For Kelsey Maloney, the two weeks she spent showing at the Gulf Coast Winter Classic in Gulfport, Mississippi, were nothing short of magical. Riding her own mare La Coco, Maloney, 22, topped a deep field of experienced riders in the $25,000 CWD Grand Prix on March 3 to earn her first career win at that level. The following week she won the weekly welcome and then capped her series with a second win in the $25,000 Beau Rivage Grand Prix on March 10.
But the best part of these victories is that they came in partnership with a special horse who five years ago suffered a hock injury so severe that euthanasia was recommended.
“She’s only 15.3, and not only does she have the biggest stride of any horse I’ve ever ridden, she has the biggest heart,” said Maloney.
Maloney is the lone hunter/jumper rider in a family of horsemen; her dad Chris Maloney plays polo, and her mom Laura Maloney is a dressage rider (elder brother Jack is the only non-rider). Growing up in Rancho Santa Fe, California, Kelsey can’t remember a time when she wasn’t on the back of a horse. As a teen, she rode with Michael and Christa Endicott’s Pegasus Show Stable. She got her start in the jumper ring at 14.
“I was pretty nervous as a kid,” said Kelsey, who now lives in Atlanta. “I didn’t want to make a mistake, so doing the jumpers helped me get out of my head and not worry about every single thing being perfect.”
Kelsey took to the sport and quickly moved up, setting her sights on selection for the FEI North American Junior And Young Riders Championships. La Coco (Lycos—Lanita, Carnando), known as “Puff” in the barn, had the experience Kelsey needed, as the mare got her start in Europe under German show jumper Janne Friederike Meyer-Zimmermann, and she later campaigned in the U.S. with Brian Walker and his late wife Sophie. Kelsey’s family purchased Puff in the fall of 2013.
Kelsey took her time getting to know Puff, but fairly quickly the team began to experience success, with a pair of wins in the junior jumper classes at HITS Desert Circuit II (California) helping to build their confidence in each other.
One afternoon in early February 2014, Kelsey pulled into the barn driveway and saw a crowd of people had gathered on the edge of her mare’s pasture, and she knew immediately that something bad had happened.
“She had just been trotting in her pasture, not doing anything crazy or wild, when she slipped and fell,” says Kelsey. “Her leg had slid through the fence.”
Puff had regained her feet but was non-weight bearing on her left hind leg. They had to deconstruct the fencing in order to back up a trailer to get the mare to the barn for evaluation.
“She had broken off a piece of her hock, and the joint capsule had ruptured,” said Kelsey. “The vet told us that it was not looking too good.”
But the Maloneys were not ready to give up hope yet. Puff was quiet and calm, and their veterinarian, Dr. Maureen Kelleher, DVM, DACVS, thought the mare might have a chance of survival, given the family’s commitment and willingness to treat the injury aggressively. But no one was talking about saving Puff for a riding career.
“It was more a question of how can we patch her enough so that she can retire,” said Kelsey. “She was only 11 years old.”
After Puff was stabilized, they shipped her to San Dieguito Equine Group in San Marcos, California, for further diagnostic work with MRI and ultrasound, and then she had six months of stall rest. During that time, the Maloneys supported the mare in any way they could.
“We tried every therapy imaginable,” said Kelsey. “We used laser and a Vitafloor [vibration plate], and we were icing constantly.”
Kelleher also treated Puff with stem cell therapy and acupuncture. When Kelsey left to start her freshman year at Reed College in Oregon in the fall of 2014, Puff moved to Laura’s dressage barn to continue her therapy and rehabilitation. In time, Laura started to slowly bring the bay Oldenburg back under saddle.
“Every week for the next six months we would check in with our vet and get the green light to add more work,” said Kelsey. “Eventually she started doing some trotting.”
Kelsey scarcely dared to believe Puff would return to full soundness, never mind jumping. But as she watched the mare work under saddle, Kelsey began to hope. One day, Puff demonstrated a beautiful extended trot worthy of the dressage arena, and for Kelsey, it was a turning point. “I saw that and thought she might be OK,” she said.
As the mare continued to improve, the Maloneys arranged for Puff to move closer to Kelsey. Kelsey was training with Olympian Rich Fellers, and she started working the mare over cavaletti while waiting for a stall to open up at his facility. Puff showed no signs of the injury slowing her down.
“She is such a cool horse,” said Kelsey. “She is like a fireball when you get on her, but on the ground she is like a children’s hunter. Through all of the stall rest, all of the rehab, she stayed so calm. It was like she was in her own little Zen bubble.”
Kelsey shipped Puff to Fellers’ farm and tried some courses with her. At first, even jumping at the 1.0-meter height felt huge.
“Puff had to sort of relearn her jump and gain some confidence back,” said Kelsey. “Rich was really helpful in bringing her back and regaining her strength over smaller gymnastic exercises like bounces. We also did quite a lot of hill work, which helped build her fitness without adding the stress of jumping.”
Over the course of three months, Fellers and Kelsey gradually raised the fences until the mare was comfortable at 1.30 meters. In late May of 2015, nearly 1 ½ years after her freak pasture accident, Puff returned to the show ring with Fellers in the irons, winning several 1.20-meter classes at Thunderbird (Canada). Kelsey took the reins herself later that summer.
“It really was surreal being back in the ring with Puff,” said Kelsey. “I was so excited to show her when I first bought her, and I only got to show her in a couple of classes before her injury. I didn’t want to put too many expectations on her, but feeling her jump and knowing how well she schooled with Rich the week before made me confident I had my old horse back.”
And while Kelsey is mindful of the injury, Puff hasn’t had an issue since returning to full work.
“I have definitely been more conservative with her,” said Kelsey. “I do no more than six jumps in the warm-up and no more than two classes per week.”
Kelsey transferred to the Savannah College of Art and Design (Georgia), where she is completing a degree in fashion marketing this month. While she’s connected with top coaches like Margie Engle for help from time to time, Kelsey mostly works on her own. Puff is currently stabled at Nancy Boggio’s Arbor Hill Farm in Canton, Georgia, and the jumper riders based there help each other out on an informal basis. Kelsey credits her strong relationship with Puff for helping her learn to think for herself in terms of what her horse needs.
“It is a new thing for me to be on my own in the warm-up ring,” said Kelsey. “I know her so well. I can listen to her entirely and not have to accommodate anyone else.”
Kelsey wasn’t always sure they were doing the right thing by trying to bring her back to work. “There were times during the rehab where I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t we just turn her out and let her be retired?’ ” said Kelsey. “It was such a long time stuck in the stall. But knowing that she wants to be out there and wants to do her job, it made me tune into her more.
“She is so smart and just kind of knows when she is supposed to be on,” Kelsey continued. “It has taught me to listen to my horses much more, from a physical standpoint but from an emotional one too.”
Puff’s wins in Gulfport are even more meaningful as Kelsey is preparing to move to Sweden come May, meaning this may be her last shows in the United States for the foreseeable future. “My boyfriend lives over there, and it is a great place for fashion,” said Kelsey, who hopes to work in the fashion industry. “I am planning to bring Puff over. I want to have a chance to show on the European circuit. Her best venue is on grass, so I will hand pick the shows.”
But wherever Kelsey ends up long term, Puff, now 16, will remain a part of her life. “Doing all of my own grooming and maintenance has helped me be more in tune with her, so I think I’ll know when she’s ready to be done,” said Kelsey. “My parents have been big role models for me in this way. We must have 15 horses in retirement [among] the three of us, all of them fat and happy.”
Until the day Puff retires, Kelsey plans to continue to enjoy the ride. “Having Puff has been such a dream,” said Kelsey. “It’s corny, but she really is like my best friend. I’m so grateful for everyone who’s been involved in our journey, and it feels like it’s just starting to ramp up.”
Do you know a horse who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at firstname.lastname@example.org with their story.