Molly Jensen’s parents joke that she came out of the womb loving horses. However, Molly also came out of the womb already diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
Despite not growing up in a horse family, Molly has gravitated to horses since before she can remember. Even during her turbulent childhood plagued with medical setbacks, she would choose the horse toys over dolls every time. This meant that when Molly and her family learned that her health insurance for cystic fibrosis covered therapeutic riding as part of her treatment plan, she couldn’t have been more enthusiastic for the opportunity.
According to the CDC, “cystic fibrosis (CF) is a chronic, progressive, and frequently fatal genetic disease of the body’s mucus glands.” It severely damages many areas of the body, primarily the respiratory and digestive systems, but can also affect the sweat glands and reproductive system. While the disease itself is very rare, most people with CF are diagnosed by age two, so being diagnosed before or at birth was even more rare – a 0.07% chance.
Even as a tiny infant, Molly had to be fed applesauce with enzymes mixed in for her to be able to digest anything; yet despite it all, she says she is grateful. “I don’t know anything else,” Molly states when asked how she managed her life with her health struggles growing up. “It’s my Normal, even if it’s everyone else’s Different.”
Molly credits her optimistic outlook and positive attitude to her amazing parents, who have always pushed her towards independence in every aspect of life. Being straightforward and honest with her and teaching her how to stand on her own, they always encouraged her doctors to direct their discussions to Molly herself. She cites them as having always been her biggest cheerleaders as they continued to support her choices and dreams –- especially through her equestrian endeavors.
During a childhood of riding at “all-around” barns, Molly discovered her love of jumping through a spunky lease pony. Unfortunately, after moving to Utah and taking up eventing with a local trainer, a terrible cross-country schooling accident resulted in her hospitalization for two weeks with a brain injury and a cystic fibrosis condition called pulmonary exacerbation. Rather than pulling her away from the sport, Molly’s parents remained supportive and became determined to find her a perfect coach who could help keep her safe. This led to Molly meeting upper-level event rider Katie Cobia, and in turn, her heart horse.
The week of Molly’s first lesson with her new trainer was also the week that Katie purchased “Kitty” (EE High Expectations) as a sale project. “I fell in love with her the second I saw her,” Molly fondly recalls of the spicy and opinionated mare. “I wasn’t a very good rider yet… I didn’t know much, I just knew that I loved this horse.” Molly was able to watch Katie work with the endearing 14.2hh Connemara from the ground up, and was even the first lesson student to ride her.
After her previous jumping accident, Molly’s parents were very serious about finding her a safe horse, and unbeknownst to her, they purchased Kitty in June of 2019. While Katie continued Kitty’s training, Molly continued to ride and compete on her for six months –- secretly telling Kitty to be super naughty for the “potential buyers” Katie pretended to have looking at her –- with the whole barn keeping it a secret that she was actually creating this special bond with her very first horse. That Christmas, her parents texted her a picture of what Molly thought would be a gift that had arrived late in the mail, but was actually a photo of Kitty with the caption, “She’s yours.”
“[Kitty] knows she’s mine, but she knows I’m hers, honestly,” Molly states. “Sometimes I’ve had thoughts like, ‘Why am I fighting so hard for my health?’ But she’s one thing I have to fight for. It just sparks a whole new motivation in you, when you love something as much as I love Kitty.”
Molly’s life with CF is a masterclass in dedication, commitment, and perseverance. Daily treatments for cystic fibrosis include a litany of medications and physical therapies, including a vibrating vest and a nebulizer mask, but this hasn’t stopped Molly from moving up the levels in eventing competition. Her electrolyte levels also have to be very closely monitored, as CF causes all the salt in her body to evaporate through her sweat, often to the point of being able to see physical salt crystals on her face after a ride on a hot day.
“When I pack up my trailer [for an event], I’m packing for me too,” Molly says in regard to the many treatments she must have on hand at all times. Her preparation for a weekend event starts three days in advance, with specific medications, electrolytes, therapies, closely-monitored food intake with enzyme pills, and most of all, rest. Sleep is incredibly important to her health management, with Molly needing a minimum of 12 hours to maintain optimal condition. “When I feel tired, I can feel my lungs slow first,” she admits. “I get sick super easy and don’t bounce back super fast.” If Molly doesn’t follow this careful treatment schedule, it can take her upwards of a week to recover from a single show weekend.
Through all this, Kitty remains Molly’s biggest motivation, and has brought out a new strength that she hadn’t expected. A few years ago, Molly says she would have never had the courage to use her treatments out in the open, or even talk with people about her condition, but one day, when she was running a bit behind at an event, Molly decided to multitask for her horse’s sake. “I’ve gotta do this for Kitty so that we can ride better later,” she told herself, donning her portable vest and nebulizer mask in the show stall.
When she first started multitasking by using her portable treatments while grooming Kitty, the normally opinionated and sassy buckskin would gently rest her chin on Molly’s vibrating vest – surprisingly not afraid of the devices at all, despite them looking “weird and crazy”. Today, Kitty continues to give her courage, and Molly now appreciates and welcomes the opportunity to explain CF to people and teach them about what she’s doing.
From the outside, Molly looks like any other die-hard, horse-crazy eventer. “It’s hard,” Molly admits, “because I don’t look like anything is wrong until it’s really, really wrong.” She is grateful for her decision to be more open and transparent about her health management with those around her, citing her amazing support group as the vital source of her success. “When I’m surrounded by an awesome support group, I don’t think there’s anything that makes me below [able-bodied riders].”
Thanks to her team of supporters, Molly doesn’t feel that she’s had any disadvantages when working to achieve her goal of becoming an upper-level eventer. “If people don’t have that [support],” she says, “that’s where the playing field gets more uneven – not necessarily the disabilities or trials or hardships that we each have, it’s when you don’t have anybody to help you through them.” At her most recent show, while she was struggling with two very close ride times during a hot day, she turned around after dismounting to find that her second horse had already been tacked up by her team and was ready to go. Her friends often remind her about her medications when going out to eat, and her family remains supportive of all her personal and riding goals. “Having good people is unmatched… I know for a fact I couldn’t do it without the people that help me.”
Looking to her future, Molly admits that she did not always have such grand plans. Growing up, her only goal was to survive through high school, so when she finally hit that milestone, she wasn’t quite sure what was next. This winter, Molly packed up her horses and moved to Florida for the winter season, a dream she’s had for years but was always told was unrealistic – impossible even. Thanks to her support team and the help of her trainer, she was finally able to make that dream a reality, and has been competing there since January with plans to return before the deadly summer heat hits the southern state.
Molly has a string of four horses when at home in Utah, and I’ve seen her myself at our local events, crushing it with Kitty at Training Level with plans to move up to Preliminary soon. In addition to her heart horse, Molly has also been competing her easygoing five-year-old Thoroughbred/Hungarian Warmblood gelding “Noble” (EE Noble’s Honor) at Novice. When at home, the young laidback bay gelding stays with Kitty at Katie’s barn, while she keeps her other two horses, Quarter Horse “Phoenix” and her 3-year-old Friesian cross colt “Viking”, on her property.
“Let’s be honest, equestrians are crazy,” Molly laughs, explaining how her horses help lift her through the challenges she faces daily. “Even without the CF… you have to be in love with it to do it.” She hopes that others can remember to not be too hard on themselves, and that everyone is just doing the best with what they’ve got. “I wish I would’ve learned a lot sooner that there is a lot of unnecessary stress and worry and self-doubt,” she admits.
Health conditions aside, Molly and I also bonded through another industry struggle that we share –- living in Utah. While we both have deep ties to the state, Molly admits that it has often seemed impossible to reach a professional level due to our geographic isolation on the great map of USEA. She shares that one of her dreams is to get into one of the USEA Emerging Athletes U21 camps, and hopes that we as a community will only continue to see more opportunities provided for isolated riders to be accepted into these programs.
She notes that while currently being alone in Florida with two horses is hard, it’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t go right at one show – there will just be another one next weekend. “In Utah, you get three shots,” Molly says, referring to our three recognized events held annually. While the few events we have are extremely well-run and arguably top-tier, nothing can compare to the “monumental” experience and education to be gained from the number of competitions available to an up-and-coming rider on the East Coast. “There’s got to be a middle ground.”
Looking to the future, Molly simply takes it all day by day and continues to press forward. She compares this mindset to the equestrian adage, “ride the horse you’re on today.” Rather than trying to push past her capabilities, remembering that all she has to work with is who she is today helps keep her focused on her goals. While Molly does host grand dreams of making her way to the highest levels of the sport, her simple response to inquiries regarding her future is impactful and humbling: “I want to be a good enough rider that I can bring out the potential in good horses.”
Outside of training and competing, Molly hopes to someday give back to where she got her start as a child by teaching therapeutic riding. With two adopted siblings and an unlikely chance of being able to have her own children, she also has a great interest in providing a home for children in foster care, offering help to as many as possible through equine-assisted therapies.
Molly’s love for horses truly shines in everything she does, and it is inspiring to see how much she radiates her positivity to those around her. She feels she has gained courage and motivation through her many trials, and made the decision this year to change her cross-country colors to purple – the awareness color for cystic fibrosis. After my incredibly enlightening conversation with Molly, I already know that she is going to accomplish everything she seeks to do and more. Her courage, strength, and determination is infectious and motivating, and I feel blessed for the opportunity to watch her continue to achieve her goals from the other side of the ring.
Eventing is one of the toughest horse sports out there, and I believe anyone facing additional challenges deserves to be recognized. If you are also a person facing challenging or unique circumstances, combating differences and diversity, or living with a “special” body, I would love to hear from you, share your story, and advocate for your differences. Send me an email at [email protected] for the chance to be featured in a future article!