BY RENNIE DYBALL
After a rare disease claimed three of her limbs (and nearly her life), Jessica Thoma is back in the saddle with big goals.
Jessica Thoma is a lifelong equestrian whose world got turned upside down last year. Beginning in the spring, she battled a mysterious ailment that began with a rash, joint pain, fatigue and nausea. She saw a slew of doctors but it wasn’t until she fell gravely ill months later that she finally got a diagnosis: Polyarteritis Nodosa, a rare disease resulting from blood vessel inflammation. Doctors amputated her legs and arm on January 3, 2018.
Just two weeks after being discharged from the hospital, Thoma, 25, was back on her horse. Throughout her ordeal, “I knew I would absolutely ride again, no matter what it took,” she tells The Plaid Horse. Less than a year after the amputations, Thoma is working toward the Paralympic Games in dressage, and ultimately hopes to be a “triple amputee eventer.” Back in May, she made that title her Instagram handle because, “It’s not just a name, it’s who I am, and what I intend to be.” She spoke with TPH about her incredible comeback.
TPH: What was it like to get back on a horse that first time?
JT: It’s really interesting because I’d been in the hospital for five months, and being back on my mare Sugar again, it felt like I never stopped. Being able to move with the horse is no different than it was before. Using different aids came relatively easily. My new horse Charley is 21 and he has show jumping and dressage training. The first time I rode him, he just stood there, like, lady, where are your legs? All his life he’d been used to leg pressure. But by the second time I rode him, he was moving off my seat very easily. This whole process has taught me how incredibly smart these animals are. They don’t see people’s differences, but they understand.
TPH: What sort of adaptations and tack do you use to ride now?
JT: I have a piece of PVC on the reins that’s about a foot long to help with steering. The reins thread through it and it’s wrapped in Vetrap to give me more grip because I don’t have very good dexterity in my right hand anymore. Then I have these belts that go under the channel of my saddle and over my thighs. They give me a little bit more security, but I can still fall off (laughs). They’re allowed in competition with a 1-inch overlap. I went to a para-dressage clinic in Texas over the summer and the trainer there came up with some adaptations for me.
TPH: How do you mount now?
JT: It’s a bit of a task! For a while I was using my mom’s farm hand, a 6’4” guy who would dead-lift me onto Sugar. But she’s only 14.2. It takes about 3 or 4 people to get me on Charley, who’s 18 hands. One to hold him, one to keep his butt from scooting over and one to let me put my knee in their hands like a leg up. Once I’m on, it’s like whoo hoo!
TPH: Did you make a conscious decision to start riding before you got your prosthetics?
JT: I wasn’t going to wait for those prosthetics. I’ve only ridden in them once. To ride in para-dressage I can’t wear any prosthetics so I have to get used to it and learn how to do everything an able-bodied person could do and use what’s left of my calf muscle, my seat and my thighs to communicate with the horse. It’s work and I had to learn. I’ve got great people who help me out, my trainer, Kaylen Moon, and Jennifer Bolen from Benchmark Farms, who is my biggest support. Eventing is one of my goals, but I’m trying for the Paralympics first in dressage.
TPH: That’s an amazing goal to have so soon.
JT: As the able-bodied rider that I was, I never thought that I could get to the Olympic level. I always wanted to do my thing, maybe get to 1-star eventing, but now that I’m a triple amputee it’s like all these windows have kind of opened for me and I want to pursue these dreams. The Olympics is the goal I’m shooting for.
TPH: You’ve shared several videos online of working at the trot. Have you tried cantering again?
JT: I cantered once on Sugar and I loved it but I was utterly terrified. She got a little heavy to the inside and I started to lean. My legs were trembling and I was like, that was fun, let’s not do it again! I will try again with Charley but I’m relearning how to walk and trot first. If I get to the Paralympics, I’m going to look into jumping after that. I know I can do it. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I do.
TPH: Why did you want to show so soon, just a few months after getting back on?
JT: My mom always told me that I don’t have a stop button. And I don’t! I just push and push myself to be better. That show came up, it was close by, and I was like, let’s go! I did an individual intro A test and I got pretty good scores. I scored an 8.5 in position in the walk trot, which was really exciting.
TPH: What does riding feel like now, both physically and emotionally?
JT: If you look at the high-level dressage riders, it’s all about using their seat and thighs, and that’s how I’ve learned to ride, with my seat, and I can use my knees and what’s left of my calf to squeeze. If that doesn’t get the point across, I go to my voice and a tap with the whip. The emotional aspect of being able to ride is very strong. Riding horses is literally one of the only things that I can do with my life right now. I’m back at work now part time at Tractor Supply Company, but for the most part, horses are my thing. Always have been. I don’t think I’d be able to survive without horses. I make up all of their feeding schedules and supplements, take their blankets on and off, schedule the farrier and the vet, and that gives me real purpose, like any other horse owner. I make sure that they’re healthy and happy. I can’t have kids due the immune suppression medicine that I’m on, so horses are my big, furry kids.
TPH: What made you decide to share your story so openly on social media?
JT: I figured people needed it. And it turned out that was true because so many people tell me I’m helping them to overcome their fears, or to stop being lazy or crying about their lives. It’s really amazing how a picture or a few words can change a person’s outlook. People have said I’m inspirational but I don’t feel like it. I’m just Jessica from a tiny town in Tennessee, riding this big 18-hand horse.
TPH: How do you work through the darker times?
JT: If I can’t wear my legs one day because I’m sore, I can’t drive myself to work or to occupational therapy to work on my hand, and someone has to drive me. I can’t even put on my legs myself. My fiancé, who is amazing, by the way, I always say he’s burdened. Nobody likes it when I say that word, but that’s how I feel sometimes. That’s where the darkness comes from, me feeling like a burden to my family. I used to be such an independent person. Now my whole life has changed and the only constant is my horses.
TPH: Do you have any fears when it comes to riding?
JT: I fear letting people down that have put so much faith and time into me. And falling off an 18-hand horse wouldn’t feel too good but hey, I have less bones I could break now!
TPH: You’ve said that your followers on social media inspire you. How so?
JT: The outpouring of support that I have from people I don’t even know really drives me to be better and to keep going. It just shows them that if I can do it, so can you. That really helps me.
TPH: What do you hope people will learn from you?
JT: Don’t take life for granted. Your whole life could change in a split second, so live for the day. You can’t stay angry at someone, you can’t walk away from a horse after a bad ride. You just have to keep going and know that it will get better.