Help Eventer Jess Smart Find a Cure

Jess and Sunny competing at Otter Creek Horse Trials. Photo by Derith Vogt of D&G Photography.

Many thanks to Bryce Jungling and Taylor Oxley for sharing Jess’ story. Eventing community: Let’s rally around this bright young eventer in her time of need! 

It goes without saying that, regardless of the discipline, equestrians share a few universal beliefs.

First, we’re suckers for a good underdog story. We are the first to cheer on anyone who overcomes adversity while pursuing their dreams, because we identify with the sacrifice and hardships they had to go through to succeed.

Second, we understand that what goes up must come down. This may sound depressing at first glance, but this premise is what creates the perseverance that is characteristic of all equestrians.

Finally, we stick together. We can’t help but cheer on our competition when they put in a foot-perfect ride, even if it means they will beat us out for the prize money wrapped in blue. And sometimes, life has a funny way of aligning all three of these into one real-life story. This story in particular involves a fire-cracker girl and her unassuming mount, a serious of unfortunate events, and a final chapter that has yet to be written. All I ask is that each and every one of you keep reading to help us change the content of the next part of this young lady’s story.

Always a smile for the camera. Photo by Derith Vogt of D&G Photography.

Jess and Sunny: An Underdog Love Story

Jess Smart has been an avid equestrian since a young age. She started out in the western world playing in costume classes and eventually made the switch to eventing on her beloved National Show Horse, Pepe Le Pew.

“Sunny” (or “The Llama,” as he is affectionately called around the barn) was as talented yet spooky as they come. Their first few months together involved 20-minute-long sessions spent learning (and relearning) to stand at the mounting block and required convincing Sunny that the same door through which they passed every day was not going to eat him. He was rogue, she was young, and they were both inexperienced — not necessarily a recipe for success. Nevertheless, Jess was determined, and so they persisted.

Following months of frustration and what appeared to be a drastic lack in progress, many would have assumed the 10-year- old would give up riding altogether, or that she would at least sell the beast and find a more suitable mount. This could not have been farther from Jess’ truth.

No matter what Sunny did, from getting distracted by butterflies in the field to spooking, spinning and bolting for no apparent reason, Jess stuck with him through it all. Regardless of how incompatible they appeared to be on paper,their matching personalities began to intertwine in an unbreakable bond.

Jess in her childhood competing in a costume class. Photo by Mary Smart.

They are both sassy, spunky, feisty, and spirited beyond reason, and once they learned how to combine these similarities to work towards a common goal, they were unstoppable. No matter what curve balls Sunny threw her way, Jess always maintained a perfect sense of humor, and she never let unfortunate events get the best of her. She was his girl, and he was her horse. Neither made the other’s life easy, but in an imperfectly perfect sort of way, they began to understand each other on an unparalleled level.

Slowly but surely, the Saddlebred/Paint cross with a lateral canter and his petite pixie of a pilot moved their way up from Starter to Training Level, turning countless heads in the process. Although he was known for spooking all the way through dressage tests and certainly did not move like a warmblood (or a horse for that matter, hence the nickname “Llama”), Sunny had springs for legs and Jess rode him with a grace and balance enviable by all who watched.

Saying ‘Hi’ to one of her all-time favorite horses at Rolex, Arthur! Allison Springer will be riding in Jess’ colors during Arthur’s retirement dressage test on Friday. Photo courtesy of Jess Smart.

The pair was always a favorite throughout Area IV, a blur of black, white and blue streaking across the country, defying the laws of gravity and reason at the same time. Regardless of which colored receipt they brought home each weekend, they were invincible as long as they were together.

Sounds like a fairy tale ending, doesn’t it? Goodness, do I hope so. I would give anything for my next sentence to involve them riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after, but currently that is not the case.

Following graduation from high school, Jess put her riding on hold to pursue higher education. She leased Sunny to a group of wonderful girls who loved and learned on him as Jess had, and after six months of undertaking college, she decided it was time for him to come home. She kept Sunny close by her side, grooming him and trail riding whenever possible, and she worked hard to maintain balance between work, school and her boy. After the tough transition into college, she was finally starting to find her feet in this new world of adulthood. That’s when everything changed.

Senior pictures had to have the pony in them. Photo by Derith Vogt of D&G Photography.

The Slippery Slope: Health Is Never Guaranteed

Seven weeks ago, Jess kissed Sunny farewell as she left on a Spring Break getaway to spend the week with her parents on the beach in Alabama. However, her plans jolted to a halt upon arrival. Jess began experiencing terrible migraine headaches and went to the hospital in search of relief. Instead, she found herself facing the most difficult endeavor yet in her short 20 years.

After undergoing a few tests, Jess was quickly admitted into the hospital under what was suspected to be a case of viral meningitis. Her condition worsened rapidly over the next few days, causing her to lose all use of her legs, some of her hearing, and her ability to speak.

After two more weeks of countless tests and no results, Jess was transferred to the University of Alabama in Birmingham on March 20, where she is now undergoing care from a team of neurologists, infectious-disease doctors, rheumatologists and dermatologists. They too have performed every diagnostic procedure imaginable yet have found no cause and, consequently, no cure.

Most recently, Jess has undergone a biopsy in hopes of finding a diagnosis, for which we are anxiously awaiting the results. To add insult to injury, Jess contracted pneumonia, collapsing one of her lungs. She has been on a ventilator for two weeks now to allow her body time to strengthen and to give the medical team a chance to find a cure.

Competing at Otter Creek Horse Trials. Photo by Derith Vogt of D&G Photography.

Call to Action: Help Us Help Her

There are so many amazing things about the equestrian community (apart from our bad-assery in riding ponies in general), and one of my favorites is how we are so willing to come together and help each other in times of need.

This is one of those times.

As I’m sure you all can imagine, Jess’ medical expenses are steadily on the rise. She has always been supported by her loving parents, Tommy and Mary Smart, and they need our help now more than ever. To assist in offsetting costs and allowing them to continue searching for a cure, we have created a You Care Page in which users can easily contribute towards this cause. If there’s anything we equestrians know best, it’s that many hands make light work, and this motto can be applied in situations outside of the barn as well.

Jess is one of the strongest, sassiest and liveliest people on the planet, and this world really needs her to stay in it. Please, if you are willing and able, head to the link below to help us find her a cure. Even if you can’t contribute monetarily, we truly believe in the power of sending strong, healing prayers and vibes her way. All it takes is a moment of your time.

Thank you to all who decide to help, whether that involves donating, liking/sharing this post, or simply thinking about our Jessi for a moment. Let’s get this girl back to her Llama and keep her kicking on for a good while longer.

Make a donation at “Help Jessica ‘Jess’ Smart Find a Cure” on You Care. 

A little pre-ride nap. Photo courtesy of Jess Smart.