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Horse Rider Marie Vonderheyden Gets Back in The Saddle After Severe Traumatic Brain Injury

Following a devastating accident which left talented young rider Marie Vonderheyden fighting for her life, she’s defied the odds and now has her sights set on the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris. 

When Marie Vonderheyden sustained a traumatic brain injury in a horse-riding accident in 2015, it was touch and go whether she would survive. Marie couldn’t speak or walk for over a year but with the support of her family and her strong willpower, she’s made an amazing recovery. She’s not only back in the saddle, she’s determined to represent the United States in Para dressage and is looking for sponsorship to make that a reality. She said: “I have been riding with passion all my life, and this passion never left me. I am very thankful for that.”

With a bachelor’s degree in business specialised in equine products, an equestrian teaching and training degree, and competing in international championships, Marie’s career was promising.  But a terrible riding accident on February the 20th, 2015, nearly cost her life. After months of coma, four major head surgeries, and four years of re-education, Marie was back in the saddle and determined to compete at high level again. 

Andrew Cullen Dennison, MD Medical Director of Acquired Brain Injury Rehabilitation, Shepherd Center (Atlanta), said: “Marie’s spirit and determination and the amazing support she has received from her family have led to ongoing improvements far beyond those usually seen in similar cases of traumatic brain injury. I and the rest of the team at Shepherd Center are very proud and blessed to be a part of Marie’s inspiring story.”

But Marie couldn’t have done it alone, and her friends and family’s support has been critical to her progress. Her motherCécile Vonderheyden, has been at her side every step of the way; she said: “I always wanted her to stay around horses. She had ridden all her life and it was her true passion. I thought it could help with muscle memory, bring her energy and happiness, and provide something for her to look forward to.”

Kelcy Rainer (PATH Intl. Advanced Certified Instructor - Therapeutic Program Director), Chastain Horse Park Altanta, has been part of Marie’s recovery and training; she said: “Marie’s TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) affected her physically mentally and emotionally. Fortunately, as a former professional equestrian, she maintained an impressive amount of muscle memory.  She progressed quickly form needing a lot of assistance to independent riding. Her right side was more affected, and her trunk and neck control were weak. Some of the biggest challenges were her mental-emotional state and being able to cope and work through her frustrations. Marie is extremely goal-oriented, so I wanted to help her focus on her goals and facilitate reaching them.”

In 2018, the 29 years old rider enrolled in the FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) Para Classification and started riding London Swing, owned by para-dressage competitor Eleanor Brimmer. Cécile recalls: “Ellie was trying to find a good match for her horse and Marie gave it a try. As it turned out, she fell in love right away and her story towards the Paralympics began.”
2019 has been challenging and very rewarding too, as Marie witnessed her scores in competition rising and was nominated as a finalist for the FEI Award: Against All Odds. She said“Horses give me the courage to set goals. And my next goal is to ride the Paris 2024 Paralympic games. See you there!”

2020 has started intensively with two CPEDI3* at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, FL. Marie’s results are very promising: within three weeks, she managed to win a “Reserve Champion” title, and to have herself selected to be part of Team USA. 

You can support Marie on social media and/or donate to her GoFundMe campaign ( to help her with expenses such as the horse’s ongoing needs, horse riding equipment, competition’s fees, and medical treatments.