When amateur rider Liz Quinlan joined the Chronicle’s Lose The Leathers Facebook group, she knew completing the challenge’s required 12 rides within the month of November might not be possible. Quinlan, 61, has a congenital defect called pancreas divisum, which causes chronic and intermittent acute episodes of pancreatitis. But living with a chronic illness has taught Quinlan that goals must be flexible, and when they are flexible, they become attainable.
“I was committed to wanting to ride more consistently without my stirrups in the month of November,” said Quinlan, who lives just outside of Syracuse, New York. “But I also went into it thinking I might not get it done, and I was OK with that. The point of the challenge wasn’t that I had to please someone or get a ribbon or tell a story. The point was for myself—at some point between now and whenever, I was going to start working without stirrups on a regular basis.”
Quinlan did complete the challenge in November, working up to 10 minutes of no-stirrup work at the trot, despite starting and ending the month with pancreatic flares. Quinlan has overcome many obstacles in order to stay in the saddle, but these difficulties have only served to toughen her resolve.
“I’m a gritty person, and I’m not very willing to give up,” Quinlan said. “People tend to box themselves in. They want to achieve something immediately, and they want immediate results, and they have a timetable. It’s very disappointing when they don’t achieve their goals.
“When you are sick, and chronically sick especially, you don’t have the luxury of planning too far ahead or setting goals in granite,” continued Quinlan. “It’s not that you don’t have goals, but you have to be a lot more go with the flow.”
Quinlan’s first introduction to horses occurred at a summer horse camp. The experience was so positive and impactful during her troubled childhood that Quinlan always remembered it. She got married to Ed Quinlan and raised their four children, but she didn’t forget her desire to ride.
“As soon as we could afford it, I started to take lessons,” said Liz, who was approaching 40 when she finally got back to the sport. “It was as if it was something that was just meant to be a part of my life. Especially living with a chronic illness, it’s really what makes me get up every single day, to go see this horse, to do what I can do and try to be a better rider.”
In 2003, shortly after purchasing her first horse, the car Liz was riding in was rear-ended with so much force that the trunk contents ended up with her in the back seat. She suffered a severe brain bleed that left her with limited vocabulary, no peripheral vision and a stutter. Recovery required nearly two full years of extensive physical and occupational therapy. The experience was devastating. As Liz struggled to relearn everyday tasks such as washing dishes, grocery shopping or even recalling the right word during a conversation, her horse brought her hope and comfort.
“I can remember climbing onto that horse, and I couldn’t even feel my feet at times, but there was something about being able to get out and ride and groom,” said Liz. “It was very spiritually comforting. It was a wonderful, therapeutic, cathartic experience for me. You don’t have to explain yourself to the horse. They don’t care if you’re moving slowly; they don’t care if you’re crying, as long as you’re being nice to them.
“They’re incredibly intuitive, too,” Liz continued. “I really appreciated the fact I wasn’t being asked to do anything or judged. The horse really didn’t care, as long as I scratched between his ears and didn’t pull on his mouth too hard. Horses are very forgiving, I think.”
After recovering from the accident, Liz completed nursing school and began working full time in an ICU. She continued with her equestrian pursuits, owning a series of what she now calls “horses that I should not have had.”
“Sometimes the more difficult horses do teach you a whole lot, as long as you survive the coming off part,” said Liz with a laugh.
In the middle aughts, Liz had surgery to remove her gallbladder. Then she began to lose weight and experience severe abdominal pain, which triggered migraines and prevented sleep. She was constantly exhausted. After multiple specialist referrals, in 2012 physicians finally identified that she had pancreas divisum, a congenital malformation of the duct in the pancreas, which is responsible for releasing digestive enzymes into the small intestine. While Liz was born with the abnormality, her body had coped with it until now.
“Those enzymes that should be digesting your food back up into the pancreas and end up eating your pancreas instead,” Liz explained. “It’s wonderfully painful.”
Liz underwent surgery and began taking supplemental enzymes to aid in digestion. She considers herself lucky, as many other patients endure multiple surgical procedures to manage the condition. However, flare-ups send Liz to the hospital every year, with each incident leaving her weak and debilitated. She had to stop working as a nurse, but she refused to give up riding.
“I would probably be much beyond where I am in my riding if I didn’t constantly have this illness to deal with,” said Liz. “I’ll feel strong and start to do some new thing with the horse, and then I’d get sick, and it would take me back a few steps. It felt like you had to start over again and strengthen all those muscles. It’s kind of a fight to stay on top and keep advancing. But we’re doing it. We’re getting there.”
Ed supports Liz in her riding endeavors, driving her to the barn and helping her tack up when she’s feeling unwell. Her trainer, Kim Daniel Allan of Affinity Farm in Skaneateles, New York, found Liz her current mount, a Dutch Warmblood mare named Sun Dress.
“She is everything people tell you not to get,” said Liz of the now 6-year-old mare (Finnagen—Scandal Sheet). “She’s a mare, and she’s a chestnut, but she is also Dutch, and I think that balances it out. The only reason I agreed was because she was just not typical. She was very laidback and quiet, just a wonderful, sweet soul.”
“Paige” was Liz’s mount for the COTH Lose The Leathers challenge, and their partnership has allowed Liz to try new things. She’s learning to jump, and Liz wants to try cantering without stirrups soon. Completing the challenge gave Liz confidence that her flexible approach to goal setting is a winning strategy.
“If I keep setting myself up to have to get the ribbon or meet the deadline, I’ll fail,” said Liz. “But if I say, ‘This is a great challenge, and I’ll get it started, and if I don’t make it by the end of November, no big deal, I have all of the cold weather to keep working on this,’ it’s going to do nothing but good things for me, so I’ll just extend my deadline. That’s made a huge difference for me and my sense of achievement—to be more flexible.
“Failure—I don’t like that word,” Liz continued. “We’re going to fail. This is what I love to do, but I’m never going to be Beezie Madden. I’m not somebody who’s ridden her whole life. Being fair to myself means learning to take the horse where she is at, and me where I’m at, and not being angry at myself for my limitations or frustrated at her for hers.”
Liz intends to continue working without stirrups throughout the winter. She believes riding without stirrups has allowed her to feel more centered and grounded.
“I’ve found the more I challenge my fear the more I learn I’m stronger than I thought, the more capable and less reliant than I imagined,” said Liz. “But I never could have learned those lessons if I didn’t accept the challenges that came my way.”