Jennifer Bolton doesn’t like to talk about the incident that left her struggling to walk and talk six years ago. She’d much rather share the story of the life she’s built beyond it, and the role horses—and the Chronicle’s Lose The Leathers Challenge—played in making her whole.
An art teacher for students at alternative schools, Bolton, 40, is an avid animal lover with multiple dogs and horses. She’s a newbie on the dog show scene with her Italian greyhound Sonnie. A lifelong equestrian, she dabbles in hunters, dressage and eventing, but the jumpers are her abiding love.
“Being around [the horses] gave me more confidence and remembrance of who I was again,” said Bolton, Parker, Colorado. “They don’t ever look down on you; they always treat you exactly the same, and that’s what I needed.”
The incident left Bolton with a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and vestibular balance disorder, and she’s still dealing with the after-effects today. But as she’s fought to carve out her new normal, her animals, and a particular rescue horse named Suspended In Animation or “Elliot,” have been a crucial support each step of the way.
After the TBI, which affected her ability to read, write and speak, she had to regain her balance and reteach her body how to ride.
“It was very disheartening, having to completely start over from scratch,” Bolton said. “I was constantly being very hard on myself and critical on myself on how far away I was from where I was, but I just couldn’t give up. I wasn’t going to allow this incident to ruin my life. I was going to do everything possible in my power to try to get back to where I was.”
Her return to riding began on the ground, where she’d walk with the horses and use them to help her balance. When she was cleared to mount up, her next challenge was relearning how to balance on the horse.
“Being under saddle, it sort of helped me reset that balance again,” said Bolton. “Being able to feel that motion under the horse and having to try to rebalance myself with that motion underneath me sort of reset that again for me. I just kept working under saddle, from walking, trotting, cantering, and I just kept pushing forward and eventually started jumping again.”
With Elliot, Bolton returned to the show ring in 2015 and started eventing again, but then it was her beloved horse’s turn to fight through his own rehabilitative journey. In 2017, after the pair had started going training level, and Bolton was considering the big move up to preliminary, a serious issue arose. While competing at the Colorado Horse Park, Bolton realized something was amiss when they accumulated an uncharacteristic number of faults in show jumping, and Elliot was having difficulty lengthening his stride. Her veterinarian, Dr. Laura Smith of Cross Country Veterinary Services, determined Elliot would need his hind pasterns fused due to osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) lesions, which had developed into severe arthritis. Bolton was presented with two options: euthanize or send him to surgery.
Concerned over Elliot’s quality of life, Bolton worried she was putting her horse through unnecessary pain by choosing surgery. But Smith encouraged her to be patient.
“She knew Elliot had a big heart, and she thought he was going to be able to make it through,” said Bolton. “I was very disheartened because he was pretty lame, and I didn’t want him to suffer and hurt, and she says, ‘No, just give it more time. Give it more time for it to heal and for him the handle the fusions.’ ”
Bolton acquired Elliot from a slaughter auction nearly a decade ago. After rehabbing him and selling him, Bolton bought him back when he came up for sale.
“He’s definitely one that you have to build a relationship with,” said Bolton. “He’s just got the heart of gold for me. He can be very sweet, but definitely, he wants to be ridden a certain way because he came from abuse and neglect. We have this understanding. He is outgoing; he’s bold; he’ll jump anything; he’ll go through anything. He does everything for me.”
Elliot, an 11-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse, is one of four in Bolton’s herd—she also has her 19-year-old Irish Sport Horse mare Celtic Trinity or “Hailey,” and Hailey’s babies: Arthur, an 8-month-old Irish Sport Horse by Cornet Obolensky, and Flex Of Diamonds of “Lily,” a 5-year-old Irish Sport Horse mare by Flexible.
“Between Elliot and Hailey, I was able to come back a lot faster and regain my speech, my walking,” said Bolton. “Elliot got me back to riding again and getting my balance back. It’s something I never thought I’d be able to gain as much as I had, nor did I ever think I’d be able to do what I did with him: jump him, train him, getting him ready for prelim. I couldn’t put that horse down. He just means the world to me.”
Smith encouraged Bolton to get in the saddle once Elliot had recovered from surgery.
“She said just ride him a little bit through it, so every single ride I did on him kept getting better and better, and his surgery fused,” Bolton said. “He’s no longer having any lameness issues anymore.”
For the past two years she’s concentrated on bringing along her young mare and rehabilitating Elliot. But when her friend Lynn Van Voris told Bolton about the Chronicle’s Lose The Leathers challenge, Bolton knew it was the perfect goal.
Before her injury, Bolton was an active bareback rider on the flat and over fences, so she wasn’t new to stirrup-less work, but she’d never committed to doing so for a month.
But aboard Elliot, she tackled yet another challenge, riding 14 times in November without stirrups—or a saddle!
“I just felt it really helped my balance even more, and I feel more secure in the tack riding my younger horse now, too,” she said.
“I can feel everything underneath me; I can feel his energy,” Bolton added as she explained her love for bareback riding. “It’s like we’re connected, we’re one. I don’t know what it is, but it helps me know where he is, so I can get a better balance. I almost feel more secure bareback than in the saddle on Elliot.”
As Bolton progressed, she began riding her other horses bareback too.
Not only did the challenge help Bolton strengthen her seat and balance, but it also gave her a reason to venture outdoors and brave Colorado’s harsh winter. In quest of completing the challenge, Bolton would head out wearing layers upon layers, topping it off with a winter ski mask, while Elliot did his work wearing his blanket.
“Right after a major blizzard, we were out riding, and my parents were like, ‘You’re nuts. I can’t believe you’re actually doing it,’” said Bolton. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to get this challenge done. I’ve got to do it.’ It gave me that motivation to keep working, keep moving forward.”
Elliot felt the benefits too.
“I didn’t think Elliot would come back to jumping, and he just kept feeling better and better and better every single ride,” said Bolton, who jumped Elliot for the first time in two years after the challenge ended. “Finally, I was like, ‘I’m going to try it.’ I popped him over a few jumps with the saddle first a couple days before, and I was like, ‘I’ve never jumped this horse bareback. Let’s try it.’ ”
Not only did she complete the challenge and receive a ribbon, but she also won the drawing for the grand prize—a lesson with the instructor of her choice.
She’ll take that lesson with Natascha Gates, head trainer and rider at Plum Creek Hollow Farm in Larkspur, Colorado.
“Six years ago, I didn’t think I’d be able to get back to riding, much less be able to ride bareback and do what I did,” Bolton said. “Even in November, in the freezing cold, I didn’t think I’d be able to stay vigilant and get it done, and it made me feel very proud of myself, that I actually kept going and persevering through it all. I continued to push myself even before the challenge, through the challenge, and even now. I just keep trying to make myself a better rider each and every day.”
Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at firstname.lastname@example.org with their story.
Check out the Chronicle’s Lose The Leathers Wall Of Fame to see the names and photos of everyone who completed the challenge, and join the COTH Lose The Leathers Facebook group to learn more and get updates on new challenges.
Thank you to the prize donors for the Chronicle’s #LoseTheLeathers challenge. They include: