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Horse People

Cantering Through Cancer

Ashley Anderson, 34, began riding at age 5. She begged her parents to sign her up for riding lessons, and after an incessant amount of nagging, they gave in.

“I think they hoped it would just be a phase that I would grow out of,” Anderson says.

But as these things so often go, horses soon became a big part of her lifestyle. After years of riding hunter ponies, she moved to horses, which led her to the jumper ring. Then she found the sport of eventing, and she was officially hooked.

Anderson bought Nelson, a Thoroughbred who already knew the ropes of eventing, to help her learn the sport. When he was ready to retire in 2021, her parents bought her next partner as her clinical psychology Ph.D. graduation present. Global Jedi is a big, gray Irish Sport Horse, known around the barn as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Anderson started dreaming big, but Obi fractured a splint bone in September of 2021. With the help of the veterinarians at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., just three months later, she and Obi were back on track to have a full 2022 competition season.

A Diagnosis

However, merely a month later, everything changed again. Anderson was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

She’d found a lump a few months earlier, and while she thought and hoped it was just a cyst, she scheduled an appointment with her doctor to get it checked. Her OB-GYN reassured her that it was probably a cyst, but referred Anderson for imaging to be certain.

Imaging led to biopsies, which ultimately to a cancer diagnosis. A swift series of appointments ensued, and Anderson barely had enough time to accept what was happening and what this meant for her—and Obi’s—future.

Chemotherapy began by the end of February 2022, and Anderson got to work trying to figure out how she could keep riding and making horses part of her life through the upcoming months of treatment.

Ashley Anderson refused to give up on her competition dreams while fighting cancer and tells her story fearlessly. Photo by Xpress Foto

“I managed to push through the nausea, aches, fevers, exhaustion, sensitivity to heat, and other side effects of chemotherapy to have a pretty full show season,” she says. Anderson was exceptionally thankful to have Obi as her partner.

“He’s a steady horse. He is bold, brave, and extremely chill.”

Together, they competed in six recognized U.S. Eventing Association (USEA) events, finishing in the top 10 each time.

A Support System

Anderson’s barn family at Lucky Dog Eventing played a vital role in keeping her and Obi out and about during the show season.

“Our barn family is incredibly special,” she says. “We celebrate and mourn together. We are always there for one another. Everyone rallied behind me and Obi.”

Her trainer, Jenn O’Neill, or her friends rode Obi when she had chemotherapy on Mondays and when she was too sick or tired to make it to the barn.

“At shows, my friends made sure Obi was bathed, braided, tacked, untacked, watered, cold-hosed, and whatever else he needed,” says Anderson. “They made sure I rested, ate, and stayed hydrated. There were times I wanted to quit, but the support from my barn family encouraged and inspired me to keep going.”

In June, when she completed the long format Novice three-day event at the Indiana Eventing Association Horse Trials, she was exhausted. She knew it was in her best interest to save her energy for the next two months of chemotherapy, but she wanted Obi to continue in his competition season. Luckily, O’Neill was able to take the reins and keep competing Obi for the remainder of June and into July.

Strength and Courage

While Anderson was thankful that having O’Neill compete Obi was an option, she had mixed feelings about the situation.

“The ‘owner’ role was bittersweet,” she says. “I loved watching Jenn pilot my horse around his first Training [level event], but I felt resentment that the cancer had taken that experience away from me.”

While it was easy for Anderson to focus on what the cancer had stolen from her, she tried to focus on what her barn family had given her: support, encouragement, and inspiration that sustained her strength and courage.

“I learned how to be strong, brave, persistent, and gritty throughout my years with horses, and my barn family never let me forget that I was, and am, all of those things,” she says.

Getting to Cancer-Free

Anderson concluded chemotherapy in August, but her hemoglobin was near emergency levels, so her oncologist ordered a blood transfusion. After that, her energy surged back, and she started moving at full speed toward the USEA Area VIII Championships in September.

“The Lucky Dog Eventing barn family never faltered in their support and came to cheer us on at championships decked out in pink ‘Badass Gear’ from Mare Modern Goods,” she says. “I’m not sure how to describe what I felt when I galloped through the finish flags on cross-country to cheers echoing from a sea of friends all in pink—gratitude, joy, and relief. But we were back.”

Anderson’s barn family waited for her at the finish flags of the USEA Area VIII Championships with coordinated pink breast cancer support gear. Photo courtesy Ashley Anderson

Anderson finished her season with two successful runs at Training level, and she and Obi blazed through their final cross-country run of the season—decked out in pink—two days before her double mastectomy.

She has been cancer free since October 3, 2022. For those nine months, cancer dictated her life. Now, she no longer has to schedule her life around appointments and focus solely on surviving. Anderson can start living again and spend as much time as she wants at the barn and competing with her favorite horse and people, and she’s looking forward to a strong 2023 season aboard Global Jedi.

This article about an equestrian who overcame cancer appeared in the June 2023 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Shoshana Rudski

Shoshana is a rider, trainer, and instructor in Lexington, KY. She has been involved with Horse Illustrated and Young Rider magazines for nearly a decade, spending time as an assistant editor, freelancer (during her riding full time and barn management escapades), and now is part of the sales and editorial team. She competes her own sport ponies, Izzy and Bonnie, in dressage and also dabbles in eventing. Her dogs, Knox and Ari, and her cats, Skunk and Earl, complete her herd.

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