By Christine Erikson
In 2015, my 20-year-old half-Arabian was starting to show signs of old age, and we had periods when he couldn’t be ridden. I realized that he would never be able to take me to my goal, of earning my USDF Bronze Medal. So, what do you do when the horse you love more than anything can’t be pushed forward, without making him feel worse? Just as I was trying to find a solution, along came my trainer, of many years, Beth Anderson-Ness. She offered up her pony, Allegria, to ride for my own rider development and advancement.
I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical at first…a pony? Wasn’t I too big for her? But it only took one ride and I was completely sold. I felt like Ally and I connected right away. Since I’m no longer a “spring flower”, she felt really comfortable and safe, which was very important to me. So, what started as a schooling situation turned into an exciting start to the 2016 show season.
Beth was very generous, allowing me to take Ally to a few shows. We had some wonderful successes, and I even revived a First Level freestyle created for my half-Arab, one that I really didn’t get to ride much, and rode it at our first show, in May. We scored an 81%! As the summer went on, and our success continued, we qualified for the Great American/USDF Region 6 Championships at Second Level, and with our First Level Freestyle. I was really excited, and the decision was made to go to.
Then, on July 26, I received the news, after a routine mammogram, that I had breast cancer. Everything came to a halt. In retrospect, it’s kind of funny that when the doctor told me, my first thought (honestly!) was, “Oh no- I won’t be able to go to regional championships!” But, with the help of a great group of doctors, my family, and fantastic support from my “horse village”, we faced the challenge head on. Two weeks after my surgery, I was riding my freestyle at the regional championships, and took home the blue for the First Level Freestyle Championship! The victory lap was sweet in so many ways.
When my invitation to the US Dressage Finals promptly showed up in my e-mail inbox, I kept thinking, how do I make this dream happen? I had never taken a horse further than Oregon, and both logistically and financially speaking, it was a daunting task to even think about taking a horse to Kentucky. On top of that, I had started my four week radiation treatment, and was due to finish only a week and a half before I would have to leave for the Finals. I had no idea how I would be feeling at the end of the treatment. Determined, I decided it was too great an opportunity to miss out. In less than a week, a fundraiser was planned, a GoFundMe account opened, a Facebook Page was up and running, and an application to the USDF Region 6 Travel Fund Grant was mailed in. The dream was starting to become reality.
I knew, when we arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park, that it would be a day I’d never forget. At first, it was a bit intimidating, since being at a national competition was all new to me. Everything was sprawling and so beautiful. There were so many fantastic horses and riders, and yes, we were by far the smallest team…but only in size, not spirit! The weather was beautiful and brisk, with clear blue skies. I was grateful that none of my rides were at 8:00 a.m. though…the frost made its appearance every day.
My first ride in the open competition was Friday, and I can’t say we nailed that ride. Fatigue from my treatment set in, and my sweet little pony kindly “obliged”, by working less too. I remember sitting alone at my hotel feeling a bit discouraged, scrolling through my Facebook, and a dear friend wrote something that changed my mood around completely: “You’re down in Kentucky competing after undergoing radiation, you’ve already won.” I was determined to change things around for my championship ride on Sunday. Beth, my trainer, helped Ally and I figure out how to keep our warm up as effective as possible, without draining all my strength.
The championship class was big, 26 riders. I was the sixth rider from the end. I so badly wanted to ride in the Alltech Arena, and it would be my only chance to check it off my bucket list. Ally and I went in and did our best. When I saw my score after the ride, I knew it was competitive, and with the speed the scores were published, I knew I would be pinned in the top ten. However, I never dreamed we would place third!
It’s hard for me to describe the feeling I had that day, and still continue to feel every time I watch the videos and see the pictures. I made my dreams come true, and didn’t let cancer (or any obstacle, for that matter) stop me. My cancer journey will continue for the rest of my life, and a lot of decisions, some hard ones, have had to be made. It’s all in the hands of something greater now, and I know to embrace every single day because you never know what is in store. I’m looking forward to the new show season, but no matter what happens, I know that thanks to my amazing support system, I’ve already won.