Atlanta, GA,
07:55 AM

Patient's Love of Horses Spurs on Recovery

Marie Vonderheyden trains for Paris 2024 Paralympic Games after rehabilitation.

A tall, striking figure in a black show jacket, Marie Vonderheyden navigates the arena with straight-backed confidence. Installed atop London Swing, a sturdy chestnut horse of Hanoverian breed, the 28-year-old looks like she was born to ride.

Marie, a former professional horseback riding champion, sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) on a bridle path. She has no memory of the accident, but it appears that she was riding the horse at a walking pace after a workout without a helmet. Something spooked the horse, who went down. So did Marie, but unlike the horse, she didn’t get up.


Trauma surgeons at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, performed several emergency surgeries, which saved Marie’s life. After emerging from a minimally conscious state that lasted several months, she spent time in the intensive care unit. She could not speak, eat or stand, and she was paralyzed on the right side of her body. From there, she transferred to Shepherd Center to receive intensive therapy in the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program. After completing inpatient rehabilitation, Marie participated in outpatient therapy at Shepherd Pathways and Beyond Therapy®

“It’s like another world that you suddenly belong to,” says Cécile Vonderheyden, Marie’s mom, on first coming to Shepherd. “You arrive the first day and say, ‘That’s not me.’ But you see all the people around the patients, the pool, the gym, the therapeutic rooms, the track, the cafeteria, everybody saying, ‘Hi.’ I just fell apart upon arrival.”

Marie had spent her whole life before the accident training to become a professional equestrian, and she approached her rehabilitation with the same intensity. She worked hard with her mother long after her daily therapy sessions were complete. She eventually regained enough strength to stand on her legs and put one foot in front of the other.

Her physician is Andrew Dennison, M.D., medical director of Acquired Brain Injury Program at Shepherd Center. At a checkup in spring 2019, he compliments Marie on how far she’s come since being in Shepherd’s inpatient program.

“You’re so strong, pound for pound,” Dr. Dennison notes. “You keep making progress. It shows what can happen when you work hard.”

“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,” Dr. Dennison says. “I and the rest of the team at Shepherd Center are very proud and blessed to be part of Marie’s journey.”

To Cécile, who’s been by her daughter’s side throughout and keeps asking Dr. Dennison relevant questions to try and further Marie’s recovery, Dr. Dennison says, “You get the Mom of the Year Award.”


A huge piece of Marie’s recovery for her and her mother was infusing Marie’s therapy with something she loved – horses. Through Shepherd’s Recreation Therapy Program, Cécile and Marie learned about Chastain Horse Park, which is a short drive from Shepherd Center. The accredited center offers therapeutic horseback riding to help people with disabilities improve cognitive, physical, emotional and social wellbeing.

The center also offers hippotherapy, a physical, occupational and speech-language therapy treatment that achieves functional outcomes or improvements in movement and speech. In hippotherapy, the horse provides a dynamic base of support, making it an excellent tool for increasing trunk strength and control, balance, building overall postural strength and endurance, addressing weight bearing and motor planning.

And hippotherapy and therapeutic riding is what helped Marie get her life back, Marie says.

“It’s good,” she says. “It’s the thing I’ve done all my life. It’s kind of cool not to feel different because I’m doing things I’ve done before.”


After a lot of hard work and determination, Marie has regained function in her legs and is independent at home. While cognitive impairment creates challenges, she has her sights set on competing in equestrian sports once more.

With her mom’s support, Marie moved back to Wellington, Florida, in spring 2019 to train at a higher level.

“We had to go on, find another way of life, so she started competition,” Cécile says. “We started competing in January 2019 to give it a try here in Wellington, and Marie said, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Marie recently qualified to be part of the U.S. Para-Equestrian Dressage Team and is focusing on preparing for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. She currently is assessed as a Grade I, the grade reserved for riders with the most severe disabilities, which means she must walk her horse in competition.

“Of course, she is frustrated to test at walking and not trotting and cantering,” Cécile says. “Marie said to me, ‘I don’t want to stay in Grade I. My challenge is to go in Grade II; I don’t want to stop.’”

At Grade II, Marie would qualify to trot and go faster in competition. With that goal in mind, she pushes herself to make progress with her recovery and continues to show signs of improvement even four years later.

Cécile says, “There’s no limit. Everything is possible.”

By Drew Jubera and Christy Rosell

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.