Theresa Schimmel-Spencer of Vancouver is no stranger to horses. Growing up in a family who bred and raised Arabian horses, she rode and competed from an early age. But she got busy raising her family, and horses were set aside in her busy life.
Then, in 2014, her life took an unexpected turn. She was driving home on a narrow road without a shoulder when she briefly took her attention from the road, a tire caught in loose gravel, her foot stepped on the gas pedal, and she skidded off the road into an embankment.
Schimmel-Spencer knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. She couldn’t move, and she was in terrible pain. After an ambulance ride to the hospital, she learned that she had fractured her L-1 vertebra in her lower back.
Doctors weren’t sure whether Schimmel-Spencer would ever walk again. Two rods in her back from T8 to L3 vertebrae were placed to stabilize her spine. Three months later, another surgery removed bone fragments which could have damaged her spinal cord.
After her second surgery she was finally healing, and she began to think about the goals she wanted to pursue.
Her three children now grown and in high school, she decided she needed something to keep her busy as her nest grew empty. While shopping for a horse for her son, she visited an Arabian horse show in Scottsdale, Arizona and spotted an Arabian/Quarter Horse cross gelding named LJ Marshall.
“I just liked the look of him, and I felt a connection,” said Schimmel-Spencer. “I didn’t expect him to be competitive.”
She described LJ Marshall as an “old soul,” a calm and gentle horse who just didn’t get too upset about anything. He seemed like a good horse to help her return to riding.
Schimmel-Spencer brought him home in April of 2016, and began training in the event of reining with Newberg, Oregon-based trainers Russ and Mary Jane Brown at Diamond B Training Center.
She fell in love again with riding, and found that riding even helped her back and reduced her pain. She decided she had a goal for that year. She would qualify for the 2016 United States National Arabian Championship Show. A winning ride in Nampa, Idaho sealed that accomplishment.
For 2017, Schimmel-Spencer’s goal was more ambitious. She wanted to compete at the National show. At her first show in February, she brought home 4 winning belt buckles in four different reining divisions.
In June, she was Regional Reserve Champion in reining in Nampa, Idaho. In July they travelled to Rancho Murieta, California to win Regional Champion Ranch Riding Amateur and Regional Reserve Champion Ranch Riding Open with the high score of the show, competing in an event they had never attempted before. In addition, they won Regional Champion Reining Non Pro.
They were qualified and ready to compete at the National Championship show. But now, Schimmel-Spencer was experiencing a lot of pain in her back.
She learned that she had two screws in her back working loose, causing the rods in her back to push against her nerves. This caused shooting pain down her legs. She would have to have another surgery, but she decided to put it off till after the National show.
Schimmel-Spencer had to plan her rides carefully around the pain. She would stay in Newberg for several days each week to ride, sparing herself the uncomfortable commute there. Her son, also an accomplished equestrian, would sometimes ride her horse for her.
Training for a National Championship requires many things, she said. “You’ve gotta have a good trainer. This is a pretty good horse, you have to have the commitment to go out and have a partnership with the horse.”
Finally, it was time for the show, and they were ready. She travelled to Tulsa, Oklahoma with her gelding for the weeklong National show in October.
They had three rides, three chances to win. Each ride was better than the last, but she was still making some mistakes. Marshall was giving everything he had, just like he always did, but she just had to trust him.
Finally, in the final ride it all came together. Rider and horse peaked at the best time, and came out victorious.
Schimmel-Spencer and LJ Marshall won National Champion in both the Limited and Intermediate divisions in Reining, and were second place in the Non Pro division.
“Marshall is a one in a million horse,” she said. “He always gives me what I ask for if I ask the right way. Usually if we mess up it’s my fault, not his. I’ve never had a horse that just wanted to always do his best like Marshall does.”
Once she was home from the show, Schimmel-Spencer had that third surgery on her back. Now pain free, she is looking forward to new goals with her equine partner.
“It’s really important to have something to work toward,” she said. “You have to have something out there you enjoy.”