The way Tyler Grayson remembers it, it started with a bad day on a mountain in late 2013. Then 22, she’d gone out to snowboard with friends. It had been a while since she’d last been on a board, and at first she thought that was the reason she was struggling with her balance. As she continued to make her way down the mountain, she was hit with a wave of nausea, and her balance got even worse. She finally gave up, thinking she was coming down with something.
Grayson was otherwise healthy, early in her career as a professional hunter/jumper trainer and working at her mother Laurie Grayson’s Just A Little Farm outside Boulder, Colorado. Her only physical complaints were headaches and dizzy spells on an inconsistent basis. Doctors told her she had vertigo and not to worry too much. One even told her to Google a particular type of vertigo disorder, which was how she found out that the headaches, along with her other symptoms, were actually cause for concern. That was how she landed in the emergency room and learned she had a brain tumor and needed surgery plus several weeks of radiation.
“I had my moments of denial. ‘Nope, this couldn’t be happening. I’m a healthy individual,’ ” Tyler said. “But then I took a step back and realized this is reality. I tried to always keep positive and keep things in my mind as simple as I could. ‘OK, I have to have brain surgery. Then, what’s the next step?’ ”
Tyler bounced back fairly quickly, coping with some balance issues. She finished her radiation in late March of 2014 and was riding in her first horse show in Estes Park, Colorado, in June. She chalked it up to an important life lesson about getting through tough times and returned to her normal life.
“They said this tumor isn’t something that would necessarily spread elsewhere in my body, but it was a recurring tumor, so I had to get yearly MRIs to make sure the tumor wasn’t growing back,” Tyler recalled.
The fifth year after her surgery was supposed to be a big milestone in recovery. Tyler took a break from her show schedule, where she was actively competing six horses, to get the scan. She was feeling great, save for some minor neck stiffness that she attributed to normal riding aches and pains.
“They saw something at the top of my cervical spine, so they ended up MRIing my entire spine,” Tyler said. “I had tumors all the way down my spinal cord, wrapping all the way around. It was probably 100 tumors of various sizes. At first I said, ‘No, you guys have the wrong MRI. I’m fine. I’m riding. Are you sure this is mine?’ ”
The particular type of cancer Tyler had was ependymoma, which most often occurs in children. It’s rare for those tumors to move from the brain to the spine, so she was an atypical patient both in terms of her age and disease progression. Looking back, her doctors think she may have had the tumors throughout her life and lived with them symptom-free for years.
Tyler’s oncologist told her it wasn’t practical to remove all the tumors, but she did undergo surgery in January 2019 (almost exactly five years after her brain surgery) to take out the most problematic ones. Her doctors were shocked she had been walking, let alone riding, before she went under the knife. Several of the tumors were compressing her spinal cord; one was exerting so much pressure that her spinal cord was crimped at nearly a 90-degree angle.
Another round of radiation was the best option to try to shrink the tumors that remained. This time, Tyler needed radiation five days a week for seven weeks. She struggled with balance much more drastically this time, essentially having to relearn walking, first with a walker and then with a cane. She was told her tumors would never completely go away, though she has vowed to defy her doctors’ expectations.
Her personal horse, It’s Only Make Believe or “Conway,” was key to helping her maintain an inner peace. Conway is an 8-year-old Oldenburg (Con Capitol—For All) whom Tyler shows in the low hunters and jumpers.
“I went out to the barn a lot and groomed him, and that was so therapeutic for me,” she said. “He is just the most loving creature there is. He is very, very snuggly. He loves to be curried, which is great because the first few months of going out and being with him, I was beat by the end of that. There were many months when I couldn’t bend down to pick his feet. He was at first very wary of me using the walker, but I think he also knew I had some things going on. I think horses are very in touch with that.”
Tyler’s riding form was tougher to regain. Her balance and coordination were weak, and she had lost significant muscle mass between her surgery and her radiation. Stiffness lingered in her neck and head. Tyler said she’s still not quite the same in the saddle as she was two years ago, but she has come a long way. She credits Conway and the barn’s school horses with her progress. While she was still undergoing radiation, she would crawl up the mounting block and (with lots of assistance) swing a leg over and go for walks.
“I forget where I read it, but the way the horses walk, if you were sitting on them and allowing your hips and your back to move with them, it’s the same type of motion you use when you walk, so I was kind of rebuilding my muscles without having to be walking,” she said.
Now, Tyler is back to her pre-detour schedule, riding seven horses a day for clients and returning to the show ring earlier this year before the COVID-19 cancellations. She attributes a lot of her recovery to patient, constant care from her mother, who drove her to her daily radiation treatments while managing the farm, juggling a lesson schedule and working as a judge.
“She is just the most amazing human,” Grayson said. “Even on the days I just wanted to lay in bed, she said, ‘Nope, you’re going to get up and go to the barn. You can nap in the car, but you need to get out and do something.’ And that was absolutely what needed to happen.”
Now, in addition to her riding career, Grayson wants to start a new program to help cancer patients with the non-medical side of the process. The idea is still in the planning stages, but her experience has taught her the service is needed. Grayson is a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified fitness and nutrition coach, so she hopes to include nutrition, yoga and, importantly, equine therapy.
“I really feel like I’ve gone through all this to help somebody else go through it as well,” she said. “I feel extremely lucky to have gone through what I have and come out the other side.”
Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at email@example.com with their story.