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“The Horse Brought Us All Back to Normal”

Madeline Jordan, who rode Shamrock to victory at the 2017 USEF Pony Finals presented by Collecting Gaits Farm, overcame serious injuries to get back to the show ring

by Glenye Cain Oakford | Aug 7, 2018, 3:00 PM EST

Madeline Jordan doesn’t remember being hit by the white pickup truck. But it’s a moment her parents, Grady and Monica Jordan, will never forget.

It was Halloween night in 2015, and the family had joined what Monica called “a walking block-party” of friends, carry­ing flashlights and wearing fluorescent necklaces, to go trick-or-treating. Maddie was dressed up as Bill Belichick, the Super Bowl-winning coach of her beloved New England Patriots football team. Maddie and a friend had just left one house and were crossing Argyle Lane, a small and usually quiet offshoot from a tree-covered street, in their hometown of Tallahassee, Fla., when a truck sped into the lane.

“My recollection is that I heard a scream and a horn blow, which we later determined was the driver of the truck that was pulling our hay wagon,” recalled Grady, the Public Information Officer and a lieutenant in the Leon County Sheriff’s Office. “People were yelling, ‘Slow down!’ I saw headlights that were pretty much on top of us. And then I saw a shadow and heard a thud, so I knew something had been hit. It all happened very, very quickly, probably within a second.”

That second was life-changing for Maddie, now 14, and her parents. Mad­die’s left femur was broken, she had torn the meniscus in her right knee, and she’d sustained a brain injury.

Earlier that month, Maddie had been competing her small Welsh pony, Ben— whose show name was Playtime—and pointing for every young hunt-seat rider’s dream destination: USEF Pony Finals presented by Collecting Gaits Farm. The weeklong event draws more than 600 ponies to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., each August and serves as the national championship for pony hunters, pony jumpers, and Pony Medal riders. But then came Halloween.

“It all just stopped,” said Maddie. “A car came out of nowhere, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground.”

In the fear and pain of that night, the Jordans’ immediate thoughts were about Maddie’s health, not whether she would ride again. But when the subject of their daughter’s equestrian career came up within a day of her arrival at the hospital, a neurosurgeon bluntly told them not to expect her to ride again.

"When I couldn't ride and do what I loved, it meant a lot that I could just pet my horses," recalled Maddie, shown with small Welsh pony Playtime during her recovery.
Photo: Courtesy of the Jordan family

But Maddie did ride again. And two years later—after surgeries, intensive physical therapy, and a lot of hard work— Maddie and a Welsh pony cross named Shamrock trotted out of the show ring at Pony Finals as Medium Green Pony Hunter Champions. It was a comeback worthy of a Spielberg movie. As Jordan later told her hometown newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat, “It’s a pretty big deal when you go from not walking to winning Pony Finals.”

Horses and ponies played a starring role in that comeback, both for Maddie and her family.

“I knew it was going to be a while, but I knew I wanted to come back and show and keep going,” Maddie recalled. In the end, with the encouragement of her ortho­pedic surgeon and the blessing of her parents, that’s exactly what Maddie did.

From the start, fellow equestrians and farm owners like Bibby Farmer Hill in Ocala, Fla., pitched in to care for the Jor­dans’ horses, including Maddie’s small pony Playtime, in the weeks that Maddie was in the hospital. “They took the pres­sure off of us, and all we had to do was worry about Maddie,” Monica said. “And as soon as she got released, she wanted to see that small pony. Someone would hold the pony so that she could wheel herself onto the porch and pet him.”

“When I couldn’t ride and do what I loved, it meant a lot that I could just pet my horses,” said Maddie. “I could just be normal.”

Once out of the hospital, Maddie progressed, thanks in part to her physi­cal therapy sessions. “She went from a wheelchair to a walker to a crutch to an unassisted walk but with a very lame gait,” said Monica. “She was not sound at all; she was head-bobbing lame. You have to understand, she was learning how to walk again.”

But by January Maddie was back in the show ring with Playtime at HITS Ocala, where she resumed her show career with a win in the model class despite being lame herself as she jogged alongside the gelding. She went on to win three of the four classes she entered there. “I remem­ber riding around with my friends and thinking, ‘I remember why I love this so much,’” Maddie said.

Maddie and the Welsh-cross Shamrock en route to the Medium Green Championship at the 2017 USEF Pony Finals presented by Collecting Gaits Farm
Photo: Shawn McMillen Photography

Pony Finals remained a goal, although Maddie missed going in 2016 because she had surgery to remove the steel rod surgeons had implanted to help repair her broken femur. Her family bought Sham­rock shortly before that surgery, and, once Maddie recovered from the operation, Monica said, “She never looked back. Every horse show on that pony, they were champion and reserve. There was just something about her and that pony.”

“He was just a very special pony,” Maddie said. “In the summer I could go out there, jump on, and ride him with his halter on, bareback— walk, trot, and canter him around. He was just that kind of pony.”

“The Pony Finals win was such a great experience for our family for a few reasons,” Monica explained. “Madeline was not a kid with a string of ponies. She had one pony that she absolutely loved, fed, groomed, and did all the care at home. … I truly believe that the love of the animal coupled with her hard work was what aligned the stars for us in August 2017.

“Madeline overcame a horrific event that could have put all of our lives on a different track,” she added. “But because of her love of horses and some amazing surgeons, she had a drive to overcome obstacles that we could never imagine. She simply just wanted to be in their presence, even if she never sat on one again. It was the horse that brought us all back to a normal existence.”

Her comeback experience has changed her, Maddie feels. “I think I have a different mental­ity now,” she said. “Before, if I got a seventh, I’d be disappointed, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, seventh.’ But now I’m like, ‘Hey, I got to ride my horse, I got to go to a show and jump around and have fun!’ I think I appreciate it more.”

This is an excerpt from the summer 2018 issue of US Equestrian magazine's cover feature, "Comeback Kids." To access the summer magazine's complete digital edition—including the dramatic comeback stories of young equestrians Connor Farley and Tabitha Bell, as well as expert advice on maximizing your horse’s hot-weather performance and more—join US Equestrian or log in to your existing account and visit the magazine page.