The Healing Power of Horses
Traci Melvin, Dressage Rider and Survivor
While most women would be shocked and surprised to be told at 37 years old that they have breast cancer, I actually wasn’t. My father had colon cancer when he was 40 and my mother was a breast cancer survivor, so my family is no stranger to the disease. I had assumed cancer would visit me someday, and I would survive it just as my parents have. Amazingly, my first thought after hearing the diagnosis from my surgeon was, “This means that I’ll be spending a lot of time in doctor offices for awhile.” Yes, that turned out to be true but it didn’t take long for my overly simplistic view of the treatment process to be taken over by the harsh reality of how going through treatment would actually impact my life. For me, it was an unexpectedly tough journey with an unexpected partner in my recovery – my beloved horse Solomon.
I’ve been around horses most of my life and at no time did I appreciate greater the special bond we have with our horses as when I was in need of healing. When I couldn’t ride, he gave me hugs. When I couldn’t groom, he played with me in the pasture. And through it all, he gave me love and helped keep my spirits up. And when the toughest times were over, he helped me heal. Just as I was able to think about riding again, I heard about the PVDA Ride for Life. I was inspired not only by Pat Artimovich’s vision and creation but also by the mission of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center and its focus on quality of life research that makes a difference for breast cancer survivors. As someone who had underestimated the quality of life issues I would face after treatment, I immediately connected with the mission of the R4L.
The next thing I knew, I was planning for the future. Encouraged and motivated, I began riding with a goal – to train for and participate in the R4L. Both Solomon and the R4L were a part of my physical and mental healing process. I hosted my first fundraising party ever and through the generous giving of family and friends, we did it! I was able to support and ride in the 2008 R4L. Since then I have been honored to continue participating in and supporting this effort. I hope, as we all do, that breast cancer is cured as soon as possible. Until that time comes, the R4L is the best way I know to help improve the lives of many breast cancer survivors just like me.
Annemari Ingersoll, Dressage Rider and Survivor
Oak Grove, Virginia
Annmari Ingersoll, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2009, used the Ride for Life as a goal during all her treatment. She had three surgeries in 2009 and is still getting massage therapy, acupuncture and working on recovering her stamina. “The cancer was not fun, but I never have to hear the words ‘you have breast cancer’ again.” (During the Ride for Life last year) she had help coping with the stall set up and with the heat from her friends in the St. Mary’s chapter of PVDA and her sister and the kids who board at her sister’s barn. They even decorated her stall, winning 6th place in the stall contest. “Through it all, and during this show, I had so many family and friends pulling for me,” Annmari said.
During her recovery, she rode a quarter horse who was a caring soul. He allowed her to drop the reins if her arms got tired. Her 9 year old Dutch Warmblood gelding Rudy was “He’s inventive,” Annmari explained. She’s had help with Rudy from Steuart Pittman and during her recovery Steuart took over the ride on Rudy. She has also had clinics with Lisa Wilcox and Linda Zang. However Rudy came through at the Ride for Life in Training Level Test 4 and First Level Test 4 earning four scores in the 60s and winning First Level Test 4 in the indoor ring on Sunday with 62.8%. “It was late in the day Sunday [for that test], and I was determined to wear my coat even though it was over 100 outside. I have watched the video of that ride about a hundred times. I’m so proud of that score! When I finished there was cheering because I had an entourage!”
Annmari hails from Oak Grove, Virginia on the Northern Neck. “Our little town is near Colonial Beach and we have a Winery – Ingleside Vineyards, and a wholesale Nursery – Ingleside Plantation Nurseries. We host weddings here and have wonderful settings for photographing.”
Karen Metcalfe, Dressage Rider and Survivor
“I am a breast cancer survivor. In no way do I find my story to be exceptional. The fight other’s have had to fight have been much more difficult than my own. My cancer was diagnosed early. I was fairly young when diagnosed (45) so the treatment I opted for was a mastectomy. Because of this option and the fact that it had not spread to lymph nodes I did not require radiation or chemotherapy treatments. I had just begun leasing Cayenne when I received the diagnosis. He was the “wrong” horse for me…young, big, strong, knew no boundaries, had minimal training and I was a green rider. Nevertheless, I bought him, the only horse I have ever owned, right around the time that I had the mastectomy. Although told not to ride during the mastectomy recovery and reconstruction surgery/recovery phases, as soon as I could I went out every morning to ride. …..we had a lot to learn together. Initially I had to ask for help to get the saddle up and on him as I couldn’t lift the saddle to that height. Wanting to be independent, I worked to be able to do so alone within the first week. In addition to many other aspects of my life that kept me in a positive frame of mind during that scary part of my life (family, friends….), my time with Cayenne was something that I looked forward to every day. I firmly believe that my rapid and full recovery from the mastectomy was in part due to my time grooming, taking care of and riding Cayenne. He came into my life during a very difficult time and did, and still does, bring me great joy and happiness as I continue to get to know him and we work/learn together.” Last year was Karen’s first year as a member of PVDA and she looks forward to volunteering at this year’s Ride for Life and riding in future Ride for Life shows.
Tanya Horning, Dressage Rider and Survivor
Wilmington, North Carolina
“In the fall of 2007, while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, I read about the PVDA Ride for Life in an issue of Dressage Today. In that moment, I decided that I would participate in the show with my horse “Fidget.” Preparing to ride in the show gave me added strength to continue riding, even though the side effects of chemotherapy. This of course would not have been possible without this very special horse, who quite literally carried me through my fight. In June of 2008, Fidget and I went down centerline at Ride for Life together, marking my one-year as a survivor. We were joined by several other riders and amazing friends from North Carolina, who formed the NC Caravan for the Cure. Riding and fundraising as a member of the NC Caravan for the Cure has been one of my life’s greatest honors. As the 2012 Ride for Life approaches, I look forward to participating once again, this time as a five-year survivor. June is no longer the month I was told, “you have cancer,” it is the month in which I continue the fight on behalf of others. I’ll always be grateful to Pat Artimovich, PVDA and the amazing volunteers who make this show happen.
Claudia Sands, Dressage Rider and Survivor
I first saw the Ride for Life logo 3 years ago. What I saw was simple, elegant, powerful and beautiful. It reminded me of the strength, motivation and restorative powers I have always found through horses. I am a podiatrist in the United States Air Force and I have owned horses for the entire 20 years of my career. During that time I got married, moved 7 times, had 2 great children, underwent bilateral mastectomies, lost my mother to breast cancer, lost my father while I was deployed to Iraq, got divorced and had additional breast reconstructive surgery. Through it all, in every state and country I lived in, I also found friendship and support around the people I met through the horses. Horses were the common thread for establishing myself and my family in each new community when we moved. My barn friends helped me find farriers, hairdressers, daycare providers…everything a busy working mom needs to be successful.
But most importantly, my horse friends were there to help me through the tough days when my family couldn’t be there.
I had been a novice eventer and my dressage goal was always just to get through it. While stationed in Germany I rode at night with a talented instructor to begin my formal dressage training. I also brought two horses back to the U.S. when I was transferred. In Colorado, I coached the USAF Academy Horse Show Team and was welcomed into the wonderful, local dressage community.
When an atypical, premalignant mass was found in my breast, my horse friends were there for me. Given my mother’s struggle with metastatic disease after being “cancer free” for 30 years, I underwent prophylactic bilateral mastectomies. My horse friends took care of the horses so I could recover. They kept my German dressage horse, Donatello, fit so he was in top form and ready for me as soon as I was allowed to ride. They kept my spirits up and kept me looking forward. At my first show after my surgery I remember my “barn sisters” all standing at the end of the arena cheering. It still makes me smile. I also smile when remembering my promotion ceremony to Colonel; General Theresa Casey and I galloped up to the podium on horses. My move from Las Vegas to Maryland last summer brought me to a wonderful barn where I now board three horses. The power of the horse connection enabled me to quickly feel at home with my new “barn family”. This was a stressful move, my divorce was final and I was working to put my life on track. While going with my older son to get his first tattoo, I decided I would give myself a symbol of my power and passion that carries me forward in life’s journey. I had the Ride for LIfe Logo tattooed on my shoulder. Although I have not ridden a dressage test in 2 years, Donatello and I are not as fit as we should be; how could I pass up the chance to be part of the show that has such an inspirational logo? Again, I have my barn sisters cheering me on through life’s joys and challenges; reminding me to go forward, to ride with strength and style.
Kathleen Avillion, Dressage Rider and Survivor
I am Kathleen Avillion, my husband Mike and I own Cheshire Horse Hills, a dressage facility in Southern Maryland. I have been riding since I was 9 years old. My parents, not being horse people bought me a 16 hand Chestnut TB mare formerly off the track. Being completely over horsed and never having had any lessons, I hit the dirt often. In spite of my mother’s insistence, I did not give up. My desire to ride increased, instilled by my grandmother, a fan of the Austrian school. I was not satisfied with just riding, but wanted to excel and to be able to teach others to ride. I was privileged to work with Sally Swift the creator of “Centered Riding”. We grew very close over the years. She not only improved my own riding, but also taught me to work with the “contrary bodies of others. My other mentor was Francois Lemaire de Ruffieu, a former member of Cadre Noir. He worked intensely with me for eight years, teaching me and his Nibs (the grandson of the chestnut TB mare) the FEI work and beyond. Classical work in hand and long reining. I treasured the knowledge that they imparted to me and their friendship. I became a Centered Riding Instructor and retain a lifetime ARICP certification for advanced dressage as teaching riding has become my passion.
My husband and I started building on my passion, an equestrian facility, just prior to the economy tanking. As the business finally started to thrive, I was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. This past Christmas I had to have an emergency radical hysterectomy. Sometime after surgery I was told by one of the physicians at the hospital who supposedly was a horse person that I would never ride again. However I am stubborn, I just would not accept that. I felt compelled to ride. Eight weeks after that surgery, I was on my 1700 lb stallion Chapman. It wasn’t impressive, but I was riding and continued to do so between my chemo treatments. He seemed to know that I needed to be taken care of. He kept turning around to check on me. My riding may seem nuts to some but I have a message I want to impart; there seems to be a real problem with the doctors telling people they are going to die and what they can and can’t do. My mom also has cancer and her doctor told her she has a year and a half at most to live. In the National Ovarian Cancer Alliance, my support group, report that it’s a very common practice to tell individuals with cancer that they have only so long, or that they are terminal. Yes it’s necessary to be truthful, but it is important for doctors to be positive so people don’t give up hope. Many people dealing with cancer are either in shock after their diagnosis or while going through the treatment for cancer get discouraged, sometimes to the point of refusing treatment. In order for cancer patients who are feeling a sense of disappointment to overcome those negative odds, one must continue to do what they love to fulfill the needed sense of inspiration in their lives. We are individuals and not some statistic! As a cancer patient, it is important to have a positive influence around me like family, friends and horses. This way I feel like I can get through anything. I want to participate in the Ride for Life as my goal to help other cancer patients see that they don’t have to give up what they love, their passion, their life, and to EXPECT to live. In entering the Ride for Life, I’d like to win, but to be realistic; my horse was not trained all winter, and has not been away from Cheshire, while my strength is reduced by surgery and chemo. I am worried about being able to deal with the crowded warm-up ring, and that I may have to pull him. I have not had one lesson or even anyone giving me feedback on my riding since my diagnosis. I have just been enjoying spending time in the barn and with my horse through my journey. Also, there is some nerve damage in my feet, to the point of not being able to walk well on some days. As this experience has presented many challenges, I am now recovering, feeling better and stronger, and feel myself coming back. Now I only wish my hair would come back too. Showing and contributing to this cancer benefit demonstrates to others that there can be life with cancer. Living life cancer free is a big victory I want for myself and hope that my participation may encourage others to be strong and courageous.
Through all of this I have had some great help. I have had help with keeping my extra teaching job open with Shadybrook Stable, help with getting my body working again with Jamie Wilm, who has contributed orthopedic massage therapy, and especially Mike, my husband and Cheshire’s manager who has seen to it that each and every horse in our care, lacked for nothing during my illness. I did not have to worry. Plus the help and kindness of our family of boarders, especially Lynn Henderson and Jane Kearns who have helped even with meals, and with support for my entry fees.