For as far back as she can remember, Jess Smith has always been infatuated with horses.
It was on her fifth birthday that years of obsessive nagging finally paid off, with Jess’s parents taking her to an equestrian centre for her first riding lesson.
This was the beginning of a truly remarkable journey, which has guided her through some immense challenges and triumphs.
After several years of regular riding lessons, Jess was loaned a standardbred gelding to ride; a then 16-year-old retired trotter by Keystone Salute, who’d had 52 starts for five wins and just over $16,000 in prizemoney.
Jess and Stormy began to bond and discovered a penchant for dressage and strutting around the show ring. The pair steadily refined their skills and were encouraged by some early successes.
About a year into her journey with Stormy, at 14-year-old Jess fell ill. Across a fortnight, she went from being an active young teenager with a decorated history of competitive sporting pursuits to bed ridden.
Jess’ initial diagnosis of complex regional pain syndrome was then upgraded to dystonia, conditions considered as some of the most painful afflictions a human can suffer.
Her health deteriorated further until she became partially paralysed down the right side of her body. She lost feeling in her right arm from below her elbow and the use of her right leg and used a wheelchair and pink walking cane to get around.
The constant pain was a heavy burden for young Jess to carry, especially when paired with grieving the loss of the life she had envisioned.
Jess credits the bond she shared with Stormy, and his positive presence in her life, as her “reason and purpose to get up each morning”.
This beautiful little standardbred became the most influential member of her allied health team, lifting her up and out of some of her darkest times.
Jess’s commitment to Stormy was unwavering. Despite immense pain and some initial questions about whether and how she could stay seated in the saddle, she persevered and soon paired up with a new riding coach, champion eventer Megan Jones.
Together Jess and Jones crafted a plan to help her find security in the saddle. Jess’s right foot was fastened into her stirrup with an elastic band, the stirrup bound to the girth and her thigh strapped onto the saddle with Velcro.
When combined with a bit of core strength and a lot of heart, this innovative approach did the trick and soon Jess found freedom through riding.
“Stormy lends me his legs. When I’m riding, he makes my wildest dreams come true,” she said.
Jess and Jones worked together to strip Stormy’s training back to the basics, with his retraining being built around the new way Jess would apply aids. Stormy became stronger, suppler and completely tuned-in to his dedicated young rider.
The next few years would see Jess and Stormy achieve some remarkable feats and through this decorate Jess’ bedroom and stable walls with a rainbow of ribbons, trophies, garlands and embellished rugs from their accomplishments in both breed-specific and open competition.
Courageous Jess and her sensational standy Stormy held their own against some of the highest calibre purpose-bred riding horses in Australia.
Stormy went on to retire from competition at the 2019 South Australian State Dressage Championships, with a long list of accomplishments to his (and Jess’) name, including accolades at the Horse of the Year showing competition, the Interschool Nationals, scholarship in the 2016 SA Young Rider Dressage Squad and literally countless Supreme and Champion titles across showing and dressage.
But it’s not the blue ribbons and fanfare that has cemented Stormy’s place as Jess’s ‘heart horse’. Put simply, Jess said: “Stormy saved my life”.
And really, what greater accolade could you bestow upon a plucky little retired harness racehorse just going about his days looking after his best mate?