Amateur Showcase: Rheumatoid Arthritis Reminds Lisa Cook That The Future Is Now

Sep 16, 2020 - 2:47 PM

 Name: Lisa Cook
Age: 54
Day Job: Manager of category leadership at Kraft-Heinz

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Lisa Cook hasn’t let physical adversity stop her from riding her Connemara cross Kelty or achieving her goals. Wendy Newsham Photo

When It Rains, It Pours: Cook is one of those horsewomen who doesn’t let anything slow her down—not a demanding job, not a pandemic and not rheumatoid arthritis. She was diagnosed with RA in 2007, though in hindsight she says she probably had symptoms for years before that. As part of the standard diagnostics to check the disease’s progress, doctors took X-rays of her hands, feet and lungs, and they did a bone density test. X-rays revealed a mass that required surgery to remove part of one of her lungs. The bone density test also showed osteoporosis, a common co-morbidity with RA.

“Every doctor’s appointment was like, ‘Really? Something else now?’ ” Cook recalled.

But she returned to the saddle as soon as she could following her lung surgery.

“That was in February, and in May I rode in a New England Dressage Association symposium with Robert Dover,” Cook said. “I remember being out of breath at one point and thinking, ‘I really wish I had both my lungs!’ ”

Keeping her RA in check requires frequent tweaking to her medication program, but Cook still experiences flare-ups. Last winter, she had to swap saddle racks with a barn mate because she couldn’t lift her dressage saddle above her head. There have been times when all she can do with Kelty, her 9-year-old Connemara cross, is go on a trail ride with the reins in one hand because the other hand hurts too much to grip the reins.

Fortunately, Kelty has proven reliable and kind, no matter Cook’s condition on any particular day.

A Very Special Pony: Cook grew up working off lessons at the dressage barn owned by Grand Prix dressage rider Tom Noone’s parents, then switched to hunt seat when she attended the University of Mary Washington (Virginia). She bought her first horse after college and competed in the hunters until coach Kevin Babington suggested the horse would do better as a jumper, so she switched disciplines again. Eventually, she found a home in eventing—working her way up the adrenaline scale, as she jokes.

Cook has had horses ever since that first hunter-turned-jumper, but her current mount is particularly special. One of Cook’s two sons grew up eventing and riding in Pony Club, and Cook struggled to find the right horse for him.

“Finding a pony for him was impossible,” she said. “I had a two-year search trying to find a pony for him. Finally, a friend of mine saw this pony in Kentucky and told me I had to go buy this pony right away. I tried her, and I offered to buy her at full price before I even got off her.”

The mare was green and had spent her early years as a salt packhorse on a Native American reservation. A Kentucky trainer spotted her potential, purchased her, and hauled her back from New Mexico. She would go on to take three riders to their first U.S. Eventing Association American Eventing Championships.

“She was an incredible pony, and I wanted one just like her, but just with a little more size to it for myself,” Cook said.

She crossed the former pack pony with Connemara ArdCeltic Art, and the result was Art’s Celtic Q, or “Kelty.”

“I’ve had her since she was a black dot on the ultrasound,” Cook said.

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Lisa Cook bred Art’s Celtic Q or “Kelty” to be her perfect mount. Denny Emerson Photo

Kelty made her eventing debut last year, finishing second in a large beginner novice division at Stoneleigh-Burnham (Massachusetts). So far, she’s been the perfect match for Cook’s needs.

“[Before the pandemic] I was on a plane fairly frequently,” she said. “It required a horse that didn’t have to be ridden every day. I just couldn’t have the type of horse that if you miss a day you’re flying a kite when you get back to it.”

The Clock Is Ticking: Cook was already a go-getter, but her diagnosis of RA has pushed her to do even more. An avid CrossFit devotee since 2011, she’s long been fascinated with hiking and mountain climbing. Last year, Cook decided she wanted to scale Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, so with some training and determination, she made it happen, fighting altitude sickness much of the way. Earlier this year, she and a group of friends hopped on a plane for a riding vacation in Patagonia.

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Rheumatoid arthritis, lung surgery and altitude sickness were no match for Lisa Cook’s determination to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Photo Courtesy Of Lisa Cook

“It was definitely a wake-up call for me,” Cook said. “I’m not nearly as inclined to say, ‘I’m going to do that someday.’ If I get something in my head, I just do it. It’s made me aware not to take the future for granted. Getting a diagnosis like that and knowing that five years from now, life could look really different, it just means that if there’s something I want to do, I’m going to do it now.”

Making The Most Of The Pandemic: Long hours and weekend work are the norm for Cook in her day job, as she works with grocery chains to maximize product selection, stocking, and placement for meats and cheeses under the Kraft-Heinz banner. Before the coronavirus pandemic, that meant a lot of time on the road. She can recall plenty of nights she flew back from a business trip, went out to the barn to braid, and packed off to a horse show the next morning. Her daily schedule starts with rising early to go to CrossFit, working from home, riding, and often logging back in for a few more hours’ work at the end of the day.

With COVID-19 canceling most travel, Cook has found a small silver lining in that it’s easier to get in training sessions for herself or Kelty now that she can conduct meetings via video call.

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“Getting a diagnosis like that and knowing that five years from now, life could look really different, it just means that if there’s something I want to do, I’m going to do it now,” said Lisa Cook, who went to Patagonia with friends earlier this year. Photo Courtesy Of Lisa Cook

The downside to COVID-19 was that it derailed the show season, so Cook spent 2020 at home, focusing on training. Last year didn’t go to plan as Kelty battled Lyme disease, ulcers and shoeing issues.

“She’s just one of those horses that it seems like whenever I get some traction going, something happens,” said Cook. “She’s going really well right now. We just don’t have anyone to show it off to at the moment.”

As Cook waits for the stars to align for the two of them, she has another pandemic project: She is training for her first marathon in November.

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