Women's Story

Terri’s Story

It had been a long time since I had ridden a horse. As a child, I rode gym khana, a form of western riding that included barrel racing pickup and ride. I loved it and I had a heck of a good time. Then for many years I didn’t ride. It wasn’t for lack of desire; I thought about it a lot. But life is about making choices and my priority was family.

As a single mom, I knew what juggling was all about. My life seemed to be about trying to get everything done. About not having back-up. No safety net. Just my daughter and I. Somehow, horses faded into the background. Then, one day my daughter was given a year of riding lessons for her birthday. I, always the efficient multi-tasker, thought: Well, I have to drive my daughter to my lessons and pick her up. Why don’t I just try riding; just to see how it goes. No commitment; just testing it out. A new horse had been brought into the barn, an American Saddle Bred.

This breed of horse is very bright and animated but is also known for spooking at a butterfly or thinking a leaf will jump out and get them. Adding to his natural tendency to be fearful was his mistrust. Brighty had not been well treated at his previous barn. He was head shy and basically fearful of people. In fact, the first time I was on him he spooked at the bank behind the barn, an icy, plant covered hill. I was either too dumb or too rusty to know to stop him. The trust took time to develop but the connection was pretty rapid. Early on and before either Brighty or I might have been ready, our connection and our developing trust was tested. I had ridden Brighty a couple of times.

I found that I had to adjust my riding style to account for Brighty’s size. Riding saddle seat, the style for a saddlebred, is a very close contact style of riding. The horse and the rider are so connected that even if I moved my head, Brighty would feel that. So, I worked on adjusting my style and Brighty worked at learning how to respond. Then came the day and the ride that changed my and Brighty’s lives. It was a hot sunny day in Southern California. My car drove up the driveway leading to the barn. Brighty looked up and started nickering. Brighty had already learned the sound of my car and was excited, anticipating our ride together and the treats I always brought.

I greeted Brighty and fed him my usual treat- carrots. I saddled him up and climbed on top. I grabbed the reins. I pulled my arms in close to the side of my body, as I had learned to do with Brighty. I had to ride in a certain position, squeezing my arm against the breast wall. There it was. The lump. How could that be? I had just had a clear mammogram. I was conscientious and aware. It must be something minor. I continued my ride but with a growing feeling of unease. Something was wrong. I had breast cancer. I learned that I had an enlarged auxiliary lymph node and a metastasized cancer of unknown origin. It had already progressed to a regionally advanced stage. I kept riding. There was a click in my mind, heart and soul. I knew it was because of Brighty.

If I hadn’t started to ride Brighty, I likely would never have discovered my cancer. Brighty saved my life. My defining moment. It was after my diagnosis that I truly reached out and completely trusted him. There was never any question at any time throughout the rest of his life about whether my horse was going to do something stupid with me or not. Three weeks after surgery, I was back on Brighty. Brighty knew something was different with me. I know he noticed. I can’t say he ever babied me but I can say that he pulled me at different times. There were times after my chemotherapy that I’d say, My God I can’t do this and he’d do a little jig or step up, a little harder in the trot or zig zag away from the rail and I know he was kind of testing or pushing. I never took it as he was testing me to see how far he could get. I internalized it as he was pushing me to build my confidence. I know th

t is a lot of anthromorphizing that he was trying to help me. There was a growing trust that Brighty and I were building and that helped me to cope. He never once reacted to the anger I felt about my diagnosis. So as big a screw up as he could have been, he wasn’t. When I was inattentive, even then he was kind with me. He did react when he knew I felt good and he stepped up and gave my every bit of what he had. The connection between horse and rider was such that Brighty compensated for my chemotherapy-induced inattentiveness. As so many cancer patients know, chemotherapy does something to your brain. People call it “chemo-brain”. The distractedness, the forgetfulness and trouble concentrating; the fog that you feel you are in.

Still, Brighty was there for me. If I wasn’t paying close attention, Brighty would be almost tentative about taking his next step, as if he was asking if I was sure I wanted this gait or not. In that way, I felt he was supportive. It was therapeutic for me. Brighty was aging and there were new kids in the barn. Brighty became partner to a young lady and continued to be his gentle, trustworthy , teaching another new rider about the joys horses bring. At around this time, a close friend sent her Saddlebred to the barn to partner with me. Poison is a horse we all knew from the time he was a baby, and was an interim equine partner for 18 months.

When Brighty died, I was devastated and didn’t think I’d ever trust another horse again as much as I did Brighty. The bond was so deep. Brighty was my partner through my illness and my recovery. In fact, some days Brighty was my motivation to get out of the house, disconnect from the cancer and connect with my body in a healthy way. On those days, I got lost in my riding and forgot. Now Brighty was gone. It took more than 18 months before I felt ready to begin a new relationship with another horse. I connected with Doeke, a Fresian. This is a large breed, always all black, and a wonderful riding horse. This was a horse I had known for years through interacting with his owner, a barnmate. Doeke was much bigger, wider, and more muscular than Brighty. From the second we walked into the arena this horse was more horse than I had ever had under me.

When I got onto Doeke the first time, I knew it would be a long road to building trust with him. I was still grieving for Brighty. He was my solace, my support and my anchor. Brighty helped me move on and believe that I could move on and live past my cancer; that I was still strong and capable and solid. There are a lot of horses that choose just one person or no person at all. Some decide that they want to be the leader and that’s it. Brighty clearly chose me and we formed a life-long relationship. In that respect, it was an important life lesson; it helped me to value the relationship I had with Brighty even more. And it helped me to understand that my relationship with Doeke would be different and special in its own way. I continued partnering with Doeke and one day (at our first A- Rated horse show) it all seemed to click.

From the second we walked into the arena there was a conscious click in my head that said, Ok we can do this. I just let go and let him do it. But it was this click, yes I can trust him. He knows what his job is and he can do it. And the worst thing I could do was tear him away from what his job is. I describe it as leading from behind. Doeke’s feet are on the ground, mine aren’t. But I am still in a leadership role, experiencing a give and take relationship with Doeke. If he is questioning, I take over.

It’s been 18 months and Doeke and I are still riding together. I realized that with Doeke, I had to be ready to relinquish control to him. Again, I was experiencing deep personal growth due to a relationship with a horse. I realized it was all about trust. I trusted that this horse was not going to do anything stupid with my. The trust built and it continues to build to this day. But what surprised me was how my experience with my horses translated over into my professional relationships.

Right around the time I connected with Doeke, I left non-profit employment and went independent. It was a bad economy and as a single parent, I experienced constant internal turmoil, always worrying : Can I really do this? My experience with Doeke caused me to look at how I approached business relationships. I have learned to trust more at the outset of new relationships. Before, I used to play all the angles, looking for the motives of the other person. There was constant positioning and re-negotiating. I have now stepped back from that. And has healthier and stronger relationships. That’s the lesson in horses. It was the horse that taught me what to look for in people.

We’re all looking for the same thing. We’re looking for that bond of trust. That thing we’ve lost along the way of ourselves. And the horse helps us find it again. It was the horse that taught me what to look for in people. And the horse helps me to find it again. You’re in the present with animals. They make us do that. When I’m riding, I’m present and I can see where the future is going to go. I’m almost in touch with the instinctive. I’m in the moment and ready to move forward.

There is a lesson around trust yourself. With cancer, you feel betrayed by your own self, by your own body, by the vehicle for your mind. Even learning to trust yourself again is hard. On reflection, it was easier to trust Brighty than myself. Relinquishing control is hard for us. I spent my whole life being really competitive. I had to be the best. I just had to do this, had to do that. It was so hard to let go. And just trust that things will be as they are meant to be.

Truly, the horse has taught me a lot. The horse was the breakthrough for me. And even after the cancer, deciding to go on for my doctorate, the horse reaffirmed my faith in me. In my survival and everything around me. I truly do not think I’d be happy and peaceful and healthy if I didn’t have the horses in my life- when they came back into my life. And quite frankly, I know who put them there. I have a very deep faith in God. I know they were put there at the right time.