By Ryan Cornell
CLEAR BROOK -- The two were unstoppable. In addition to winning countless horse judging competitions, Hannah McDonald and her quarter horse, Cody, were nabbing titles in western showmanship, hunt seat and other show horse classes.
McDonald, then a student at James Wood High School, and Cody had just returned home to their Cross Junction cattle farm in 2010 after sweeping the state competition.
Then, as mother Rose McDonald explains, tragedy struck.
"On her 16th birthday, all of her 4-H friends were at the house on the farm and they all went out to feed him and found him with a neurological sickness," Rose McDonald said. "It was pretty ugly and scary."
That sickness, identified later as Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), occurs when a horse consumes grass or hay contaminated with opossum feces and affects the horse's central nervous system. Hannah McDonald said it caused severe muscle atrophy in Cody.
"His lip was literally to the right and it was stuck out to the side and he couldn't put it down because it was neurological," she said.
But the two friends pushed on. They visited the veterinarian and she fed him different medicines. She began a long process of rehabilitating him.
As she built him back up, they gradually ascended to their former glory. Hannah McDonald and Cody placed eighth overall at the American Quarter Horse World Championship in 2011. And as Cody was recovering, his rider was excelling as part of the 4-H horse judging team giving reasons, or explaining to judges how and why she placed certain classes of horses. That same year, she was named champion in giving reasons at the Eastern National Roundup, and her team won high team overall at the Arabian Nationals.
This September in Lexington, right before she aged out, she had one final competition as a 4-H member. It was western showmanship, the one class she and Cody had always won until he had gotten sick. The two were nowhere near the height they had reached three years earlier, but he seemed to sense how important it was to her. They won it.
"It was a bittersweet moment," her mother said. "I cried. We cried. She stuck with him and he stuck with her."
Now that Hannah McDonald, 19, is living in Blacksburg as a sophomore at Virginia Tech, dual-majoring in agricultural economics and animal and poultry sciences, she isn't able to ride Cody, 15, much anymore, but she teaches lessons to kids as a riding instructor whenever she returns to the Frederick County Fairgrounds.
A 4-H equine leader, Rose McDonald credits her daughter's journey to her involvement in the organization.
"People think 4-H is all farms and animals and agriculture and it is a big part, obviously, but it's also life skills," she said, adding that her 13-year-old son is on the 4-H shooting team. "There are so many clubs. There are craft clubs, baking clubs, there are clubs that do photography and outdoor adventure. It taught these kids to have a life, to build leadership and become productive adults."
Hannah McDonald said the program's presentation and public speaking contests have helped bolster her confidence.
"And I know that when I'm in a seminar class of 300 people, I'm not afraid to raise my hand and ask a question like some people in the class are," she said.
Hannah McDonald is currently involved in the collegiate horse judging team at Virginia Tech and its Block and Bridle Club. She placed third overall in the limited collegiate division at the Ohio Quarter Horse Congress in October, which she said is the largest single-breed show in the world.
She also serves as a volunteer leader and horse judging coach in the Frederick County 4-H. She said she wants to become an extension 4-H agent and state equine specialist.
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org