Horse people have a reputation for putting the health and wellbeing of their animals ahead of their own, often skipping an annual checkup or even postponing surgery until after the show season.
Jen Ruberto, who runs her off-the-track Thoroughbred retraining business Wire To Wire Thoroughbreds and helps her husband with his family’s racing business, is one of those busy horse people, and when she finally did make time for a breast cancer screening, she was diagnosed with Stage IIB, Grade 3, cancer.
But those tough horse people were also there when she needed them, providing support and community as she went through treatment.
“I didn’t realize so many horse people have had the same thing because a lot of people don’t talk about it,” said Ruberto. “I was very vocal about it since the day before I had surgery, trying to get people to get checked. Farm people and horse people tend to not take care of themselves the way they should. I probably had between eight and 10 people a week message me for the first month before I started posting [on Facebook] that were like, ‘Hey, because of you I went and got checked.’ Or, ‘Hey, I’ve got this weird spot that I feel. What do I do?’ Or, ‘Hey, I just got diagnosed. Can you give me some advice?’ I had three horse girls who supported me who’d already gone through it, and it was probably something that without them I would have had a lot harder time getting through it myself.”
Ruberto, 45, is happy to support other women who are struggling with breast cancer, and she’s quick to point out her story isn’t unique.
“The women that have supported me have done the same thing,” she said. “Their horses were their therapy. They leaned on other horse people. They’re just as deserving to be talked about and just as amazing. When people want to say stuff about me being inspirational, it’s like, no this other person is, or my other friend is; I’m not. I’m just doing what I have to do.”
Ruberto grew up in Columbia, Maryland, and started riding when she was 8. She worked at the local racetrack on weekends, summers and holidays and fell in love with Thoroughbreds.
About a year after graduating from Lake Erie College (Ohio) she met her husband, Lou Ruberto, a fourth-generation horseman who ran Ruberto Racing Stable with his family.
Jen had started buying Thoroughbreds off the track to retrain before she met Lou, and her network of connections continued to expand. She ran the West Virginia branch of the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses at the Mountaineer Racetrack as a volunteer for 10 years while doing some sales on the side. When she had her two children, now 12 and 8, she gave up the position because of time constraints.
Eventually, she and Lou bought additional property in Lisbon, Ohio, and she started taking on more horses, about six or seven at a time.
Jen finds horses at the local tracks like Mountaineer, Mahoning Valley (Ohio), Thistledown (Ohio) and Presque Isle Downs (Pennsylvania).
“I have to say no a lot of times because I can’t bring them in and have a horse with a giant ankle—as much as I want to, I don’t have enough property to take in the ones that aren’t sound,” she said. “I have to be kind of selective.”
Three years ago, Jen’s mother-in-law, Sharon Ruberto, died from squamous cell carcinoma and lung cancer. Six months later, Jen lost her own mother, Margaret Rose Arbogast, to kidney failure.
“[Sharon] was the one who taught me how to gallop and was an incredible horsewoman,” said Jen. “She grew up in a racing family too, as well as my father-in-law, several generations. She galloped when she was a kid. She was in some amateur races. She was really good at picking out babies, so all that stuff I learned from her.
“Now it’s just my husband and I and my father-in-law [Lou Ruberto Jr.],” Jen continued. “They both hold trainer’s licenses, and we all work at the barn. We have a little bit of help, but it’s mostly been family. In addition to the horses, we’ve got all the work on the farm to take care of. I sort of overwhelmed myself with all the sale horses, but I love doing it. I wish I could do it full time.”
The family breeds for the Ohio racing program and mostly races locally, but they had their first graded stakes winner, Stormofthecentury (Dark Kestrel—As Of Now, Blue Buckaroo), recently. He’s since been retired and is a babysitter to the youngsters, but he competed at the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover (Kentucky) with Jen.
Jen was diagnosed with breast cancer in February of 2019, and surgeons performed a double mastectomy in April. She began chemotherapy in May and finished on Aug. 7. She started radiation in November, and in February she had a hysterectomy because her cancer was estrogen receptor-positive. She also had 12 lymph nodes removed, three of which were positive for cancer cells.
Lisa Wheatley, whom Jen had known since they met at the track when she was 17, came for a month to help so Lou could continue running the farm. Barely able to lift her arms, Jen needed assistance getting to doctor’s appointments and dressing every day. Wheatley came back for Jen’s chemo treatments.
One horse in particular, For Pete’s Sake, or “Petey,” provided support and therapy when Jen was feeling her worst. Her family had raced the 14-year-old gelding (Dr. Caton—Swoony Rallik, Killarney Road) as a youngster, and he was always her favorite to gallop. She begged her husband and father-in-law to retire him at 5, and then he became an eventer with a friend in Florida while Jen was recovering from a back injury. He came back to her in 2017.
“He’s not very good about being caught in the pasture on a regular day, but I would walk out with carrots and kneel down and sit on the ground, and he would hang out with me,” Jen said. “I’d feed him carrots and rub his nose, and he would blow in my ear. It was really sweet. It was the only way I was getting myself out of the house because the drugs made me so sick, and any kind of heat made me really sick.”
Once Jen felt up to doing a bit more, she’d walk to the barn and brush first one horse and then a few more as she grew stronger. “At the same time I was dealing with nerve pain,” she said. “My legs would burn, and my feet would burn, and I’d feel like I had pins and needles all the time because of the chemo. Some days I’d only be out an hour, and it was all I could do to walk 500 feet to get to my house. Getting back to my routine, little by little, I was starting to get stronger just because of being able to do little walks and stuff like that. I wanted so badly to get back on my horse.”
By the end of August, Jen mounted up on Petey. She padded her helmet, which was now loose thanks to her lack of hair, and started with five-minute walks. She went to her first dressage show in December and rode three tests, which was exhausting.
Her cancer screening tests since then have all come up clear so far, but Jen’s journey with the disease isn’t over yet.
“Now I’m going through survivorship care where I get injections every six months to make it so my bones aren’t a place where microscopic cancer cells want to jump in and reside,” she said. “I still have to have reconstruction, which we’re looking into in the next month or so, and I have 10 years of hormone therapy to block estrogen because that’s what caused the cancer. That gave me migraines, so I’m waiting for approval to get some Botox injections for migraines. It’s sort of one thing after another. It’s pretty much a lifelong battle.”
She’s not as strong as she used to be, but she’s still setting goals for herself, like getting her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medal with Petey, and she continues to rehome Thoroughbreds.
“I’ve been doing everything I can to move as many horses off the track as I can, because when trainers call I want them to be able to say, ‘Hey, yeah I sent my horse to a good place where I knew it was going to be taken care of.’ I work with some really great trainers on the track that I trust,” Jen said. “When they call, I run down there and look at the horses. If I can’t take them then I hook them up with a couple of different people I know.”
Jen is looking forward to swapping painful skin expanders for breast implants.
“I could have just gone flat, but I’m 45 years old, and I feel like I still want to be pretty,” she said. “Cancer takes so much away from you as it is. I had everything taken out, and it makes you feel pretty crummy. You lose your hair, and it starts to grow back in, and you can’t do anything with it, so you feel awful. I struggled with my confidence and my self-image as a kid and even as a young adult, so if it’s anything to make me feel a little prettier after all of this, that’s what I want to do.”
Throughout her journey, Jen’s relied on friends across social media for inspiration and motivation, and she’s paying it forward any way she can.
“I was very humbled and overwhelmed with that support. It really meant a lot to me,” she said. “I try to post the reminders [to get checked]. This is October, it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I waited because I didn’t want to do it, and I think if I hadn’t waited I might have just ended up with a lumpectomy and wouldn’t have had to go through all the rest of the stuff. Mine was invasive. It got into my lymph nodes. I had lymph nodes removed in my arm, so I’ll forever be numb.
“The horse community is awesome,” she continued. “Everybody who’s gone through that lends a hand, whether it’s advice or just so you can vent to them. I’ve got a friend in Florida who was diagnosed and has been through treatment, and I sent her a bunch of books that were sent to me to read. They’re connections that I’ll never forget my entire life.”
While it’s been a difficult road, Jen’s focus has never wavered.
“I kept telling myself on all of the sick days, ‘You’re doing this so you can live. You want to live, so just deal with it,’ ” she said. “There were definitely some days where I felt like I couldn’t do it, but it was just something I had to do. I wasn’t ready to kick the bucket yet, so there really wasn’t much of a choice.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with their story.