At the Aspen Farms Horse Trials in Washington this June, Madison Langerak rode her Normandy Kivalo to victory in the preliminary rider division, adding only cross-country time penalties to their dressage score of 23.3. While anyone would be proud of that result, the win was especially poignant considering that not only was it the pair’s first successful preliminary completion in two years, it also came after overcoming a series of challenges that threatened to end not just the horse’s career, but his life.
Just a few years earlier, Langerak and “Norman,” a now-9-year-old Hungarian Sport Horse gelding (Kalaska de Semilly—Carina), were riding a wave of success that included wins at both the 2018 U.S. Eventing Association Area VII Training Level Championships and the Oregon Dressage Society JR/YR First Level Championships. In 2019, the pair made their debut at preliminary, taking three blues in their first four starts at the level, while also earning second-level dressage scores toward Langerak’s U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medal. Langerak, 22, of Boise, Idaho was looking forward to making their FEI debut in the CCI** at Rebecca Farm (Montana) later that summer.
Fate had other plans for the pair.
It was about 7 p.m. on July 16, 2019, when Langerak received a call from a fellow boarder who said Norman seemed colicky. Langerak raced to the barn to find her horse in acute distress. By 10 p.m., he was undergoing surgery to resolve a twist. The anticipated recovery time, barring complications, was three months. Langerak was devastated.
“July 16 was five days before we were supposed to leave for Montana and five days before my 21st birthday,” Langerak said. “It was especially hard because we’d been having such a good season, and it was hard to watch everyone compete at Rebecca that year and know I was supposed to be there. But at some point, you put your head down and say, ‘This is such a First World problem to have, and my horse is still with me.’ Even if I wasn’t able to ever ride him again, I was so thankful to have him above ground.”
Though Norman and Langerak had only been partners for a few years before his surgery, their time together had altered her trajectory as a horseman. Before Norman, Langerak had owned several horses and competed at preliminary a handful of times, with limited success. But after a series of unfulfilling partnerships and disappointments, her love for riding was beginning to fade. All of that changed when a family vacation to Hungary accidentally turned into a horse-shopping trip, and she met a not-quite-5-year-old prospect named Laska in a tiny ring on New Year’s Day 2017.
“I rode him for 10 minutes, and I was like, ‘He is perfect’, ” Langerak said. “He had done nothing but a few small jumper shows. As far as anything related to eventing, he had never seen a dressage ring or a cross-country fence, so everything after that has been me.”
Knowing that announcers would never pronounce Laska correctly (it sounds like “Loshka” and means oyster in Hungarian), Langerak searched for an easier name for her new mount.
“He is the biggest character,” Langerak said. “I have this photo of him, and he just looks like a little old man, and I decided his name was Norman.”
“Kivalo” means “first-class” or “excellent” in Hungarian, she said, so she chose it to represent where he came from and what she hoped he’d be.
Langerak began getting to know Norman while also completing pre-med classes at Boise State University. In making their novice debut later that year, she quickly realized that her young horse would need more exposure to the dressage ring to show his true potential.
“He had never seen a dressage ring, and he had no idea what was going on,” she recalled with a laugh.
She began taking Norman to rated dressage competitions, which is where she met trainer Nadine Schwartsman, owner of Les Bois Dressage in Eagle, Idaho. With Schwartsman’s coaching, Langerak and Norman began consistently scoring in the low 20s at horse trials, one time even earning a personal best score of 15 penalties.
“With Nadine’s help, I understood he has a talent for dressage,” Langerak said. “It’s incredible how her perspective has helped me learn how to ride a dressage test.”
Schwartsman’s impact was so significant that although eventing was still Langerak’s main focus, she relocated Norman to Schwartsman’s dressage facility. They kept their jumping skills tuned up with coaching from Schwartsman’s neighbor Stephanie Goodman of Wasatch Sport Horses and Attila Rajnai and Sara Mittleider at Mittleider Eventing in nearby Kuna, Idaho.
By the end of 2019, Norman was back in full work, and Langerak was prepared to put the stress and worry surrounding his colic surgery in their rear-view mirror. In late January 2020, they returned to the competition ring, winning a training division at Galway Downs (California) before moving back up to preliminary at Fresno Park two weeks later. But after completing cross-country, something clearly was wrong with Norman.
“He was just not fit enough, and I ran him too fast,” Langerak said. “I tired him out to the point where he stretched his tendon and tore it. I have no one to blame except myself in that situation because I hadn’t helped him get fit enough.”
Norman was diagnosed with a partial tear of the deep digital flexor tendon of his left foreleg. He underwent platelet-rich plasma treatments and one month of stall rest, then spent two months at Equine Development in New Plymouth, Idaho, where he swam on the aquatred five days a week to rebuild strength without impact. For Langerak, the injury was a wake-up call that caused her to reassess her whole program.
“I beat myself up for it a lot,” she said. “I knew I had to help him heal up as best I can. I said, ‘You have to learn your lesson and never push him that hard again.’
“I have prepared for FEI and training [level] three-days before, so I have this general knowledge of how I should go about it, but now I take into consideration things like hill work and the different types of footing he needs to be acclimated to. We board at a dressage barn where footing is perfect 24/7, and for an eventer that is not exactly practical.”
Though Norman’s prognosis for recovery was good, Langerak wasn’t sure that she would ever ask her horse to jump again.
“I told everyone, and I mean everyone, I wasn’t going to event again, or if I did, I wasn’t going above training level,” she said. “I had no expectations of getting back to preliminary, and really, I was OK with that, because I wanted him to be happy and healthy, and I enjoy riding him day to day.”
In May 2020, under close veterinary supervision, Langerak carefully started Norman’s under-saddle rehabilitation. They made steady progress, with frequent rechecks to ensure the tendon was adapting correctly. By July, they were just beginning to canter under saddle, and Langerak had hope that she might actually get her horse back.
“And then on July 14, I get another phone call that Norman is colicking,” she said. “It was 363 days from the first one. And sure enough, by that night he was back on the table having another colic surgery.”
This time, Norman’s colic was due to an impaction. Other than the time of year, there were no apparent similarities between his two serious colic episodes. Langerak was yet again grateful that Norman had survived another life-threatening incident.
“He had two months totally off, and then in September he spent one month swimming five days a week,” she said. “Now he lives on a completely pelleted diet. He eats no hay. The barn I board him at is very generous, and they soak his feed four times a day. They take complete care of him.”
When Norman was cleared to begin under-saddle rehab in October 2020, Langerak proceeded with extreme caution. The time Norman had spent rehabilitating in the pool allowed him to resume work with a solid base of fitness. Yet as his workload steadily increased, Langerak had to fight her doubts and fears regarding Norman’s overall health and the strength of his healed tendon.
“I took it so slowly,” she said. “I really took my time, and I spoke to my vet—a lot.”
Those conversations, coupled with the ultrasounds, reassured Langerak that the tendon had healed well and that Norman could return to eventing.
This April, Norman finished third in a training division at Twin Rivers (California) and second at the modified level later that month at Fresno County Horse Park (California). All pieces seemed to be in place for the pair to move up at the Woodside Preliminary Challenge (California) in late May—until Langerak’s ongoing worries about Norman’s tendon flared again.
“I panicked and stayed home and had his leg ultrasounded,” she admitted with a laugh. “I’ve had his leg ultrasounded more times than I care to admit, because I was so nervous. My vet was like, ‘You’re good to go’. They reassured me it was going to be OK.”
Langerak took advantage of the change in schedule to enter Norman at third level in the Spring Dressage at Les Bois I and II, where they earned scores to 65.5% and completed their bronze medal.
“I have so much confidence in his flatwork because I know how consistent he is and exactly what he’ll be like in the ring,” she said. “I’ve learned how to ride a consistent test, and he’s such a little steady Eddie.”
Riding down centerline at Aspen Farms two weeks later, in their delayed return to the preliminary level, Langerak felt pressure to do well in recognition of all those who had supported her and Norman during his various recoveries. His score of 23.3 topped the 19-horse field and gave her a huge confidence boost heading into show jumping, where rails had been falling all day.
“All except four people had rails, and I always have rails,” she said. “But as soon as I stepped in the ring, I turned every corner and saw every distance, and he was jumping huge. It was such a great feeling. I was smiling the whole way around because I just knew he was going to go clear.”
Norman headed into cross-country nearly 9 points ahead of the field, but Langerak’s main focus was on having a clean, safe trip with planned time penalties.
“All I was thinking was, ‘We have to go over all these jumps on the first try,’ ” she said. “I have never seen so many skinnies on a cross-country course, but he kept jumping for me; he kept looking for the flags. It was so great and reminds me why I love this sport so much—to sit behind his ears on the cross-country.”
Crossing the finish flags, Langerak was more worried about checking Norman’s tendon than the leaderboard. Both the tendon and their placing held up—but Langerak was far more excited to be back out with her partner than the color of their ribbon.
“I love him so much and appreciate how amazing he is and the results we’ve had, but that’s not what it’s about for me,” she said. “He’s also my pet. Rebecca is my next aim, but footing is a massive concern, and knowing me, I’ll panic. I’m just hoping to get through July with no colic surgery.”
Langerak plans to attend medical school in the future and intends to leave Norman at home in Idaho, where she knows he will be well cared for.
“I’m taking every opportunity I have to enjoy him and get the most out of the next year with him,” she said. “My jump trainer likes to tell me, ‘This horse has a heart of gold and does so much for you’, and I look at her and say, ‘Hey, I’ve done a lot for him, too’. I think he knows that we both owe each other a lot after the past couple of years. He’s stuck with me for sure.”
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 email@example.com with their story.