If we required adult amateurs to pass the pre-purchase exam we subject our sale horses to, I belong to a group that wouldn’t “vet.” My group would fail at least a handful, if not all, flexion tests. Our films would be cause for a concerned call describing deviations on bones you haven’t heard of. We would definitely show lameness on the longe line on hard surfaces if we didn’t fall over altogether. I, personally, might even fail the listening-to-the-lungs part.
We would be the nice-looking horses with long and respectful USEF records being sold at half their value. Our sale ads on dreamhorse.com would get bumped up with new words like “motivated seller” and “lease option.” And prohibited substances? The USEF better not get any ideas; leave the bloodwork to the horses! This group is swimming in physician-prescribed steroids and anti-inflammatories at every show.
My group, my tribe, is amateurs riding with autoimmune disease. Conservative estimates indicate that 6.7 million or 78.8 percent of those with autoimmune diseases are women.
With autoimmune disease disproportionately affecting women, and the hunter/jumper world dominated by women, I am a member of a larger tribe than even I realized. I was finally diagnosed with lupus in the fall of 2015 at 41 but have suffered from its ill effects since my 20s.
My inability to stay on course, a by-product of a lupus symptom called “brain fog,” was one the things that made me finally march into the doctor’s office. Sometimes I just lost my way, cantering a slow decelerating arc while my brain caught up. Sometimes I jumped the same jump twice; on more than one cringe-worthy occasion I jumped the same jump two different directions. I manage a $150 million business; I remember a language taught in school 20 years ago, but I couldn’t count to 10 on course? I was confused and embarrassed, and frankly I was angry with myself. Enough so to make an appointment with a doctor who specialized in chronic health conditions.
Since that bloodwork and subsequent diagnosis, I have established strong connections with other riders suffering too, and their resilience, humor and unwavering support keeps me going. Honestly, just knowing that they exist is sometimes enough. I challenged my local tribe and myself (rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and lupus, respectively) with a tough one: Look on the bright side of crippling illness and find something good it has done for their riding.
The amount of time it took to respond varied, but the answer was 100 percent consistent. We went three for three. The unknown of questionable health makes you grab your dreams and pull them forward from the distant horizon where they sit patiently waiting.
For Sarah, that meant ringing up the local barn and starting lessons after a long hiatus from riding. Sarah said, “When I was first diagnosed with MS in 2012, I was devastated. I hadn’t been on a horse in 15-plus years. I spent a lot of time reevaluating my life and decided that if I was going to lose mobility younger than most I couldn’t continue to push my dreams off. The next week I was at Crossroads Farm jumping…with one numb leg.”
After many more lessons and a couple leases, Sarah purchased a pinto Oldenburg mare named Starfall. Starfall is always dressed in hot pink. Pink pads, sparkly pink gemstone browbands, pink halter, pink stirrups, you name it! They dabble in dressage and compete in the hunters and are simply the most joyful pair in the barn.
For Mollie, it meant taking the plunge into buying her dream horse, a 4-year-old hunter prospect, a decision that she admits she would have deferred in favor of more practical and budget-friendly options. At the time I met Mollie, she was doing the adult amateur hunters and the equitation on a 16-year-old Appaloosa she half leased. His feet were so bad that showing was often interrupted as the farrier went to the local Ace Hardware for hinges and other contraptions to keep his shoes on his feet.
Mollie is an excellent rider, having competed at the IHSA level. She is also a truly dedicated horsewoman, at the barn until all hours after completing her work day. Like most of us early-ish in our careers, she was trying to make the best choices with available time and resources. When Mollie was diagnosed with RA she gave up her lease and saved and scrimped and was able to purchase Skyfall (no relation to Starfall), her dream hunter project. Skyfall is coming 7 this year. They are putting in winning rounds in the AAs and posting adorable content on Instagram @skyfall_bond.
For me, lupus clarified my priorities. Work and riding first, everything else could be wedged in to what remaining time with what energy remained. At diagnosis, my life was spread out in a big triangle: a 35-minute commute one direction for work, a 40-minute drive to the barn in a different direction, and a 20-minute drive to the airport for weekly business travel. I was only able to ride on the weekends with any consistency.
My new priorities led my husband and me to purchase a horse property. Now I can work (from my new, more flexible job) and ride in the early mornings and late evenings. The result is that my day often feels like a happy loop, like your favorite song playing on repeat. I still travel; I still work incredibly hard; I still ride. I just do it without the long commutes in between. I haul in on Saturdays for lessons and am willing to accept that I might progress slower or jump lower heights as a result of my new program.
The move was a leap that proved to be harder than either of us ever thought it would be. Financially, our property was just out of reach. Bobby and I had the great fortune to have a couple guardian angels and very generous parents close the gap. Eighteen months in, with every cent repaid, I can say with complete clarity that despite the sleepless nights it was totally worth it.
These were big and weighty decisions that we could have easily talked ourselves out of or deferred. They don’t make the symptoms disappear; there is no magic pill for that. But waking up every day knowing that your dream is waiting makes you fight past the symptoms, the changes in medication, and the feelings of helplessness to move forward.
To their unending credit, our spouses and significant others get it. They watch the baby on Saturday mornings; they eat dinner at 9 after we get home from the barn; they use their vacation days and money to attend dusty horse shows with us; they drag the home arena, so that precious energy can be spent riding over doing chores. None of this would be possible without their support and occasionally their assistance pulling on our breeches for us!
There are certainly other benefits. No discussion of autoimmune disease would be complete without humor. You can cry or laugh, and if you are in this tribe you do both, but the humor is the thread that holds us together. Text messages that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else become the little “cluck cluck” you need to get going when you are stuck in a rut. Since I love to laugh, I put this in the positive column, and there is no shortage of material in this group.
Another benefit was the transformative effect of asking for help. Whether it’s financial help pursuing your dream or asking a barn buddy to tighten your girth for you, asking for help shows vulnerability, and vulnerability creates strong bonds. If I ask you to help me learn my course for the 15th time, and you have something better to do, humor me!
Finally, I have discovered a real resolve that I didn’t know I had. Physically and mentally, I can dig deeper than I realized before my battle with lupus. With chronic illness nothing is guaranteed, and every moment counts. I wouldn’t wish autoimmune disease on my worst enemy, but I would love to share the life-changing perspective, the humor, the humility to ask for help, and the tenacity that comes with it with every equestrian.
Allison Hughes lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she describes herself as a “helicopter mom” to five horses and four dogs. She travels each week as a vice president of sales for a software company and generally blogs from 30,000 feet on Southwest Airlines. Allison has been recognized by Halo Horses Equestrian Boutique as a “Featured Amateur” and by the Street To Stable Equestrian Lifestyle blog in their “The Balancing Act” series. Allison began riding at 6 years old in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, and now competes in hunters, jumpers and equitation in Arizona and Southern California. Allison is often joined in the barn or at the shows by her husband, Bobby Hughes, a former professional baseball player turned home builder.