Mary Jordan thought her life with horses was over. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002 and bedridden due to a botched spinal tap, her initial feelings of disbelief, sadness and anger were coupled with fear and uncertainty.
“I was completely scared,” said Jordan, whose father and sister also had MS. “I had a 5-year-old son, four horses, a husband. My family has never been horsey, so I was responsible for taking care of all of these animals. I was overwhelmed. I put every horse up for sale and thought, ‘This is it. I’ll love watching Rolex on TV, but I’m done.’ ”
But Jordan, Wells, Maine, refused to give up on two specific goals, despite her rollercoaster of emotional and physical pain.
“My first dream was to be as healthy as possible to raise my son, Tristan,” she said. “I looked at him and thought that I couldn’t tell him he would never get MS because three of the six people in my family had the disease. But I could show him how a person could deal positively with it.”
Jordan’s personal dream was to ride and train at the highest level possible, something she’d worked toward since childhood.
“I wanted to be to my son a living, breathing example of what a person with MS could do. That became a huge part of my riding focus. One of the things I think makes horse people, and eventers in particular, stand out is that they’re determined and creative and have to react to uncertainty. I relied on that because that was who I was and who I am. I was going to fight this disease with every bit of power. I’m really riding for a reason now, and there’s much more behind what I’m doing.
“When I sat on Paxton’s back [for the first time after the spinal tap], it was sheer magic,” Jordan continued. “Tristan was holding the reins out in the front yard, and Paxton was so good. I felt how powerful and positive she was. I felt freedom and hope riding on that horse.”
Cows, Ponies And Eventing
Jordan, 43, found her passion for riding at an early age in the rural countryside of New York. While Jordan didn’t have a horse of her own until she was 13, she rode as often as she could, which normally involved going into neighbors’ pastures and jumping on the ponies and cows.
Her first horse was Curtain Call, a 16-hand Thoroughbred hunter that had competed in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1958. He was 24 years old when Jordan acquired him.
One day, while Jordan was walking the 2 miles to the farm where she boarded her horse, she was nearly run over by Pinckney Sandlin, an event rider who happened to be galloping her horse. The chance encounter springboarded Jordan’s eventing career.
“I ended up boarding with her and entered my first event that spring,” said Jordan. “I really loved it. Here I was, on my 25-year-old horse, introducing him to eventing.”
With no instructor, Jordan turned to books to further her education and joined the local Pony Club. She also attended Kent School (Conn.) for the 1982-83 school year, taking advantage of the instruction, the various competitions and the sale horses that enabled her to ride more often.
While Jordan was attending the University of New Hampshire in 1986, she bought a foal. Nut Brown Ale, a Thoroughbred-Morgan-Percheron mare affectionately known as Nutkin, was a dream horse for Jordan, who relied on Reiner Klimke’s Basic Training Of The Young Horse to bring her along. Jordan competed Nutkin in hand, in dressage and evented her successfully through training level before deciding to breed her.
“When she was 10 years old she was the only horse I had, and I wanted to keep the legacy going,” said Jordan. “I learned so much and bonded so much with that little horse.”
Jordan researched stallions and pedigrees while she was pregnant with her own son and eventually settled on a little-known Hanoverian stallion, Pray For Snow [Pik Immer—Damacene, Damnatz].
“Pray For Snow was going through his approval process in dressage and [had a freak accident] that made him into a pasture ornament,” said Jordan. “He was a beautiful horse, though, and I went to the farm and saw all of the babies and was really impressed with him. Necessity became the mother of invention. I couldn’t afford a fancy horse, but I could do research to make the right choices, and I had a little bit of luck too.”
Jordan drove more than 20 hours from her home in Maine to Wynnwood Farm in Cabot, Pa., to have Nutkin bred, and a year later, in 1998, Paxton Abbey was born into her lap.
“She almost died, actually,” Jordan reflected. “The amniotic sac didn’t break open, and I was there with a hoof pick and a medical guide. I ripped the sac open and cleared her nostrils, and we’ve been best friends ever since.”
The Reign Of Paxton Abbey
Using that bond to her advantage, Jordan invested many long hours in Paxton, developing her into a polished young horse. She made her show ring debut at 3 months old at the New England Dressage Association breed show. Paxton won the reserve best young horse title.
“She stepped into the ring and blew away all of these horses from Germany and Holland and God knows where,” Jordan said with a laugh. “My little Heinz 57 homebred horse from my backyard won. To this day I think, ‘Did I dream that?’ The first horse I’ve ever bred didn’t set a foot wrong.”
As Paxton continued to grow, Jordan began to realize that first horse show set the tone for the mare’s entire career. The chestnut displayed a willing enthusiasm for every task set before her.
“It’s just been a matter of showing her different things and letting her enjoy it,” said Jordan of her training methods. “One of the things I do is really give them time to learn things at their level. I think Paxton is successful because she’s confident, and I haven’t betrayed her trust.”
After Jordan was diagnosed with MS in 2002, she took about a year off from competing to re-evaluate and make some tough decisions about her life with horses. She sold Nutkin to a friend, and the mare retired in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She kept Paxton and her younger full sister, P. Sparrow Socks.
In August of 2005, Jordan competed Paxton at novice for the first time since being diagnosed with MS. At Snowfields, Maine’s only event, they placed second, qualifying for their first American Eventing Championships.
AECs And Beyond
Jordan and Paxton headed down to the Carolina Horse Park in North Carolina in September of that year to contest the AECs.
While the pair had a good dressage test despite the wind from the remnants of Hurricane Ophelia, a tarp on the front face of a square table proved to be their demise, and they had their first cross-country stop in competition.
“It was an honest, ‘I’m scared,’ kind of thing,” Jordan reflected. “She jumped great in stadium, and I was really inspired even to have made it there after everything I’d been through.”
Jordan returned home to Maine to do some homework, and the following year they traveled to North Carolina for another attempt at the novice championship. This time, the weather cooperated.
“I was in a three-way tie for third after dressage, and [on] cross-country she was flawless,” said Jordan. “I knew that to do well I would have to come closest to optimum time, so I rode my watch like you would not believe. I think I checked my watch 17 times on course.”
Jordan and Paxton jumped a clear show jumping round to take the reserve championship.
“It was just a totally magical experience,” said Jordan. “How often do you create a horse yourself? You pick the parents, you trained the mother, you trained the horse, and it did that! It’s hard to describe how it even makes you feel.”
Paxton and Jordan moved up to training level in 2007, and it proved to be a banner year for the pair. They were second once again at the AEC at training level and won three USEA National Awards, including Training Master Rider of the Year, Training Master Amateur of the Year and the Training Horse of the Year awards. They also began competing in training level three-days and moved up to preliminary in 2008.
“I’ve been trying for 30 years to go preliminary,” she said with a laugh. “I finally had the right horse, the right time, the right level of instruction. It was a major milestone for me to do that. It wouldn’t be the same if someone gave me a horse or bought me a fancy horse. It’s the whole process that I just love—seeing them grow, seeing them develop. I think that’s what’s fascinating about horses. You have a dream in them, and it’s interesting to see it unfold.”
Competing With MS
Despite her success with Paxton, Jordan’s journey up the levels wasn’t always a smooth ride. Her disease presents her with challenges that other riders don’t have to face.
“The days vary,” Jordan said. “One of the things that happens with people who have MS is that other people will look at you and go, ‘Wow! You look really good.’ But there’s a lot that goes on with MS.”
Jordan calls herself “a guinea pig to science” because she’s the third person in her family to have the disease, and it’s believed that MS isn’t hereditary. She participates in several studies at Harvard (Mass.) and Brigham And Women’s Hospital (Mass.) where doctors study her skull, neck and spine. She also donates blood to studies in the hope that a cure will eventually be discovered.
While Jordan deals with a milder case of the disease, she takes serious care of her body and has incorporated yoga and physical therapy into her routine to keep her healthy. She also gives herself a daily injection of the drug Copaxone, which she started taking three days after her initial diagnosis.
“My most embarrassing symptom, and one that I have to deal with, is incontinence,” she said. “Without getting graphic, I’m running to the bathroom countless times a day, even with medication.”
Jordan said the toughest year is the first one.
“I tell fellow MS patients that you have to give yourself a year to figure out what it means in your life. It’s easy not to talk about it and pretend it’s not happening, but my eventing friends and instructors were extremely supportive and made me feel like me,” she said. “They said, ‘This is what you love. This is what you do. Of course you’re going to keep riding.’ ”
Susan Jaccoma, one of Jordan’s instructors for the past five years, wasn’t even aware that Jordan had MS until a year ago.
“She’s a hard working, good rider who has a wonderful harmony with her horses,” said Jaccoma, South Portland, Maine. “She’s very conscientious about the care of the horses, her position, and she’s very patient. She doesn’t expect miracles to happen without doing her homework.”
In addition to being a hard worker, Jaccoma said Jordan’s also fun to teach.
“She’s articulate and can verbalize very well what she’s feeling,” Jaccoma continued. “She has a great sense of humor and puts it all in perspective. Having the challenge of MS gives her more of a perspective and more of an enjoyment of getting out everyday and moving her muscles and being the best rider she can be.”
When Jordan isn’t working with her horses, she spends her time working with Team Copaxone, a group of 10 athletes who have MS and travel around the country to speak to other MS patients.
“It’s been a life-changing experience for me,” said Jordan. “Regardless of an illness, one of the most important things you need in life is a dream, because you don’t know what life is going to throw at you. Having a passion about something pulls you through those rough, unpredictable times.”
But Jordan also stressed that dreams have to be tempered with reality, and that you have to understand where you are, realistically, at that moment in time and work toward what you want to be.
“All these awards and AECs and national titles with Paxton happened after I had MS, not beforehand,” said Jordan. “It wasn’t like I was some champion rider that had MS. I got MS, and then became a champion rider.”
Jordan Takes On The World
Earlier this year, Mary Jordan traveled to Seattle, Wash., and was certified as a Grade IV para dressage rider. Since then, she competed at the World Equestrian Games qualifier in May at Lamplight (Ill.) and qualified to travel to the FEI European and Open Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships in Norway, Aug. 20-24.
“I’ve been taking this one step at a time,” said Jordan. “In para dressage they are very stringent with MS patients because the disease is relapsing and remitting. They test you all the time.”
Trainer Susan Jaccoma was surprised by Jordan’s decision to compete in para dressage, but she fully supported her endeavor.
“She’s got her ax to the grindstone, and she’s going to do it,” said Jaccoma. “She’s put a lot on her plate and is fascinated by it, and she’ll definitely be a competitor in the future. She and her horses are learning together, and she’s on this quest and it’s really cool.”
While Jordan was hoping to take her horse Paxton to Norway, she found that it was enormously expensive to do so and decided to borrow a horse for the championships. She went to the Netherlands to try a few horses and chose a Hanoverian stallion named Böhmer’s As to compete in Norway.
“We hit it off immediately,” she said of the 14-year-old chestnut. “Martina [Böhmer] raised him from a foal, and she’s very invested in her animals. We got along right away. He’s one of the most self-assured, confident animals I’ve ever sat on.”
In order to compete at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, Jordan needs at least two qualifying scores of 60 percent or higher to be considered for the selection trials. She received one score at Lamplight on Paxton in the freestyle (63.50%) and hopes to get her second score in Norway.
“I only started para in April, and if you told me I’d be going to Norway to compete on a stallion in the European Championships [I wouldn’t believe you],” said Jordan with a laugh. “I’m in a state of disbelief. I’m blown away.”