Name: Rita Krejci
Occupation: Former clinical sales manager, intuitive surgical
Riding horses has never come easy for Rita Krejci. So, when she received her breast cancer diagnosis in November 2018, she asked the same question she always does when facing a crossroads in her life: How do I make this work with my goals as a hunter/jumper rider?
Only this time, the question took on a new significance.
“With my husband and my three young children at home, honestly, I was terrified,” Krejci said. “Having worked in medicine, I was eager to just do whatever would give me the best chance at long-term survival. Since I knew that nothing makes me feel better than riding, my trainer, Kim Gardiner and I discussed a plan to get me back on a horse as quickly as possible.”
Krejci underwent a double mastectomy in December 2018. Two and a half weeks later, she climbed back in the saddle. Throughout a year of chemotherapy and 35 rounds of radiation, she relied on riding for her mental health. She relied on it again over the past year, when her fragile immune system required her family of five to lock down entirely due to coronavirus concerns.
With support from her husband, J.P. Krejci, and her barn community, Rita beat her cancer into remission. She also achieved one of her greatest riding goals as an adult amateur: winning the 2020 Illinois Hunter Jumper Association Adult Medal Final.
The Equestrian Parent Trap
Growing up as one of four siblings in a Chicago suburb, Rita knew riding lessons were too expensive for her family. But her affinity for horses grew nonetheless.
“My parents delayed lessons for as long as possible,” Rita joked. “Once I was old enough to work off group lessons at age 14, it all started. My mom was an animal lover, and I can remember thinking that if I can just get Mom interested in riding lessons, maybe there will be a horse in my future. It worked! Once she started taking me, she was hooked.”
Rita worked for lessons at Gardiner’s Perfecta Farm in Elgin, Illinois, where she’s remained loyal for the past 30 years. So has her mom, Diane Hamilton, who has continued riding into her 70s.
“Kim is an exceptional trainer who I’ve watched build a really extraordinary business,” Rita said. “Her coaching style just suits me perfectly. She’s always had the ability to find the best horses and make them up for success. From the beginning, she’s always given me outstanding horses to show, even when I couldn’t afford them, which has really been fundamental in helping me to achieve my riding goals.”
Rita’s barn duties ranged from grooming and clipping to mucking and braiding. She saved enough to buy a horse with her parents: a 4-year-old off-track Thoroughbred named Troy, found in a newspaper classified ad.
“I didn’t get to show much when I was younger, but I knew I would one day,” Rita said. “I loved being with horses and, because of Kim, I was able to spend tons of time with them as a high schooler.”
Rita attended college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she studied biology and biochemistry. She brought Troy with her and paid for his board by teaching up-down lessons and mucking stalls at Cornerstone Farm in Longmont, Colorado, and The Pines Equestrian Center in Arvada, Colorado.
Cantering Across Continents (With Giraffes!)
One of Rita’s goals outside of horses was to see every continent except Antarctica before turning 30. She achieved it early, crossing off every landmass on her list by 28, in part because of the head start she gave herself during college.
“For study abroad, I got to go to Africa to study animal behavior and biology,” Rita said. “I went to Botswana through Students for International Training, which allows you to choose your own research program. I got to work with a team of lion researchers there who were following a pride of lions with radio collars. I also volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and helped build a blind man a home, which was an amazing project. I’ll never forget his tears of joy when he first stepped inside.”
Even in sub-Saharan Africa, Rita sought out horses.
“I found work on the Okavango Delta with a horse safari tour group,” Rita said. “We lived in a tent camp, and every morning people would come, and we would set out into the delta to view wildlife. We saw lions and leopards and giraffes and elephants. Animals will allow you much closer on horseback than you would ever get in a truck. I’ll never forget the feeling of cantering on horseback alongside herds of cantering giraffes. It was a beautiful, amazing experience.”
A Career To Suit Your Hobby
“I knew I needed a great job after school if I wanted to support my riding goals and dreams,” Rita said. “So, I came back to Perfecta Farm with Troy and started a career in pharmaceutical sales.”
Rita felt grateful for her work and thrilled to have a comfortable cache of riding funds for the first time. But after marrying J.P. in 2005, she decided to make a change.
“I wanted to find a way to make a bigger impact on sick patients’ lives,” she said. “I landed a job in medical devices with a robotics surgery startup. My job was essentially training surgeons in how to use minimally invasive robots to perform cancer operations. We found that cancer patients had much quicker recoveries with less pain when the surgeons used the robots.
“I was fascinated by the technology and fascinated by the surgeries themselves. I’m a science geek,” she continued. “But mostly I loved that I could help improve the lives of cancer patients so significantly while also enjoying the financial success that afforded me horses and travel.”
Rita purchased her first competition horse, Azul, and began showing him in the modified adult and amateur adult hunter divisions. After undergoing fertility treatments to become pregnant, Rita gave birth to twins, Isla and Everett.
“After the twins were born, I remember we would go to horse shows, and I would have to sneak out of the hotel room where my husband would have our twins and our dog all asleep,” Rita said. “Adult classes are the first thing of the day, so I would sneak out in the dark and be back by the time my family was waking up to start the day.
“J.P. always knew I wanted to ride and was always willing to help and support me in that endeavor,” Rita continued. “I’m incredibly grateful for that.”
Rita’s mom and friends at the barn would watch the twins while Rita rode, squeezing barn visits into the gaps in her demanding work schedule. When she became pregnant again four years later with her daughter Sienna, she took a break from work to focus on her kids.
“I didn’t want to take a break from riding, though,” Rita said. “It’s my favorite thing!”
A Horse For What Ails You
Shortly before her cancer diagnosis, Rita had invested in a young hunter prospect with her closest barn friend, Samara Tuchband. Both moms with small children, the two women pooled their resources to import Halston, a then-4-year-old Dutch Warmblood, from the Netherlands.
Once she was diagnosed, and knowing the toll cancer treatment takes on a body, Rita knew riding a green horse was the last thing she needed. Still, she was blown away when Gardiner offered her the ride on Loredo, a seasoned equitation gelding owned by Micaela Kennedy.
“ ‘Larry’ is quiet, athletic, broke and kind,” Rita said. “Kim patiently coached me through how to ride him, consistently motivating me to do more than I thought I could. Pretty much every day I felt well enough to ride, I was on Larry. It was Larry and my lessons with Kim that were my calm through the cancer storm. They brought me hope and strength during my weakest hours and gave me something to strive toward and look forward to after each round of chemo. I’m so grateful to Micaela and Kim for letting me ride him.”
Rita appreciated how her helmet hid her hair loss, making her just another rider at the barn. She also loved having small kids at home to keep her actively engaged in everyday routines.
Just a week after her last round of radiation, she entered her first competition on Larry.
“My skin was damaged and painful, but we won our IHJA Adult Medal at Lamplight Equestrian Center that weekend,” Rita said. “My daughter was there to see it, and I felt so proud because of that. It was a special thing to experience with her so she could see that even though I was sick, I was strong and resilient and persistent—all the things I hope to teach my children one day.”
During the coronavirus outbreak, Rita’s bubble shrank to her immediate family and Tuchband, whose children mirror Rita’s in age. With her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine behind her, Rita is eager to get back to work in the coming years, and in the meantime, to go more places than just the barn.
Although if she had to pick only one escape, she’d take the barn every time.
“Horses, they change a person,” Rita said. “I’m very science-minded, but I have no doubt that Larry helped to make me well one ride at a time. He proved to my family and children and friends and to me, honestly, what persevering in horses can really help someone accomplish when they’re faced with adversity.”
Do you know an amateur with a cool story? Email Lindsay Berreth at firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to be featured.