Jess Halliday Is Ready To Tell Cancer To “Buck Off”

Oct 22, 2018 - 9:04 PM

On some mornings, Jess Halliday wakes up hoping that the past year of her life has been a bad dream. Since January, she broke up with her high school sweetheart, nearly lost her mother, suffered through the loss of a beloved dog, and uncovered fraud in her business account, which resulted in a court battle. Then on Sept. 1, her 30th birthday, Halliday received more bad news—she learned she had Stage IV colon cancer.

Halliday, of Sutton, Massachusetts, is a familiar face to Area I eventers, both due to her effervescent personality and her intrinsic generosity. Halliday is the first to offer a lead to a horse reluctant to enter the starting box, to bring roadside aid to a stranded horse trailer, or to fill in as coach when a friend’s client needs help. Her business, JH Eventing, has been based out of several leased locations since 2005 until Halliday built up the funds to purchase Baile Hill Farm in Grafton, Massachusetts, in 2016. There she hosts clinics, jumper shows and other educational events to benefit not just her own clients but the greater community. Often these activities also serve as fundraisers for groups close to Halliday’s heart, like Guide Dogs of America.

“Jess has such a good energy and is nonjudgmental,” says Booli Selmayr, an advanced-level event rider and Halliday’s close personal friend. “Her barn is the barn we all wish we could have ridden at growing up. It is a valuable facility for the area.”

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Jess Halliday competing Grey Street at Groton House (Mass.). Photo by Elaine Somers Photography.

For this self-starter, her serious diagnosis is the latest bump in the road of what has proven to be a rocky year. However, true to her outgoing, energetic nature, Halliday hopes to turn her misfortune into an opportunity to raise awareness for a cause nearly everyone can connect to.

For The Good Of The Community

Halliday is not one to dwell on the negatives, an attitude that has helped her achieve many ambitious goals in her equestrian career. The daughter of non-horsey parents Renee and Jim Halliday, she got her equestrian start in the pony hunter ring. But in her early teens, Jess went foxhunting with the Tanheath Hunt Club (Massachusetts) and became addicted to the adrenaline rush of cross-country. At 14, she started eventing and never looked back. She scrounged together money earned from lifeguarding to purchase her first off-the-track Thoroughbred, Bernin’ Rubber, better known as “Bernie,” from Suffolk Downs in Revere, Massachusetts, when she was 16.

“I discovered I had a knack for taking horses off the track and reselling them,” says Jess. “I had no money to buy these horses, so I had to bring them up myself. I like to run them through preliminary and then find them a young rider to lease them or sell them.”

For several years, Jess juggled a full-time position in Dover Saddlery’s purchasing department with teaching and training on the side. But in 2010 she decided to commit 100 percent of her energy to building her own business. The majority of Jess’ clients are juniors and young riders, running the spectrum from just off leadline to those with serious ambitions of competing at the North American Youth Championships in the near future. Many ride horses Jess developed.

“When I think of Area I and Young Riders in the future, I think of Jess Halliday,” says Selmayr. “She has built the most amazing program geared at bringing up young people in the sport.”

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Many of Jess Halliday’s own competition horses are later leased to young riders. Halliday is pictured here at the 2017 American Eventing Championships with her horse Grey Street and student Katerina Garcia-Chope. Photo by Kieran Paulsen.

Jess is generous with her time and energy and motivated to support both her own clients and the greater eventing community. “When she goes to Aiken for the winter, she covers her lessons, giving someone who doesn’t have an indoor to teach in a job,” says longtime friend and client Sarah Bakstran, who now lives in Boston. “When she started coaching an IEA team, she was the first to put her nice event horses into the trailer and off they went to be used in shows.”

This summer, Jess headed the “Wear Green for Jonty” movement within Area I, part of an international campaign to show support for Irish eventer Jonty Evans who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of a fall earlier this year. She procured over 400 green lapel ribbons, made bows for saddle pads and bow ties for breastplates, and handed them out at local horse trials.

“She is innovative and has a knack for figuring out how to get everyone involved,” says Selmayr. “Jess has no ego when it comes to what other people are doing. She wants to see people prosper.”

A Punch To The Gut

In late April 2018, Jess had just returned from a winter in Aiken, South Carolina, with what she thought was a vicious stomach bug. But her symptoms lingered, and in early June she was trying to schedule her coaching duties at the GMHA Horse Trials (Vermont) around trips to the bathroom to vomit. She finally agreed to go see a doctor.

“Like a typical horse person, I should have gone sooner,” admits Jess.

Upon arrival, her vital signs were so poor the doctor sent Jess straight to the emergency room. After she was stable, she was referred to a gastrointestinal specialist, who changed her medications nearly every week in an attempt to relieve her symptoms.

“They kept telling me that I would feel an improvement in 48 hours,” says Jess. “But instead, I have slept on the bathroom floor since April.”

Meanwhile, Jess struggled to keep up with an overly full schedule. In late July, her medical team switched Jess from oral to intravenous medication, as she was unable to keep food down. For this highly independent young woman, realizing that she needed more help was a difficult reality to accept.

“My mother had a pulmonary embolism in March, and I had tried to not bother my parents,” says Jess. “They didn’t know I was sick. But when I told them, they tried to get me to go to Boston for a second opinion. They knew for me to admit that I didn’t feel well, I had to be pretty sick.”

In late August, Jess coached at the Area I Championships at the Town Hill Horse Trials in Connecticut; the weekend had been a struggle, and her constant vomiting and nausea left her feeling utterly wiped out. Concerned, her mother Renee traveled from her home in Stow, Massachusetts, to check on her daughter. Renee found Jess passed out on the bathroom floor.

“I was taken to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and they assumed I had some kind of a GI problem when I went in,” says Jess. “But the doctors there read the CT scans, which had previously been done, and they saw the cancer right there. But since then, it had spread.”

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Friends and fellow eventers (from left) Sarah Bakstran, Alex Rodday and Booli Selmayr tried to keep Jess Halliday’s (right) spirits up during her hospital stay. Photo courtesy of Jess Halliday.

Jess remained hospitalized for a week, during which time she went from never having had surgery to enduring four procedures in seven days. Selmayr made the 3½-hour drive from her home in Millbrook, New York, daily to spend the night with Jess in the hospital, before leaving at 4 in the morning.

“The thought of her being alone in the hospital was unacceptable,” says Selmayr, adding that Jess has done the same for her on several occasions.

“Booli was just amazing,” says Jess. “She would take notes for me when the doctors would come in to update me on what was going on.”

Upon receiving her diagnosis, Jess’ first thought was for her mother. “I just thought to myself, she had been through so much, and she is just going to lose it on hearing this news,” says Jess. “The doctors sat down with me and were so caring. They told me not to Google it, and I haven’t. I think they expected me to break down, but in a way I was almost relieved. There was a reason for why I had been feeling this way; I had a diagnosis, and now we are going to fix it.”

Not Backing Down

Jess knew that the place where she would feel the best was at home with her horses and her dogs. Though her doctors wanted Jess to begin treatment as an inpatient, they agreed instead to install a port to administer her chemotherapy and allowed her to return home.

“My chemo is hooked up 24/7 and is stored in a fanny pack,” says Jess.

She’s still riding, just those horses “less likely to launch me,” and she secures the pack to her body using duct tape. In addition, she attends radiation therapy Monday through Friday. Jess is currently five weeks into a course of treatment that will last almost two months. At that time, doctors will run more scans to see if her tumors have shrunk enough to be removed surgically.

“I have kept trying to teach, but I can only work about half of what I normally do,” says Jess. “I did hire another instructor, and my barn manager [Meg Wood] has really stepped up to help.”

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Jess Halliday with her dogs Charlie and Burghley (who died earlier this year). Photo courtesy of Jess Halliday.

For many who are self-employed in the equine industry, health insurance is both an expense and a source of stress. When Jess’ health began to decline early in the summer, she switched health insurance providers at the suggestion of her medical team. What she didn’t realize at the time is that her new plan only covers the cost of cancer treatment for patients who have been with them for one year—meaning that all of the expenses she has incurred to date are not covered. Jess is currently close to receiving assistance through a program sponsored by the state, but it still leaves a vast pile of medical bills left unpaid.

“Jess is an incredibly generous person but does not take handouts or help easily for herself,” says Bakstran. “She is incredibly independent.”

“I feel like I have enough support,” says Jess. “I told everyone that if anyone starts a GoFundMe for me, I will just donate the money.”

Unwilling to accept donations directly, Jess and her friends instead created a line of apparel festooned with the phrase “Buck Off Cancer.” Currently a box of socks lives on Jess’ kitchen table and hats, clothing, decals, wristbands and saddle pads are available for sale on a Shopify site.

“She does not see herself as a charity case,” says Bakstran. “She is still going to work every day, but when you are used to doing three times the work that any normal person did, and doing that seven days a week, it is hard to come down from that. We are looking at this as replacing lost wages.”

Friends have stepped up to find additional ways to sell the merchandise. Course Brook Farm in Sherborn, Massachusetts, where Jess frequently volunteers, will be setting up a booth at its Halloween event. Selmayr will also bring a display to the Virginia Horse Trials in early November.

“Everyone knows someone with cancer or someone who has been affected by it,” says Bakstran. “Selling these items makes it less about her and more about raising awareness.”

Just Keep On Trucking

If anything Jess’ fight against cancer has drawn an already tight knit community even closer together. Despite having to take a step back in terms of her own teaching and riding, Jess is committed to moving forward and getting to the other side of this battle.

“Honestly, knowing that there is an end to this is a huge motivation,” says Jess. “I was getting a little depressed this summer because I knew I couldn’t live like that, feeling sick and throwing up all the time. I cannot wait to feel 100 percent and get back to things.”

Being able to be at home and look out her front door to see her horses and farm reminds Jess daily what it is she’s fighting for.

“She has lived for horses for her whole life,” says Bakstran. “They are her business, her livelihood, her home. She is trying to live as normal of a life as possible. She has to hope that she is going to get out on the other side of it. She is not the type of person to be miserable.”

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Jess Halliday competing Rare Occurance at Pine Top in 2012. Photo by WNCphoto.com.

In the meantime, Jess has tried to continue to live a full life, including trying sky diving and bull riding earlier this year. She has big plans—including learning to fly a plane, drive a race car and go bungee jumping—which will appease the adrenaline junkie side of her personality. And of course, she has horses to ride, clients to teach, and young riders’ dreams to help fulfill.

“Jess’ philosophy has always been that you’ve got one life on this earth,” says Selmayr. “It doesn’t mean you ignore the things that aren’t good. But you don’t have to dwell on them.”

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