On Oct. 28, lots of dressage riders will be putting on their white breeches and trotting down centerline in the little white ring.
But not Debbie Hill. On that last Saturday of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Hill will be donning pink and hitting the streets for the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Stuart, Fla. She’ll be walking for team Sweet Caroline, named after the late mother of Hill’s long-time friend Stefanie Cheatwood (You can donate to the team here).
And she’ll be walking to celebrate her own victory over breast cancer and a year in which a very special horse’s career reached the Grand Prix level. Hill got the ride on Cartier just a few months before her breast cancer diagnosis in 2014, and the bay gelding’s journey up the levels is one of which Hill is especially proud.
Cartier’s name is a hilarious homage to a former life, and it’s fitting in more ways than one.
“It was a C-year, and we were trying to come up with a name, and I said, ‘What about Cartier, it has cart in it!’ ” owner Robbie Rice said with a laugh. “It’s so perfect, because he is the classic diamond in the rough.”
Cartier had a rough start to life—the story from the New Holland auction goes that after failing as an Amish cart horse in his youth, Cartier was put up for sale at the auction, where as luck would have it young rider Jessica St. John, scooped him up. St. John got the horse going under saddle, and when she headed off to college, she put Cartier (then known as Valentino) up for sale, and that’s when Rice and Hill first met him.
“He was kind of out in the middle of nowhere in Florida. Debbie saw a video of him online,” Rice explained. “He hadn’t been shown and he hadn’t done much. He jumped a little bit, and he schooled some cross-country.”
“When we went to see him we were like, ‘Where’s the mounting block? Where’s the arena? And no, there was just a bucket and it’s a field,” Hill said. “[Cartier’s then-owner said] ‘I don’t have an arena, I just ride him in the forest. I love to ride him in the forest.’ So that’s how we got his barn name, Forest!”
Rice still can’t quite believe Forest is the horse they settled on after their long search for a talented prospect for Hill.
“We had vetted quite a few horses in Europe, young horses, and they didn’t pass the vetting, so we were still just looking. I knew Cartier wasn’t going to pass the vetting,” Rice said. “I was like there’s no way, my vet doesn’t pass anything, and my vet called back and said, ‘Where did you find this horse? He’s phenomenal,’ and he said he’s perfect!”
So Forest moved into Hill’s Debbie Hill Dressage stable in Huntsville, Ala., but she didn’t get much of a chance to work with him before she got bad news from her doctor—a lump in her breast was cancerous.
“We got him in the beginning of April 2014, and Debbie came up with breast cancer two months after that,” Rice said.
“I had about a year of chemo and radiation and surgery, and I rode during that time but I went from riding like 10 horses a day to two or three, and he was one of my favorites,” Hill said. “I just sort of took it easy with him. He’s a special horse. He’s kind of like a dog that found a really good home after having it a little bit rough early in life. He’s like, ‘There’s my person, there she is,’ so he’s really bonded to me and me to him from that.”
Hill’s crew around the barn found her choice of the green relatively unknown horse to ride during her illness an interesting one, to say the least. “The first six months I was weak and not feeling well and he was bouncy and difficult in the neck, and he’s huge. My assistant trainer would be watching me go around and they’d be whispering ‘she’s finally lost it,’” Hill said with a laugh. “Everybody would just come in the arena and be like, ‘Oh boy.’ ”
They had reason to be leery—the kind of cancer Hill was dealing with was one of the most serious types of breast cancer. “I went through the heavy-duty chemo, they call it the ‘Red Devil,’” Hill said. “They would say you’re not really fit to have more, but can we give you more? I had an aggressive doctor and I said give it, give it all you got, as long as it doesn’t kill me.”
Forest took a good bit of time to adjust to life as a dressage horse, and Hill worked through her share of quirks with the horse while fighting her cancer.
“When I would go to switch the whip he would just run. I almost went off the back the first few times,” Hill said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Holy cow.’ It was definitely challenging.
“He was very, very tense and when he’s tense he sucks back and the neck goes,” Hill continued. “So it was really probably a year and half before I could really take him into the ring, not until we [went to Florida] in 2016.”
Hill did a couple of shows with Cartier before showing in Florida in 2016, but it was in the sunshine state he that really began to shine. They scored a 77 percent at third level at the Global Dressage Festival (Fla.) in February, hitting an 80 percent at the same level at the Wellington Classic Dressage Challenge II (Fla.) for the win in March. Cartier scored a 77.16 percrnt at fourth level in Chattahoochee Hills Dressage (Ga.) in May, and moved up the levels again to score a 73.15 percent in the Prix St. George division at the GHF/Massey Ferguson Dressage show (Ga.).
At the Great American/USDF Region 3 Championships (Fla.) in 2016, Cartier pulled a score of 77.68 percent in the open fourth level class for the win, and the gelding and Hill went on to capture the national championship at fourth level in the freestyle at the U.S. Dressage Finals (Ky.) on a 74.38 percent.
Cartier and Hill have already notched their first win of 2017 in the Intermediaire II division at the Welcome Back To White Fences show (Fla.) on a score of 68.94 percent.
Hill’s goal for the end of this year was to debut the 10-year-old gelding at the Grand Prix level. Hill already has experience at the level on different horses in the barn owned by Leslie Waterman, a longtime owner of Hill’s who was also with Hill throughout her diagnosis and treatment. Cartier joined their ranks with his official Grand Prix debut in May of this year, winning at Chattahoochee Hills Dressage (Ga.) on a 62.90 percent. Hill has continued competing and finessing Forest’s Grand Prix test throughout the summer and fall with plans to go all out next year.
“We’re working on putting together a freestyle and hopefully we’ll do some CDIs in Florida this year,” Hill said. “It’s just crazy to think a couple years ago I was thinking we’d be lucky to get this horse through a Prix St. George test!”
Hill plans to compete Forest and Waterman’s horses Zarcita and Showdown at the CDI level in Florida.
Hill had another important victory this May in her battle against breast cancer—May marked her three-year mark since her initial diagnosis, and doctors gave her the all clear.
“With the kind of breast cancer that I had—triple negative breast cancer, which has a high reoccurrence rate and really a high mortality rate—if you can get three years with no problems, then your chance of it recurring drops off,” Hill said.
The cancer diagnosis and treatment may have slowed Hill down for a bit, but she’s back up to full speed ahead now. “It’s made me really thankful and sort of stop and appreciate what I have, and I appreciate the horses more and my friends more and my family more,” Hill said. “So it’s been a blessing really.”
“It’s been very rewarding to have Debbie come back from being sick and see her doing so well now,” Rice said. “And Cartier, he loves Debbie, he’s really bonded with her. I pay the bills, but he’s her horse.”