Getting to Compete at Capital Challenge is a Gift for Dana Lee Brawley

Dana Brawley has competed in the Ariat National Adult Medal Final at Capital Challenge in previous years riding her Caymus, and this year she’s made it a goal while she’s fighting cancer. Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography

BY MOLLY SORGE/JUMP MEDIA

Qualifying for and competing in the Ariat National Adult Medal Final at the Capital Challenge Horse Show means so much more to Dana Lee Brawley than adding another horse show to her fall schedule. 

Brawley, who was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in January, will fit showing in the Ariat Final on October 4 at Capital Challenge into her schedule of chemotherapy. She’s competed in the Ariat Final before, but this time is different. “It has always been a goal of mine to qualify and compete,” she said. “This is my third time qualifying and going. First it was a goal just to get there. Then it was a goal to be in the top 10. This year, I think it’s even more special for me because I’ve had my cancer diagnosis. I honestly thought my life ended in January when I heard those words.

“To be able to continue riding and working full-time and go to horse shows has been really special. It’s been therapeutic for me. I really think that’s what’s keeping me going through this diagnosis and treatment—to have a goal like the Ariat is huge,” Brawley said.

The wife of professional trainer Bob Brawley, Dana works full-time as an accountant for a software company. She owns two horses, Cocomo and Caymus, that she competes in the hunter and equitation divisions. While she qualified for the Ariat Final with them, she’d decided not to ship a horse from their farm in Double Oak, Texas, to Upper Marlboro, Md., for the Ariat Final. Between the distance and having a chemo treatment the week before the Ariat Final, Dana had shelved the idea of competing. 

But a chance conversation with her trainer changed all that. His student, Macy White, was taking a few lessons with Bob to prepare for the East Coast equitation finals. When he found out Dana gave up on her Capital Challenge plans, he and White offered her the chance to borrow White’s mare, Viva’s Glory, to ride in the Ariat Final at Capital Challenge. White will ride the mare at the show’s equitation weekend on September 27 through 29, and then Dana will ride her in the adult amateur hunter division on Thursday, October 3, and the Ariat Final on Friday, October 4. 

“It just fell in my lap,” Dana said. “I sat on Macy’s mare to see if I got along with her. It went well, and she’s very nice, so I’m going to take a shot at it and go see what we can do. This wouldn’t be possible if he hadn’t come up with the idea for me to borrow the horse. I’m so enormously grateful to Macy, her mom Anne Hedge, and my trainer the chance. It’s beyond generous that they’ve offered me the opportunity.”

Dana, 45, has always enjoyed competing in the equitation division, and usually makes the Ariat Final a goal for her year. She’s also competed at Capital Challenge in the adult amateur hunters. “Capital Challenge is a great show,” she said. “They make a big deal out of everything, so you feel special showing there. It’s just a fantastic year-end show. It’s always been one of my favorite horse shows. It makes you feel like you’ve qualified for something big and that you’ve made it.”

Horse showing is a family affair for the Brawleys, including Bob and Dana’s six-year-old son, Lucas, who shows in the cross-rail division. “He’s a huge blessing. It blows me away how outgoing and friendly he is; everyone knows him,” Dana said of Lucas.

Throughout 2018, Dana had been feeling unusually fatigued. “I’d come out of the ring and my heart would be racing and I’d be out of breath. It wasn’t normal for me; jumping eight jumps shouldn’t have done that to me,” she said. It’s the reason she first went to the doctor, which eventually led to her colon cancer diagnosis in January. Her tumors were deemed inoperable at the time, so she started chemotherapy in February. “After my first chemo, I started walking and trotting after a few days,” she said. “Then I cantered the next day. I thought, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ When I started chemo, all the fatigue went away. I might be the only person on the planet who likes chemo!”

By the end of March, Dana was feeling well enough to attempt a horse show. She entered Caymus in one week of the Pin Oak Charity. “I won the Ariat at Pin Oak, which was huge,” said Dana. “It gave me a more positive outlook. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I could have gotten on a horse and said, ‘There’s no way I can do this,’ but it was okay. It was a great horse show and it proved to me that I could do it. Ever since then, I think I’ve used the horses as my therapy, and I get back to riding as fast as I can after chemo.”

Dana’s summer schedule has included chemo, work, and a few horse shows. Her doctors have decided to operate on her on October 15 to try and remove some of the tumors. “So Capital Challenge fits right into my schedule, with the chemo the week before and surgery two weeks after,” Dana said. “My oncologist knows about Capital Challenge. He’s good about encouraging you to live your life; I’m lucky to have him. I feel like I have a good partner in this with him.”

Dana has been very open about her diagnosis and treatment, posting her progress on Facebook and on a blog started by one of Bob’s amateur students. “My feeling is that if I can help even one person who has this kind of diagnosis to really keep a positive outlook and try to beat whatever they’re having to battle, I think I’ve done my job,” she said. “It’s amazing [to] realize how many people are affected by cancer. When I was first diagnosed, I was shocked at the number of people in my circle that I’d had no idea they’d had cancer. 

“Since then, there have been people who have reached out to me because they’ve recently been diagnosed, and they say, ‘I’ve read your blog,’ or, ‘I read your Facebook posts.’ They’ve really motivated me and helped me to be positive and believe I can beat it too. It’s been huge. It’s crazy how things in your life come along. I do believe things happen for a reason, and that horse falling in my lap to compete in the Ariat Final was a huge gift. I might as well take a shot at it!”

To learn more about the Capital Challenge Horse Show, visit www.capitalchallenge.org. Find the horse show on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, share your own Capital Challenge moments using the hashtag #CCHS2019. 

About the Capital Challenge Horse Show
Now in its 26th year, the Capital Challenge Horse Show, presented by the World Equestrian Center, sets itself apart with a distinct and unique focus on preeminent hunter and equitation competition. Held each autumn at the Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro, MD, the 2019 edition of the Capital Challenge Horse Show will take place September 27 through October 6. The 10 days of competition will include prestigious equitation events, jumper divisions, the World Championship Hunter Rider (WCHR) Finals, the $25,000 3’ and 3’3” Green Hunter North American Championships, and more, with many of the country’s best horses and riders competing in junior, amateur, and professional divisions. For more information, visit www.capitalchallenge.org.