've gained so much confidence," Angie said.
This month Faith and Caleb will be competing at the Houston Livestock Show for the fifth year in a row. They're a familiar sight in the goat world, as those who show animals call it. They aren't identical, but they're both skinny kids with pale blue eyes that look blurry behind thick, concave glasses.
The glasses are the only visible clue that the twins can't see. They've been legally blind since birth, and when they walk into the ring, there's always a spotter at each twin's side to whisper instructions about where to place the goat and where to look.
But this isn't the Paralympics. They don't compete in a separate category. While other contestants are checking out the competition, moving around to catch the judge's eye by staring directly into his face, watching out for any potential accidents in the making — there are often 100 goats in the ring at the same time — Faith and Caleb see everything as if they're peering at the world through a coffee straw, discerning only blurry shapes and pinpricks of color and light.
And yet somehow, that is enough.
They can see a little. Faith's eyes are worse than Caleb's because her right eye is only living tissue now, though Caleb is losing more sight because his cataracts are more severe. The twins were born with an eye disease that is a common risk among premature babies. With the disease, the blood vessels that connect the retinas to the rest of the eye don't finish developing. Angie had a difficult time during her pregnancy with older daughter Jacey, and then a few years later with the twins. Because of complications due to Graves' disease, she became diabetic during her pregnancy with Jacey. It's difficult to carry twins to term under the best of circumstances, but Angie made it to only 26 weeks before her water broke. The birth was delayed to give the twins more time in the womb, but they came a week later, 13 weeks premature.
They were tiny, fragile-looking things in their incubators, so small they had to be dressed in doll clothes. When babies are born that early, retinopathy of prematurity is such a common risk that doctors always check for it. Brent and Angie found out three weeks after Faith and Caleb were born that the twins had the disease. They had their first operations in Houston when they were nine weeks old, laser surgery to sever the blood vessels in an attempt to save their vision. It was the first of many surgeries, many doctors' appointments and trips to Houston.
"It was a hard time for us. The first two years after they were born, it was all doctors' appointments. If Brent and I hadn't been so solid in our marriage, I don't know how we'd have survived it," Angie said.
Because their retinas were surgically detached, Faith and Caleb have no peripheral vision. Their sight is so poor that it didn't change significantly after cataracts started growing a few years ago. Angie understood they couldn't see much as babies, but she didn't begin to understand what the world looked like through their eyes until they were old enough to color and try to draw the world around them. Faith and Caleb would present their mother with drawings of people, but the people didn't have any noses. She realized they didn't draw noses on their people because they had never seen noses.
When the children got old enough, they started working with an orientation and mobility therapist. The first time Angie met with the therapist, he looked at her and told her that she and her husband had a decision to make. Were they going to be the kind of parents who believed their children could do anything, or not? It was a big decision, he said, because "they can do anything" would mean a lot of bumps and bruises for the twins and more time and energy spent by the entire family. Angie and Brent knew they wanted the twins to have as close to a regular life as other children have. "They can do anything," they told the therapist.
The therapist had them meet at the post office for the first session. Angie showed up with Faith and Caleb, age two at the time, wondering what on earth he had in mind. He had her let go of the children and they all went inside the post office, and he directed Angie to stand back. She watched as the twins walked around the room, and both ran into the metal bar near the counter. Then she watched as the therapist worked with them, teaching them to try to figure out what was around them so they wouldn't be hitting things. Believing the twins could do anything would mean watching them get hurt a lot, he warned her again. Brent and Angie stuck with their decision. "We never doubted that this was the right thing to do. We were going to do our best to give them as normal a life as possible. That's what we decided," Angie said.
The Houston Livestock Show ring is massive, designed to handle the huge number of competitors who stream through each year. The first time Faith and Caleb brought their goats to the competition, Brent stifled his own fear and prepared to watch proudly from the stands as they went out. But before he joined the rest of the family up there, he pulled the judge aside as Faith got ready to compete. "Judge, I just wanted you to know that my little blond girl that's getting ready to go out into the ring doesn't see too good," he said. "I would really appreciate it if you can keep an eye on her."
Faith walked out into the ring, and she was counting her steps and trying to keep track of where she was in relation to the exit, but she was also handling her goat and trying to look in the general direction of the judge. When she wasn't selected to move on to the next round, she started heading toward the exit, but veered off to one side. Brent watched from the stands as Faith began to wander around the ring, but the judge remembered. Even while he was herding dozens of contestants and their goats to where they were supposed to be for the next round, he stepped away and walked with Faith all the way to the exit gate, making sure she found her way out of the ring. The judge did it without making a big show or causing the people packed into the stands to realize she was blind.
"He didn't have to do that, but he did. People have been really wonderful about all this," Brent said.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is the largest event of its kind in the country and has been for a very long time. This year there are more than 16,000 entries competing in the junior livestock show alone, said Allyson Tjoelker, who is in charge of agricultural competitions and exhibits for the organization. Only a small fraction of the competitors, about ten entrants a year at most, have disabilities that require some kind of accommodation by the show, Tjoelker said.
When organizers receive a special request, there are two conditions for entry that must be met — they have to make sure the needs in question are legitimate, usually by obtaining written confirmation from the child's agricultural science teacher or the county extension office agent or a note from a parent explaining the situation and detailing the specific request being made, Tjoelker said. The main thing is to make sure the organizers know exactly who is going to be in the ring and what needs to be done to accommodate the child who wants to compete, she said.
Organizers would turn away a child only if the needs were guaranteed to significantly disrupt the show to the point that it affects other children, Tjoelker said. "In my tenure, we've never had to turn anyone away. We try to work with everyone as much as possible. We think about logistics, about the size of the pen, and if we can fit a wheelchair into the ring or whatever else needs to happen to let that child compete. There are questions we have to ask, but we work hard to let everyone in, and we've never had to say no," Tjoelker says.
From that standpoint, just letting the Snapp twins have spotters in the ring is a minimal accommodation. The spotters must be students who are also competing, and they are allowed only to act as eyes in the ring. The work of showing the animals has to be done by the twins themselves.
The real work has already been done in the months leading up to the competition, Jess Yeaman, who judged the goats at the Houston show in 2013, said. It all starts with picking out the goat when the animal is just weeks old. At that age, it's hard to tell what kind of lines the goat will have, whether it will grow up to be a well-muscled animal with good proportions. The person doing the choosing has to have an instinct for potential and a little bit of luck, Yeaman said. A good market goat — one that will be good on the table — will be firm to the touch, wide in the chest and wide in the back legs, Yeaman said. "Some of this is determined in breeding, in whether the goat has a good skeleton structure. But breeding doesn't determine everything. You can still take a goat that doesn't have perfect structure and work with it and get it balanced enough to turn it into a winner," Yeaman said. From there, the trick is in getting the judge to actually see the goat, he said.
Going into the ring, judges will usually see more than 100 goats in each class, Yeaman said. Often a judge will be looking at each goat for only seconds at a time. In those moments, he or she has to instantly assess and take in the flaws and virtues of the animal. "You have to go in and really stay focused. You're looking at more than 100 goats, and you have to pull the ten or 12 winners from there," he said. Every moment in the ring counts.
Judges are focused on the goats, but anything that draws the eye might get you a few more seconds of attention, and those seconds might make the judge look more closely at your goat. Because of that, good showmanship — the ability to control your animal, to walk into the ring with confidence, to look the judge in the eye and get the judge to look back — is crucial. "That stare implies confidence. Any kid that is really staring me down, they've probably worked hard and they believe in their goat. I will respond to that and make sure to look at their animal carefully, because they've earned that," Yeaman said. Faith and Caleb can't actually lock eyes with the judges, but the spotter will whisper to them where to look and they'll fix their eyes in that direction so it appears they're holding the judge's gaze.
When they were just starting out, Faith and Caleb always went out into the ring without spotters. They were in third grade, and at that age, all the children competing were pretty inexperienced, so it didn't seem to matter, Angie said. "They were doing pretty well in the competitions, too. But then something changed, and Caleb and Faith both started losing, not even making the first round in some shows," she said. The twins are known in the goat world for raising good goats, Yeaman said, and in the early years, that was what mattered. And it meant everything to their parents to see them out in the ring, just like all the other kids. "This was the one place where they could walk out there and be completely normal," Brent said. While the other children were becoming more skilled at showing as the years passed, Faith and Caleb were falling behind.
But three years ago, Caleb walked his goat out into the ring in Dallas. The judge flagged him almost as soon as he walked in, selecting his goat for the next level of the competition on the first glance, but the judge was in Caleb's peripheral vision and there was no way Caleb could see him. Angie, Brent and Jacey could only watch from the stands. The family is known in the goat world, but the fact that the twins were blind was something the Snapps didn't advertise. Caleb kept walking his goat in circles around the ring, oblivious of the fact that he'd already made it to the next round until the judge realized the boy couldn't see and physically pulled him aside. After it was over, a judge found Angie and Brent. "Why haven't you gotten these kids a spotter yet?" he asked.
Faith was getting ready to take her turn in the ring, but there was just enough time to ask if she could have a spotter. Faith walked out into the ring with Ian Cobb. He and his sister, Lindsey Cobb, have been friends with the Snapp kids since the families met at a livestock show years ago. Ian knew pretty well what Faith could and couldn't see. They were approaching the lip of the ring when Ian noticed the judge wasn't looking in their direction. He stopped Faith and had her wait a beat until he knew the judge was watching. Then they stepped in, Ian whispering instructions about which way to go and where to turn her face so it looked as if she were making eye contact with the judge. She was the first contestant pulled off the walk and advanced to the next round of the competition. "I never knew where the judge was before then. It was really different after that," Faith said.
It was easy to forget the kids were blind. Angie and Brent raised them so that they could try almost anything. Faith wanted to learn to ride horses and started showing her horse, Pilot, in riding competitions. Angie would watch her in the field and call out to let her know when her horse was heading for a jump as she practiced. When she competed, Faith listened to the clopping hooves of the other riders to figure out where she was on the course. Caleb fell in love with music, but he has never learned to read Braille so he couldn't learn to read music. For the first few piano classes, Angie thought that would be a problem, but then he started picking out tunes on the piano by ear. Now he can play almost anything he hears.
Caleb walks out in the early mornings, long before it's light out, to check on his goats. Faith follows the light footsteps of the family border collie to find her way to the barn to feed and work with her goats in the evening. They move around by counting steps and listening and using what little sight they have. Both of them fall down a lot, but they've never broken any bones and they're good at getting back up. Parking lots are dangerous because it's not obvious the twins are blind and because there are so many cars moving that there's no way to keep track of them all. The twins, especially Caleb, love to explore, but they have a habit of getting lost. "If they were trying to find us in a crowd, they'd never be able to do it," Angie said. Brent wears a giant Stetson, either white or black, so the twins have a better chance of finding him when they're at livestock shows. At home, the family rarely thinks about the twins being blind, and their inability to see means they approach the world from an unusual angle.
They hear everything; you can't say a word about either of them in the house without them catching it. "I was seven, and I heard my mom talking about me, and I was in the next room. I yelled, 'I'm right here and I can hear you!'" Faith said.
Caleb laughed. "Yeah, they can't talk about us if we're in the house at all," he said. The lack of sight has made the entire family listen to the world more closely. The twins recognize people by footfalls, and if Brent pulls over on one of their drives across Texas to point out a deer, the twins won't see it, but they hear things in the silence that Brent never thought of, he said. "You grow this way. I'm not going to say it's a good thing, but you grow, and there's a different way of seeing the world," he said.
The future most likely will never include an increase in sight for Faith and Caleb, but the Snapp family stays focused on what they can do. Faith is thinking of becoming a veterinarian or a psychologist. Being a vet might be tricky, she says, because she'd have to do surgeries by feel. She's also drawn to psychology because she hopes to help other people with disabilities learn to cope with them. "I had a friend at camp who found out she was going to lose all her sight. We talked about it, and then she felt better. I want to help people like that," Faith said.
Caleb wants to become an inventor. "I'm going to invent something that will help people who can't see," he says. "That will be good." They've come so far that their parents think anything is possible. Still, there are things they will never be able to do, like play baseball or drive a car.
But they can show goats, and on March 14, they'll be in Houston doing that again this year.