Jordi Gray became the first Jemicy School student to receive a Division I scholarship when she signed with the equestrian team at Oklahoma State. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
Most afternoons, Jordi Gray leaves class and drives 40 minutes to a farm in Woodbine to spend time with her BFF (best four-legged friend), a horse named Magic Man. There, for several hours in a training center, Gray puts the 11-year-old gelding through his paces, equestrian style, trotting and cantering and jumping 3½-foot hurdles while sitting ramrod straight in the saddle. She handles the horse with ease, though he weighs 1,200 pounds and she, just 113.
“I feel as one with Magic,” said Gray, 17, a senior at Jemicy School. “On him, all of my stress is gone and I can have a good time. If I’ve had a bad day, I can count on the horse to make me feel better.”
Gray has dyslexia, a learning disability that makes reading difficult. She also deals with attention-deficit disorder. But that one-two punch hasn’t stopped her from winning 18 trophies in riding competition and earning a partial athletic scholarship to Oklahoma State, a college equestrian power. In fact, riding has allowed Gray to turn the table on her disabilities.
At Jemicy, the Owings Mills school for dyslexic students, “my teachers are very patient with me,” Gray said. “That has taught me to be patient with my horse. My [disorders] also give me more sensitivity. My current horse is very ADD and easily distracted, by sounds and by squirrels; without a doubt, Magic is me in a horse’s body. That’s our connection — and working on his problems, to see the difference I make, is very heartwarming.”
Gray is the first student-athlete in Jemicy’s 15-year history to be recruited by a Division I college. Her savvy in the saddle and triumphs in the spotlight should help her cope, those who know her say.
“Realistically, there’s always the question of whether someone in a small community like ours [382 students] will make it in a larger one, where the rigors and expectations are different,” said Sam Farmer, English department chairman at Jemicy and one of Gray’s teachers. “But Jordi is confident on the stage and has demonstrated skills that will pay off for her.”
Jordi is empathetic, hardworking and one who always looks at the glass as half-full. If anyone deserves that [Division I] honor, it’s her.
Ben Shifrin, head of Jemicy School
Share quote & link
Moreover, Gray — who is vice president of the student body — appears unflappable both in the show ring and out, Farmer said.
“There is a stigma of dyslexics being stupid, which is patently untrue,” he said. “Jordi has a zany outgoing quality that makes people rally around her, and a self-deprecating sense of humor that leaves room for her confidence to build.”
Like other dyslexics, “she likes to learn while standing up and interacting, not sitting and receiving information,” her teacher said. “Horseback riding allows her to be physically active and, gradually and independently, to build her skills.”
Gray, who lives in Owings Mills, began riding at age 5, out of whimsy.
“I thought the horses were pretty,” she said, nuzzling Magic Man and clucking to him during a recent workout at Willow Wood Farm in Howard County. At 6, she won her first event and has been competing everywhere from Boston to Florida ever since.
Riding was “a lifesaver” for Gray, her mother said.
“There is no judgment when you’re on a horse. You don’t need to know your times tables or how to read at a young age,” Ellen Levy-Gray said. “Animals don’t care if you can add 12 and 7 and take away 5. They just love you for who you are.”
Her recruitment by Oklahoma State speaks for Gray’s potential, said Kim Williams, her trainer at Willow Wood and a onetime equestrian Grand Prix champion.
“The coaches [at Oklahoma State] see something in Jordi that will help their team, which is quite an accomplishment,” Williams said.
She doesn’t teach Gray any differently because of her disabilities.
“The only thing I’ll do is use another terminology, like, ‘go inside or outside’ instead of ‘go right or left,’ ” Williams said.
In a sport steeped in poise, Gray stays calm in competition. Once, during an event, she was bitten by her mount (not Magic Man) and finished her ride with blood trickling down her arm. She finished third.
“I do have a bad habit of opening my mouth when I go over jumps, and I sometimes choke on bugs,” she said.
Equestrian involves jumping hurdles in a set order, and remembering such instructions can be difficult for her. But Gray manages.