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Judy Lancaster

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Eventing for a Cause: This Year, ‘Eye Ride4Life’

Judy Lancaster and her sister Carrie. Photo courtesy of Judy Lancaster. Judy Lancaster and her sister Carrie. Photo courtesy of Judy Lancaster.

In October of 2013, I received one of the scariest phone calls of my life. My younger sister Carrie explained that she had gone to her routine eye exam, but had been referred to a specialist. Her doctor had picked up on something strange, what appeared to be a tumor behind her retina, while examining her eye.

Within a few days and after further testing, she received a terrible diagnosis. At the age of 48, she had developed a form of cancer called Ocular Melanoma (OM, or eye cancer).

OM is extremely rare. Only six out of 1,000,000 people are diagnosed each year. Unfortunately, 50% of the time OM can spread anywhere, but usually the liver and lungs.

In the ensuing weeks of multiple scans, fear and uncertainty for Carrie, her three sons, husband and our family, she was treated by Dr. Colleen Cebulla with a radiation patch at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. As fate would have it, Ohio State happens to be one of the leading hospitals for OM treatment, and it was within an hour drive from where she lives.

After spending almost a week in isolation for treatment, she kept up her amazing positive attitude, while joking about her new favorite song “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons, since she was! As part of the treatment plan, only radiation was required, sparing her having to endure chemotherapy.

Luckily, this story has a positive outcome, as the radiation was successful! To date, the tumor has shrunk and is considered a flat scar. She has limited sight in her eye, only having peripheral vision, but her good eye has compensated for the loss of vision and she is able to drive, continue working as a substitute teacher and (the best part) ride my mare Sallie when she comes to visit us in Virginia.

Our family has been truly blessed, as almost four years out, her scans have been negative for metastasis to other organs in her body. Carrie will continue to have an abdominal MRI and chest x-ray every six months for the rest of her life, to check for metastasis. We always have that six-month “whew!!” after her scans.

Which, brings up a really important point. As “horse people” we spend immense amounts of time in an outdoor environment, exposed to the sun. Having gone through this experience with my sister, it taught me the major importance of having that yearly eye exam, with dilation. Because of her once-a- year routine, the doctors were able to catch the cancer in the earlier stage. When was the last time you had your eyes examined?

After going through the emotional roller coaster with my sister’s diagnosis, the uncertainty of dealing with such an unpredictable form of cancer, it really put the important things of life into perspective for me.

The reality is, there is no cure for OM, and many who are diagnosed develop cancer in other parts of their body. For many, the prognosis is not what my sister has experienced. But, promising trials are happening from research funded through the Ocular Melanoma Foundation (OMF), which may eventually lead to new treatments for a cure.

After doing some OMF fundraising at my place of work last year, it got me thinking about a way in which I could combine my favorite activity, eventing, and raising money for research and to bring awareness about this terrible disease.

As my mare Sallie is getting up in the years, I had originally planned for this to be THE year. With AECs moving back out west next year, I considered that this may be our last chance to qualify on the East Coast. I then thought about all the amazing rides my sweet girl has offered me through the years. How she has brought me from the “hunter world” to actually completing my first horse trial at the age of 50. As a team, we have won multiple championships, reserve championships and year-end placings.

What she has offered me as an equine partner has gone way beyond anything I would have ever imagined. I realize that while the ribbons are fun for the moment, they are fleeting. Why not make this show year really count … riding for an amazing cause?

This year I have decided to ride, not for me, but for my sister and others with OM, as most people with this cancer are fighting for their life. This year when I enter the show ring, my saddle pads will be embroidered with the OMF logo and my jumping phase shirt will proudly display “Eye Ride4life.”

Go get that yearly eye exam and GO EVENTING!

Judy Lancaster competes her mare Sallie (aka #missdisrespectful) at Beginner Novice level. To contribute in honor of her sister Carrie Butner, visit her CROWDRISE page here. 100% of money contributed to “EYE RIDE4LIFE” will go directly to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation Campaign.

The Heart of an Eventer

Photo by Tina Peltier Radack. Photo by Tina Peltier Radack.

This has been a tough week in the world of eventing. Between the tragedies at Jersey Fresh last weekend and the ensuing storm of criticism for our discipline (and our nosebands), it’s fully understandable why some who embrace our sport are feeling discouraged.

But while participating in a schooling horse trial last Sunday, the day after the news of the heartbreaks had pummeled our eventing community full-force, I was struck with an amazing sense of pride to be part of this sport. Even though most of these riders knew full-well what had occurred the day before, they still chose to climb out of their warm beds early on that chilly morning. They loaded multiple sets of tack, helmets, vest, equipment, brushes, boots, saddle pads and horse in the trailer and they showed up.

Even while their minds might have been mulling over thoughts like “Could the same thing happen to me or my horse?” “Will I be OK today?” or “I can’t believe I do this to myself,” they still tacked up, climbed on their amazing horses and competed. They chose to ride their dressage test and stadium jumping rounds, and some elected to navigate their way around the cross-country course. They chose to push through the fear, cancel out the small uncertain voices in their heads, quell their nerves and focus instead on the task in front of them.

In the midst of the underlying sadness and discouragement that many were feeling last Sunday, I had the opportunity to witness displays of willpower, determination and most of all, courage. I observed myriad emotions: cheers from those supporting the rider who just had the dressage test of a lifetime, tears of discouragement from a refusal in stadium, smiles of pure joy after a double-clear.

After finishing an average dressage test myself (but wishing I had experienced my “Yanni moment” from late last year) and riding a clean stadium round, I prepared to finish my day on beginner novice cross-country, riding my mare Sallie. As we cantered towards our first fence, I felt any fear or nervousness I may have been holding inside literally dissolve. Instead, feelings of freedom, joy and exhilaration filled me as we took flight over our jumps in the open field.

As I relaxed at home later that evening, I reflected on the fact that days like last Sunday are what keep us coming back to the competitions, get us out of bed on the cold mornings, and carry us through our lessons in the exhausting heat of a summer afternoon. We realize that it does take amazing courage, determination, faith and pure guts to take part in this sport. This is what makes up the special heart of an eventer!

As riders we are blessed with the opportunity to allow our beautiful, amazing eventing partners to carry us into a ring full of letters, over colorful stadium jumps, or across a field, flying over the solid obstacles. As for our horses, William Steinkraus summed it up best when he said, “We must never forget, every time we sit on a horse what an extraordinary privilege it is; to be able to unite one’s body with that of another sentient being, one that is stronger, faster and more agile by far than we are, and at the same time brave, generous and uncommonly forgiving.”

As a community we are the first to lend a hand if needed; we are there to cheer on one of our fellow boarders at her first competition, spend the afternoon taking pictures of our friends so we can have “that moment” captured forever, or establish a college fund for Philippa Humphrey’s daughter, knowing that others who feel the pain of her loss will contribute generously.

As for our competitions, whether schooling or recognized, I think my trainer Mark Combs summed it up so well after observing a 60-year old rider finish her first horse trial, coming off course in tears of joy: “This is what it’s all about.”

Go Eventing!

A Quiet Christmas Gift

Judy Lancaster and Sallie. Photo by Ron Lancaster. Judy Lancaster and Sallie. Photo by Ron Lancaster.

I board my horse down the road at an amazing facility called Oakdale Equestrian Center. Since I work full-time in town and only get to ride in the evenings during the week, I am part of the group affectionately known as “the night shift”.

While I love being part of this group, thoroughly enjoying the company of all my fellow night owls, last night I had one of those rare opportunities to actually have the whole place to myself.

It has been an unusually warm December in my part of the country. The temperature at 7:00 p.m. was a balmy 63 degrees, unheard of at this time of year. After spending about an hour cleaning off layers of dirt from my mare Sallie, a result of our recent rain and muddy pasture conditions, we tacked up in her dressage regalia.

I decided that since no one was around, I could start playing around with my dressage fantasy — doing a freestyle ride someday. I am an eventer, so love to jump first and foremost. Riding freestyle has not been in our repertoire of activities recently.

I flipped on the lights and headed into the indoor. Once mounted, I hit the play button on my iPhone, turning on my favorite dressage tunes by Yanni. I know what you’re thinking: Yanni? But truly, his music offers elegant arrangements of differing rhythms which are so easy to ride to. My mare has even begun to learn the songs, starting to understand the beat of the strange noise that comes from my pocket.

I warmed her up in a nice marching walk, doing lateral work to a few of the slower, relaxing songs. The combination of the warm air and the soothing aura of the songs must have had an effect on her. Sallie started chewing on the bit and had one of the swingiest, marching walks I’ve ever experienced (of course this only happens while I’m at home, alone!).

Then, that song came on! The one in which I have pictured Sallie and I using as our background music, as we glide across the ring in our freestyle performance, doing the perfect collected trot, extensions, tempe changes and piaffe (reality check … the highest level test I’ve ever done is Beginner Novice Test B). But that’s ok. I would be happy with a nice collected trot and extensions.

In actuality, last evening was truly something special. As we rode, Sallie began to feel like melting butter, with a beautiful relaxed rhythm, right in beat to the music. I felt like we were speaking each other’s language, and she stayed right with me through a soft connection that I have not felt before.

She was not born for this “dressage thing”. She’s a Thoroughbred, built like a hunter, but last night I felt like she finally understood that dressage could be relaxing and yes, even fun. Goosebumps began running through my body as for the first time, I felt like we were dancing!

As I brought her back to a cool-down walk, I realized what a special gift I had just received. I had been blessed with a moment in time that I may or may not have again. Just a beautiful, warm December evening spent with my special girl, jamming to Yanni.

I wish my dressage instructor Christina Arrington had been there to see it and better yet, film it. But the amazing connection I felt with her and the quietness of that evening will stay with me always. What a Christmas gift!