By Janina Lagemann-Doné
This is the story of a horse and a diagnosis. The horse, Cayenne Z (CZ for short), is a 16.2 gelding I’d never met before. The diagnosis—a 6-centimeter tumor I didn’t know I had, called Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (cancer for short).
Which one came first, I don’t know. As CZ walked off the trailer, I was being wheeled into a biopsy. As my trainer texted “He’s here, and he’s great” I was being told in hushed voices by nurses “You’re sick, and it’s bad.”
Both the cancer and the horse were, in their own ways, unexpected. I’m 28 – too young for cancer, and “too old” (no such thing) to chase a childhood fantasy I’d almost forgotten about completely, leasing a horse of my very own.
I rode in high school and loved it. I was a total barn rat, worked for my lessons and most days just got on whatever horse was around and in need of a ride. It was my whole world, my biggest passion… until one day it just wasn’t. College happened, career happened. Horses didn’t.
In retrospect, I can now see clearly that riding never actually went away completely. After all, it was horses that made my college and career path possible. The money I made mucking stalls as a kid helped pay for my loans later on. And one of the barn dads who stood ringside while I taught his daughter to keep her heels down at the trot is the same person who got my foot in the door at my first job.
Fast forward to 2020. A full decade since my last ride. Desperate for a hobby or something (anything), I decided to get back in the saddle. It was a school horse on a Saturday afternoon that, just like that, pulled me out of a pre-diagnosis pandemic-induced “emotional slump.” One that—knowing what I know now—was really a form of depression.
It’s safe to say that the theme of horses shaping and saving my life is not a recent development. It just turns out to some of life’s patterns are best seen from the back of a horse. Back to CZ…
My treatment plan, 12 sessions of chemo infusions over 6 months, coincided with a little over 6 months of a shareboard agreement with CZ. Though the question of whether I’d have the energy to take on a half-lease while dealing with the physical exhaustion of treatment did cross my mind briefly, I decided without much debate that I would do both horse care and health care in the way they began—at the same time.
At the barn, I wasn’t a patient. I was a rider like everybody else. Even on days when I forgot to remove my hospital bracelet before hopping on or couldn’t do up my own girth because of healing stitches, I was treated as the strong, competent rider I am. This is a testament to my awesome trainers who create such an inclusive environment amid a notoriously competitive sport.
I found that I never felt sick while counting strides. That I didn’t ever worry about my thinning hair when wearing a helmet. And that it was impossible to feel sadness or self-pity while patting my horse.
There is some science to this, I’ve since learned. Doctors say the most effective way to fight chemo-induced fatigue is to perform light exercise. Although I wouldn’t call getting CZ moving off my leg a “light” exercise, it certainly did the trick. Furthermore, out of a rather short list of animals deemed therapeutic by psychologists, horses make the cut. Of course, they do.
Last month, while pulling up the pebbled driveway to the barn I got a phone call and learned that I’m in remission. Next month, CZ heads down that same road, out to Ohio and back to his owner like the lease terms outlined.
Both his arrival and upcoming departure have been a vivid reminder that life with horses is a charmed life indeed. Riding through the worst time in my life made it one of the best times of my life.
F you, cancer. Thank you, CZ.
Janina is a Chicago-based brand strategist and amateur equestrian. After an unplanned decade-long break from the sport, Janina got back in the saddle at a time when she needed it most – and there’s no turning back for her now.