Getting Back in the Saddle

Jessi Machnik survived a debilitating car accident but returned to horse riding with the help of a special horse.

horse riding after an accident
Machnik and her new horse, Harri, outside of her home barn in Maple Park, Ill. Photo courtesy Andrea Saavedra Photography.

Sometimes life can make a U-turn, but it’s times like these that equestrians cling tightest to their horses for hope; horse riding after an accident.

A hit-and-run accident near Chicago in September of 2017 had the potential to dramatically alter Jessi Machnik’s equestrian life story. Jessi, 19 at the time, was eight minutes from death due to blood loss as a result of a guardrail impaling the Silverado pickup she was driving; it sliced the seat in half and trapped both of her legs. She believes the driver who hit her was driving a semi truck.

Machnik was airlifted to a hospital, where she fought for her life. Her injuries included a broken left tibia and fibula, a crushed right lower leg, her right femur fractured in two places, and a broken right forearm with a pinched nerve that prevented her from using her thumb and pointer finger for six months. She required 28 surgeries and 38 blood transfusions.

“Amazingly enough, I had no head, spinal or abdominal injuries,” Machnik says. In March of 2018, her right leg had to be amputated below the knee due to a bone infection. The unwavering support of her parents and her love for horses carried her through this unthinkable crisis.

Horse-Loving Heritage

“I knew the motion of horses before I was even born,” Machnik says. Her mother rode until she was six months pregnant, and they still ride together today. Machnik’s father breezed racehorses in his youth. Since both parents were avid equestrians, horses were in Machnik’s DNA.

At age 4, she got her first horse, and over the years she has owned several. But none have been as special as Luke, an off-track Thoroughbred she trained as a riding horse.

“My heart horse played a big role in my recovery after my accident,” Machnik says. “Luke is a flea-bitten gray unicorn.”

Luke and Machnik won a 2’9″ open hunter division championship and were poised to move up to the 3-foot division before the accident happened and her riding was halted—but only momentarily.

Machnik spent 74 days in the hospital, a month in an intermediate care facility for wound care, and six weeks in a rehabilitation hospital. While she was hospitalized, Luke was depressed and not eating his grain. It was the longest time Machnik had been away from him and horses in general. She began video-chatting with Luke, which uplifted them both.

After months of separation, Machnik finally got a day pass from the hospital so she could visit Luke.

“If he could have climbed over that stall gate, he would have,” she recalls. “He was so excited to see me, he spent an hour and a half just grooming me. He definitely played a big role in me pushing myself to heal when I was in the hospital.”

Back in the Saddle After Her Accident

Machnik started riding again just six weeks after her amputation.

“I got the doctor to clear me to get back on a horse,” she says. “I missed it so much. Without a prosthetic, it took three people to get me on the horse.”

Within 10 weeks, she was back to jumping again. “I didn’t really lose anything, besides my leg,” laughs Machnik.

In 2018, Luke had to be retired due to Lyme disease. However, she found other horses to ride, including her mom’s pinto warmblood, Drago. In 2020, Machnik returned to the Northern Illinois Hunter Jumper Association show ring on Drago horse riding after an accident with a new prosthetic leg—a leg she helped design specifically for riding.

horse riding after an accident
Jessi Machnik during her return to the show ring in 2020 with her mom’s horse, Drago, at Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Ill. Photo courtesy Swan Studios.

She entered the cross-rail classes, and in the span of three shows, Drago ended up overall reserve champion in hunters, and Machnik got fifth in equitation out of 20 riders.

“I was very pleased with myself,” she says. “At one of the shows, the judge stopped me because you can see the outline of my socket through my breeches, and she said, ‘Hey, is that a knee brace?’ and I said, ‘No. That’s my prosthetic leg,’ and she looked very, very surprised and said, ‘I’ll try not to judge that side too hard.’ Everyone seems very surprised—they would see me out in the show ring, and then they’d see me walking around in shorts later.”

Hope for the Future

Machnik now has a new flea-bitten gray Thoroughbred at her side named Harri. Horse riding after her accident has helped her realize some new dreams of hers.

“He does his best to take care of me,” she says. Her show-ring goal is to compete with Harri in 2’6″ hunters. She’s also studying to become a prosthetist, planning to earn a master’s degree, and one day wants to have her own clinic to give back to other people with disabilities.

Another dream of Machnik’s is riding in the Paralympics. Dressage is a sanctioned Paralympic sport, and she believes jumping should be, too.

“I know two other amputee equestrians; one is jumping 4 feet,” she says. “I would like to find a way to get jumping in the Paralympics.” If there’s anyone with the tenacity to instigate change in the sporting world, it’s Machnik.

“I still ride, scuba dive and ride my motorcycle. I climbed a rock wall with one leg. I don’t let things stop me.”

This article about returning to riding after an accident originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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