A Patient’s Story: Mary Stephan – Debilitating Hip Pain to World Champion

For many experiencing debilitating joint pain, stepping back from the activities you love can be heartbreaking. For Mary Stephan, a former Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin patient, hip pain forced her to step away from her active lifestyle and limited her ability to participate in her life-long passion – training and riding horses competitively. 

After getting hip surgery with Dr. Patrick Jost, Mary was back to riding pain-free. This year, she achieved a World Championship at the 2021 Pinto World Championship competition. Mary’s story shows what is possible to achieve after excellent surgery results. 

An Active Lifestyle, Hindered by Pain

Mary Stephan, a middle school art teacher, started riding horses when she was only two years old. 

Her father, a livestock dealer, loved training and riding horses competitively. He was a fierce competitor and showed his horses up until he passed away at 93 years old. He passed down his immense appreciation to Mary, who carries a similar admiration for the animal. 

“My love and passion for horses came from my family,” Stephan said. “My dad enjoyed showing immensely, so I have done it my entire life.”

As an active member of the horseback riding community who participated in other activities such as tennis, aerobics, and cross-country skiing, Mary has always lived a very active lifestyle. 

What she loves most is the ability to train with an animal and grow a connection with the horses she works alongside.

“My dad taught me about the fun of teaching an animal something and seeing how you can work together as a team,” Stephan said. “What amazes me is that there’s constantly something new to learn, something new to achieve, and something new to do. And then when you switch horses, it all changes again, and you’re back to ground zero.”

Mary also developed Perthes Disease, a rare condition affecting the hip joint, at a very young age. While her condition didn’t bother her for most of her life, she began to notice changes in her physical ability in her late 20’s. Over time, the condition worsened. The pain and muscle stiffness she experienced made it increasingly difficult for her to participate in the physical activities she loved, especially training with horses. 

“My left leg used to tighten so much that even after 15-20 minutes of riding, my left leg would be shorter, and I would have to stand up and stretch before I could even walk on it,” Stephan said. 

As her condition worsened, she could no longer participate in all of the competitive events that she wanted to. Many competitive events require an hour to an hour and a half of activity, and she could no longer ride for more than 30 minutes. Additionally, some events require running alongside the horses, a task that was becoming nearly impossible for Mary.

“I know my walk was really bad and that I was limping. I know that when I was riding, it was my shoulders that lifted me out of the saddle, not my hips. And when I ran alongside the horse, my trainer would point out how poorly I was running,” Stephan said. “I think for the last 20 years when I would run, it was more of a waddle from side to side as opposed to a running forward.”

After years of suffering, Mary turned to the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin. She consulted with Dr. Patrick Jost in 2017 and decided to undergo corrective surgery to help alleviate the pain she was dealing with day in and day out. 

Becoming a World Champion

While some would expect surgery to be a painful experience, Mary says that the pain from the surgery was nothing compared to what she was experiencing prior. 

“I felt great after surgery,” she said. “I was up and walking the same day, within 2 hours of surgery. I had none of the pain from before.”

Only 4.5 weeks after surgery, by following her physical therapy regimen closely, Mary was back to doing what she loved, training and competing, pain-free. Her only regret in the process was not getting help sooner. 

“You know, in your head, it’s very scary. I didn’t want to do it because I thought I could keep going like I was,” she said. “Dr. Jost was amazing at calming those fears.”

In the months following her recovery, Mary was back to a very active lifestyle. She began biking, stretching, and working on rebuilding her range of motion. 

“The most bizarre thing was that it took me until last year to learn how to run again,” Stephan said. “This year, back to showing competitively, people commented and told me that I run pretty. I don’t think I’ve been told that for a long time.”

In June of this year, at the 2021 Pinto World Championship competition, Mary showed her horse Marcel, an American Paint Horse. After diligent training, Marcel was named Reserve World Champion in the Amature Elite group. Marcel also won two additional top-five awards – 3rd place in Western Showmanship and 5th place in English Showmanship. 

“It was a lot of work to get him ready for competition,” Stephan said. “But he’s been wonderful to work with because he tries very hard. And I’ve been enjoying riding again. Or the pain-free version. It’s much more fun.”

Mary says that since recovering from surgery, she continues to improve her physical ability year after year. Now that she can continue to train her riding skills, Mary plans to continue her father’s legacy of being a fierce competitor for many years to come. 

 If you have a similar story to Mary’s and have had to stop doing what you love because of joint pain, do not hesitate to take the first step and make an appointment with one of our caring orthopedic surgeons. The orthopedic specialists at the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin will work with you to create a customized plan for recovery and get you “back on the horse” as soon as possible.