Cancer-Free on Centerline

Heather and Boy travel down centerline to perform their first Prix St. Georges test - just 8 weeks after Heather completed treatment for breast cancer!

USDF is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year! In November & December, we are shining the spotlight on riders who have also reached this milestone. Follow along all through November and December for inspiring and heartwarming stories of trials and triumphs, and fabulous photo galleries!

Here, a Region 2 rider with an affinity for dark bays shares the story of two incredibly kind geldings who taught her the art of dressage, and with whom she earned her USDF Bronze Medal, and rode her first Prix St. Georges test – just months after beating cancer.

By Heather Benedict

I became a dressage rider by accident. I was in my 20s, newly married, and with a career that involved traveling, so a horse was the last thing on my mind. Horses had been a constant in my life since the age of five, but with moving to another state, I had left that part of my life behind.  Or so I thought. 

My mom kept my retired show horses and I would visit often.  Out of the blue, she called to tell me about a dressage horse, a Hanoverian, that was for sale.  Without hesitation (well, a lot of hesitation on my husband’s part) I went to meet the horse.  I had ridden English and western so how different could dressage be?  Ahem, very different.

My new horse, Eros, was a dark bay who took my breath away.  I love dark bays.  We began at Training Level, and moved up to Second Level within two years.  We won some year-end awards, and I earned some of the scores needed for my USDF Bronze Medal.  

Unfortunately, a hock fracture ended our competitive riding. Eros was sound enough for trail rides and, after I had kids, pony rides, and I was more than happy with it. Eros was a safe stead for both of my children, and I had a bond with him I never knew possible. There aren’t many horses that will let a child tie a lead rope to his tail and try to jump rope. I did gasp and freak out a bit, but Eros never moved – he was busy sucking on a peppermint. That horse lived for peppermints. He would take one and suck on it by flipping his tongue over. Cutest thing ever.

Eros was 27 when I had to say the hardest goodbye, but I cherish the 17 years I had with him.  I still miss him to this day. 

After Eros’ passing, my best friend Nicole (who was also a trainer and judge) kept telling me I needed to get in the saddle again. I was unsure but she was adamant, to the point of insisting. Looking back now, I’m forever grateful for that. 

The horse was named Boy, he was an American Warmblood,and I had always marveled at his beauty.  Like Eros, he was a dark bay. He was huge in comparison to my Eros, and was rather intimidating when he was being groomed or saddled. I was now in my 40s and wondered if this was a good idea. However, under saddle he was safe and never naughty. We worked on Second and Third Level movements, so I could finally earn my USDF Bronze Medal. After a few years of riding and only going to a handful of shows per season, I finally earned the final scores.  

I had lots of laughs on Boy, mostly laughing at myself.  You have to have a sense of humor while trying to master dressage movements.  Boy was incredibly smart and was always trying to anticipate what we were going to do next. “Smartypants” was a frequent nickname. I learned that he loved hacking through the woods and playing in the water jump.  Water was a favorite of his, along with snow.  Heck, he was better in the mud, rain, slop, or fresh powdery snow than in a perfectly dragged arena on a sunny day. 

Together, we were slowly working on Fourth Level and Prix St. Georges movements.  Gosh, they aren’t easy! I had started going to the gym to get my core stronger for the endurance of sitting his trot during those long tests.  I was getting fitter, and riding these movements was getting much easier.  We ended up with our Fourth Level scores for my USDF Silver Medal.  I was elated, and never thought it would be possible. 

As a woman in her 40s, I had a routine mammogram every year, with no issues.  This time was different. They needed more images with magnification, and a biopsy.  After a tornado of tests, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, with extensive DCIS. Riding, as you can imagine, took a back seat while I was trying to figure all of this cancer stuff out.

Under the care of Mayo Clinic, I had two surgeries, 28 rounds of radiation, and no chemotherapy.  Not having chemotherapy was a relief but the surgeries and radiation were taxing. I was dealing with extreme fatigue, but somehow managed to sneak in rides on Boy.  We were so close to Prix St. Georges. 

He was a true gentleman.  Horses know. They always do. A few months after I was done with radiation, I cantered down centerline for my first Prix St. Georges test. I couldn’t have had a better ride and we achieved our first score for my USDF Silver Medal. Thanks to modern medicine and horses, I was cancer-free.

We continued to train, but an unfortunate injury to his back leg ended our competitive career. However, like Eros, Boy and I enjoyed our rides through the woods and playing in water.  After eight years of partnership, I had to again say goodbye.  This time was too soon, but laminitis doesn’t care. I was now in my 50s, cancer-free, a certified fitness instructor, and horseless. But not for long.

I began riding a few different lesson horses, and enjoyed getting to know each of them and their quirks. Horses are fascinating creatures. I truly love everything about them. After Boy’s passing, I began asking around and looking for my next partner. This one will probably be my last. That’s a morbid thought, I know, and you think you’ll always have time.  After months of searching, and several failed pre-purchase exams, I am finally a horse owner again.  

Via Bella is an Oldenburg mare that took my breath away when I saw her.  Can you guess her color? That’s right – dark bay. Stay tuned!


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