Jul 30, 2023

The Road to the AEC: Ashley Anderson Makes the Most of Survivorship with Sights Set on AEC

Photo courtesy of Ashley Anderson

I’m not sure where this story really begins. So, I’ll start in 2016 when I bought Nelson, a grumpy little chestnut OTTB, who I fondly christened the Little Red Dragon. We qualified for the USEA American Eventing Championships when we lived in Washington and the competition was in Kentucky. Several years later, we moved to Lexington, Kentucky, with the Kentucky Horse Park practically in our backyard. In 2021, I retired Nelson at the age of 20 and bought my now 8-year-old Irish Sport Horse, "Global Jedi," fondly known as Obi. We began our partnership with a couple of strong finishes at Novice, and I started setting goals with the hope that my dream of competing at the two-star level would materialize.

And then, Obi fractured a splint bone. As disappointed as a felt, I was twice as certain that we would kick off the 2022 season with a strong start. We did, finishing second in our first outing last year, but also we didn’t.

A few months earlier, just as Obi was coming back into competition form, I experienced one of those things that “only happens to other people.” I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32. I was “other people” now. I experienced the haze that people talk about when they get earth-shattering news; my surroundings appeared dull and faded. My body felt alien.

My weeks quickly filled up with appointments that seemed to pass in a blur. I was neither understanding nor accepting what was happening to me. All the while I was fixating on Obi and our plans for the season. How would my diagnosis and treatment change our show schedule? Would I even have enough energy to compete? Would my helmet still fit after my hair fell out? (It did not)

Still in the throws of grief, I finally accepted that the show season would look very different from the one I had so meticulously planned. I learned to move day by day or hour by hour, as my body needed. I learned to ask for help doing what had been so easy only a few months before. My trainer and friends rode Obi on Mondays when I was stuck in the infusion clinic or when I was just too sick to make it to the barn. At shows, my friends made sure Obi was bathed, braided, tacked, untacked, watered, cold-hosed, or whatever else he needed. They made sure I rested, ate, and stayed hydrated.

Xpress Foto courtesy of Ashley Anderson

There were times I wanted to quit and withdraw after dressage, but the support from my barn family encouraged and inspired me to keep going. Ultimately, I handed the reins over to my trainer, Jenn O’Neill, for the summer. Heat was my number one enemy, followed closely by nausea, which was exacerbated by the heat. The owner role was bittersweet; I loved watching Jenn pilot my horse around his first Training, but I felt resentment that cancer had taken that experience away from me.

I found it easy to focus on what the cancer had stolen from me. Instead, I tried to focus on what my barn family had given me: support, encouragement, and inspiration that sustained my strength and courage. I learned how to be strong, brave, persistent, and gritty throughout my years with horses, and my barn family never let me forget that I was, and am, all of those things.

I finished chemotherapy on Aug. 8, 2022. My oncologist ordered a drug infusion to replenish my hemoglobin, which had dipped dangerously low. Obi and I had qualified for the 2022 AEC, but traveling to Rebecca Farm was far beyond my ability. By that time, Lexington, Kentucky, had been named to host the 2023 AEC, so I begrudgingly deferred that dream for another year.

With newfound energy courtesy of the blood transfusion, we set our sights on the Area VIII Championships. My barn family showed their support by showing up all in pink to support me and Obi as we returned to competition together. With a clear cross-country and our only clear stadium round of the year, we qualified for the 2023 AEC. We finished the season with two successful runs at Training level, even running cross-country two days before my mastectomy. My surgeon was not pleased.

I had hoped the struggles would be over by the time I recovered from surgery. Instead, I faced a new set of challenges. A year after I ran my first half-marathon, I could barely walk up the stairs or mount my horse without feeling weak and exhausted. I lost my appetite and lost 30 pounds. I was dangerously skinny and kept getting weaker. Then, in January 2023, I had my reconstructive surgery. My appetite did not return and my hopes for this year started falling like ash all around me. My body kept getting weaker and had nowhere near the strength and stamina to pick up where I left off.

When I wrote my story for a friend’s magazine, I ended it by saying, “I no longer have to schedule my life around appointments. I no longer have to focus on surviving. I’ve started living again and spend as much time as I can at the barn and competing with my favorite horse and the best people.”

It’s not a lie, but it’s not really the whole story. I penned the happy ending that I’m still waiting for. Now, I don’t think that’s the happy ending I’m going to get because, in this new phase of survivorship, I will always be surviving. The fear will always be there—the fear of recurrence, the fear that my doctors missed something, the fear that I will never feel like myself again.

2023 has been a year of extreme highs and lows. Steroids that my oncologist prescribed helped my energy and appetite return for about a month. My weight and energy levels fluctuate frequently, and I can’t easily predict how I’m going to feel one day to the next. Obi and I won the dressage at our first event this year, but I opted to retire on cross-country. A month later, we won our next event, sealing our AEC qualification.

Often, I still think about what cancer took from me, what achievements Obi and I might have had, and I feel angry. I let myself lean into those thoughts for a while, and then turn my focus to the post-traumatic growth—greater resilience, deeper empathy, unending perseverance, and greater determination to make the most of my survivorship. And that includes finally, after so many years and setbacks, competing at the AEC.

About the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC)

The USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC), presented by Nutrena Feeds, is the pinnacle of the sport at the national levels. Held annually, the best junior, adult amateur, and professional competitors gather to vie for national championship titles at every level from Beginner Novice to Advanced. This ultimate test of horse and rider draws hundreds of combinations from around the country to compete for fabulous prizes, a piece of the substantial prize money, and the chance to be named the National Champion at their respective levels. In fact, the 2021 AEC garnered over 1,000 entries and now stands as the largest eventing competition in North American history. The 2023 USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Nutrena Feeds will be held Aug. 29—Sept. 3 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Click here to learn more about the USEA American Eventing Championships.

The USEA would like to thank Presenting Sponsor: Nutrena Feeds; Advanced Final Title Sponsor: Adequan; Platinum Level Sponsor: Bates Saddles; Gold Level Sponsors: Capital Square, Horse & Country, Parker Equine Insurance, Smartpak, Standlee; Silver Level Sponsors: Auburn Labs, Ecogold, Kerrits, The Jockey Club; Bronze Level Sponsors: 70 Degrees, Athletux, Black Petticoat, The Chronicle of the Horse, Devoucoux, D.G. Stackhouse and Ellis, Dubarry of Ireland, Equestrian Team Apparel, Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, Horseware Ireland, Majyk Equipe, Retired Racehorse Project, Ride EquiSafe; Contributing Level Sponsor: CrossCountry App, Georgetown – Scott County Tourism, Lexmark, L.V. Harkness, Mountain Horse, Mrs. Pastures Cookies, #WeRideTogether; Prize Level Sponsors: Coach Daniel Stewart, EquiFit, Equilab, Equiluxe Tack, Equine Essentials, Equine Pulse Performance, FarmVet, Achieve Equine/FLAIR Equine Nasal Strips, Horses 4 Your Consideration, Hound & Hare, I Love My Horse Eventing Boutique, Jack’s Favorites, Jane Heart Jewelry, Kinetic Equine Services, LeMieux, Levade Kentucky, Mare Modern Goods, OneTouch Fly Spray, Parkmore Supplements, Practical Horseman, Sidelines Magazine, Spy Coast Farm, Strides for Equality Equestrians, and VTO Saddlery.

Sep 23, 2023 Eventing News

Stellar Show Jumping Round Puts Saville in the CCI4*-S Lead at Plantation Field

As Tropical Storm Ophelia brought soaking rains to the region today, the Plantation Field International continued its four days of competition with CCI3*-S and CCI4*-S show jumping and cross-country for CCI1*-S, CCII2*-S, and CCI3*-S divisions.

Sep 23, 2023

Meet the Newest Area IX Champions

The USEA Area IX Championships took place during two different horse trials this summer, with the Modified Championships as part of the The Event at Archer (Cheyenne, Wymoming) in August and the Preliminary, Training, Novice, and Beginner Novice Championships taking place during The Event at Skyline (Mount Pleasant, Utah) in September. In addition, Area IX offered additional championship tests at the Starter and Tadpole levels at Skyline.

Sep 22, 2023 Eventing News

Martin and Luke 140 Take CCI4-S Dressage Lead at Plantation Field International

The CCI4*-S division at the 2023 Plantation Field International Horse Trials kicked off today with 39 horses headed down centerline. Local rider Boyd Martin of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, topped the leaderboard riding Luke 140, owned by the Luke 140 Syndicate, and is also tied for third (28.8) with the Annie Goodwin Syndicate’s Fedarman B. Martin is also placed 23rd with Contessa, owned by the Turner family.

Sep 22, 2023 Young Event Horse

The Dutta Corporation Returns as Title Sponsor of the USEA Young Event Horse Championships

The United States Eventing Association, Inc. (USEA) is humbled to announce the return of long-time partner The Dutta Corporation as the “Title Sponsor of the 2023 USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) Championships,” which include the East Coast Championships at the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill in Elkton, Maryland, on Oct. 19-20 and the West Coast Championships at Twin Rivers Ranch in Paso Robles, California, on Oct. 27-28.

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