In February 2015, Wellington resident Marie Vonderheyden — then age 24 — was an athletic, accomplished and aspiring equestrian rider. She was very experienced around horses, as she had been competing in equestrian events since she was eight years old. As an 18-year-old in 2008, she became a French gold medalist in three-day eventing, showing off her skills in dressage, show jumping and cross-country riding. In short, she was a rising star.
But on Feb. 20, 2015, her life took a different path when Vonderheyden fell off a horse she was riding. Her unprotected head hit the ground, and she was knocked unconscious and left with a severe traumatic brain injury
Over the last four years, Marie has been working diligently to get her life back on track. While she may not ever fully recover from her injuries, she’s making progress on a daily basis and rebuilding her life as a para-dressage athlete.
And now, Marie’s efforts to rebuild a normal life have earned her some global recognition, as she is one of four international finalists for the Fédération Equestre Internationale Against All Odds Award.
The FEI Against All Odds Award goes to a person who has pursued his or her equestrian ambitions despite a physical handicap or extremely difficult personal circumstances.
This year’s other three finalists are Tobias Thorning Jorgensen, Eric Lamaze and Zhenqiang Li. The winner of the FEI Against All Odds Award will be honored and recognized on Nov. 19 in Moscow, Russia.
“Being a finalist for this award honors Marie’s fight to get well,” noted her mother, Cecile Vonderheyden.
The life-changing event in 2015, which altered the direction of Marie’s life, still remains a mystery because there were no eyewitnesses to the incident.
On that fateful day, Marie was riding one of her horses along a bridle path near Grand Prix Village in Wellington. It was a regular daily event in her life, but it appears something unusual happened, which spooked her horse, causing Marie to fall off the horse and hit her head. Unfortunately, she was not wearing a helmet.
While the horse fell to the ground as well, it didn’t fall on Marie. As the horse was getting back on its feet, a passing motorist saw Marie’s unconscious body on the ground. Fortunately, that passerby called 911, and within minutes, Marie was on her way to St. Mary’s Medical Center via helicopter.
According to Cecile, her daughter was in a coma for two months. For a while, she was completely paralyzed on her right side. Doctors said that the odds of Marie walking again were slim. She had to be taught how to do basic things in life, such as swallowing, naming the letters of the alphabet and identifying different colors. She also had to rebuild muscle memory and overcome severe pain and muscle spasms.
For the next two years, Marie suffered from a lack of overall awareness. And she has also had many balance and coordination issues.
Yet in one area, Marie proved the doctors wrong. She is now walking again, albeit slowly. At home, she can do basic things such as push a vacuum cleaner, cook in the kitchen and do laundry. In the stables, she’s strong enough to groom her horse.
Before the accident, Marie — who holds dual American and French citizenship — was fluent in both French and English. Her ability to speak English fluently didn’t return until earlier this year.
Clearly, the key to Marie’s recovery has been hard work, perseverance and her internal fighting spirit.
Marie and her family have spent most of the last four years in Atlanta where she took part in rehab sessions at the Shepherd Center, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation. The sessions have been crucial to Marie’s healing.
“Marie has had lots of physical therapy, swimming pool therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and riding therapy,” Cecile said. “This has been a slow process. Marie recovers every day. She sets small goals and then meets them.”
While Marie is no longer at the Shepherd Center, she is busy with four workouts a week, which includes Pilates training and exercises that focus on improving coordination and balance. Marie is also riding five or six days a week.
The accident took place in February 2015, and Marie was back on a horse in February 2016. However, her first competition in the para-dressage category was not until February 2019.
Moving forward, Marie feels that the biggest key to her recuperation is actually spending more time riding. “I was happy to start riding a horse again,” Marie said. “I am never nervous. I love horses.”
Marie’s mother agrees that horses are playing a major therapeutic role in her daughter’s recovery. “Horses are part of her life,” Cecile said. “She’s happy when she’s around horses.”
Marie’s current long-term goal is to compete in the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris.
As a result of Marie’s injury, her family has established Marie VDH Inc., a nonprofit foundation, in order to help young people who’ve sustained traumatic brain injuries or who suffer from any brain-related disease overcome their fate and find a reason to carry on. The foundation was established earlier this year.
As you would expect, Marie VDH Inc. is helping Marie Vonderheyden herself achieve this through sport and therapeutic riding. But the goal is to also assist other riders in the future who will need this kind of help and financial assistance.
It’s worth noting that Marie’s horse is a reflection of the international nature of the equestrian community. Her main horse is a 16-year-old Oldenburg, which was born in Germany, but has an English-sounding name (London Swing), yet goes by the nickname, Louis, named after French King Louis XIV.
To support para-dressage rider Marie Vonderheyden and learn more about her journey, visit www.marievdhparadressage.com or find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vonderheyden.marie.