The Horse Whisperer

By Ann Cipperly

Growing up on a horse farm, Jessica Hodnett learned to ride at an early age and knew she wanted a career working with horses. She became a horse whisperer, traveling across the country to heal troubled horses. Jessica was living an active charmed life until one day when she was suddenly dealing with the possibility of being bedridden and blind for the rest of her life.

Located outside Wadley, the Hodnett family’s farm in the small community of FrogEye opens from the surrounding forests to pastures and hay fields where 26 horses roam on 175 acres. The land has been in the Hodnett family for six generations. Jessica’s grandparents divided the original 350 acres between her father and his brother. Jessica received her first pony when she was a small child, and her father taught her to ride. Her love of horses led to her receiving degrees in equestrian science and psychology at Wallace State College in Hanceville.

After graduating, she enrolled in a two-year internship at a thoroughbred farm in Kentucky. While there, a foal was born with legs bent like pretzels and had to have surgery. Since he would never be able to run, the owner asked Jessica if she wanted him. She was thrilled to have the thoroughbred, naming him Prophet, and still has him at the farm. When she completed the internship, Jessica began traveling across the country as a horse whisperer.

“I was working with horses with mental and people problems,” she says. “Horses are very unique that they communicate through body
language. If you under- stand the movements, it is a way to communicate with them.”

Jessica’s work took her to New York, Florida, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming and California. In California, she worked for publisher George Hearst after she had worked with his trainers in Nevada. Some of the trainers she worked with are in the Hall of Fame. While she was enjoying her work, falls from horses were beginning to add up.

“When you are working with horses,” Jessica says, “it is not if you are going to fall off a horse, but when.”

She just had a bad fall when her sister, Toni Hodnett, called to tell her she was learning to fly helicopters. She began thinking that flying helicopters would be a good career change. Jessica left California and went to Tennessee with her sister, and they both received pilot licenses. They went home to FrogEye for a break before starting their new work. While at home, Jessica received a call from Robert Hilyer, who had gotten two horses from Idaho, and one of them was completely wild. He asked if she would look at the horse named Bonnie to see what she could do.

She decided to work with Bonnie. The horse was doing so well they decided to take her on a trail ride in Pell City. Once they got to the site, Jessica began riding Bonnie to warm up while others in the group were getting their horses ready. When they got ready to hit the trail, someone had a blue healer cow dog and took the dog off his leash to run the trail.

“For some reason the dog decided to go after Bonnie,” remembers Jessica. “The dog started running after Bonnie, barking and biting her heels, which spooked her. She jumped and began bucking, then I hit the ground.”

Since she had fallen off horses many times, Jessica thought she was fine until she put her foot in the stirrup to get on the horse and felt pain. Bonnie’s owner ended the trail ride and put the horse back in the trailer. As they were driving back, Robert saw that Jessica was in severe pain. He took her to a nearby hospital. Jessica will always remember Nov. 17, 2012, when she walked into the emergency room. When she came out from x-rays, the doctor said her neck was broken in two places, and her back was broken.

“All I heard was your life is never going to be the same,” says Jessica. Nurses began putting IVs in her arms as they prepared to transport her to UAB to see a specialist. Jessica heard her doctor on the phone with the specialist and could hear him yelling to not let her move. Nurses began strapping her down. The vertebrae that was connected to her skeleton had flipped down and was resting on another vertebrae, held together with just a sliver of bone. If she moved and that bone fractured, she would be permanently paralyzed from the neck down. “My mind was reeling,” she remembers. The nurse in the ambulance to UAB was trying to comfort her.

Jessica was on strong pain medicines, and everything looked foggy. The doctor tried a halo that didn’t work. Jessica had surgery that was supposed to be eight hours that ended up being 12 hours. A bone graft was taken from her hip to put in her neck, and the doctor was trying to wrap up the surgery as quickly as possible. They started waking her up. The memories are a blur, but she remembers the anesthesiologist kept saying they couldn’t keep her under any longer as she had been under too long. Jessica tried to sit up and realized she couldn’t see. The doctor came in and told her the surgery was unsuccessful and that one of the side effects from being under too long was blindness.

“The surgery being unsuccessful meant I would be bedridden the rest of my life,” says Jessica, “and there was the possibility that I would be blind.” Members of her church and other churches were praying. Her brother, Lin Hodnett, had a prayer chain going at their church. One of the nurses told Jessica there was a revival going on in the waiting room. After a nurse worked with Jessica on eye therapy for nearly a month, her vision returned. The surgeon told her mother that he wanted to try the surgery again. He said if it were his daughter, he would do the surgery. After a great deal of prayer, Jessica had the surgery again. This time it was successful. She had four bolts and two screws inserted that are holding up her head. She could not move until the bones healed or it would have caused more damage. She praises the doctors and nurses at UAB.

“During the surgery, it was a sense of com- fort and assurance of being in God’s hands,” she remembers. “They said all the movement from my shoulder is connected to my neck and limited what I could do. Not just my life changed, but my entire family. My sister and mother were dedicated to my care. At that time brushing my teeth was an ordeal.” Jessica was told that based on the amount of damage that was done, she would not be able to work. She was placed on 100 percent disability. It took a year to recover, and her family says she is a walking miracle.

Although she could never work with horses again, Jessica wanted to find some kind of work. She talked to attorneys to find out how to be removed from the disability list. She was told to find a job that would not cause damage to her neck. Jessica learned from a friend about a cus- tomer service representative job at the Opelika Power Services. She got the job and started in October 2013. She had x-rays to confirm work was not causing damage. Jessica was able to get off disability. She has since been promoted to administration coordinator.

“I am sure I am where the Lord wants me to be,” she says. “The OPS group is a work family and just as supportive as my family. The city has done a lot for me. The Lord has put me with a group of people who have encouraged me and are a good influence. I can work and go home to my horses, including Bonnie.

“I felt the Lord’s presence even when they were telling me the surgery was unsuccessful and I was blind,” states Jessica. “It was a sense of hope that it wasn’t over yet. God is in control, and He saw fit to heal me. I believe if it were not for the prayers, I wouldn’t be here today.”