Lexington, KY – Horse people know that horses are what push them get out of bed in the morning. For Debbie Hill, a USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold medalist from Gurley, Alabama, horses are a way to cope with the reality of breast cancer. Hill, who was at the 2013 U.S. Dressage Finals with six horses, has also been a strong presence at the Markel Young Horse Championships with multiple mounts. But this year, when she entered just one horse in the Finals she was not sure if she would be able to compete. Hill was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in May and began chemotherapy in June. Even with the loss of her hair and severe anemia, she has used riding and training horses as a way to help her deal with the aggressive treatment of her cancer.
She was Reserve Champion in Third Level open Friday with a 69.872 percent aboard Boccaccio IOF, Marchella Richardson ‘s 7-year-old Hanoverian gelding by Bugatti Hilltop out of Roxette by Rubinstein, at the U.S. Dressage Finals presented by Adequan. Hill and “Bo” qualified for the championships from USDF Region 2. On Saturday they did it again winning Reserve in the Fourth Level Open Championship with a 69.167.
“If I couldn’t ride, I’d be miserable,” she said. “I love to ride. It’s what I do for a living, but I love to ride. If I couldn’t ride, I would have been depressed.” She said she was afraid of facing a tough round of therapy for five months and was terrified she would be bed-ridden. “The horses kept me going for sure,” she said, adding that knowing that she was going to ride kept her goal oriented.
When diagnosed, she had horses, owners and employees relying on her. She sent some of her 15 horses in training to other trainers, restructured her life with the help of friends and family, and was able to meet her financial obligations.
“We all put our minds together and worked it out well,” she said. “It is so special to have people who love you and support you. It makes me feel to good to know that people really care about me.”
“Having this here dangling has really helped me out of bed and go ride on some of the days I didn’t feel well,” she admitted. “It has made be appreciate such a nice horse,” she said. “Last year, I was so busy and I thought it was great, but now I need to enjoy the experience even more because it’s more precious to me now.
She has scaled down to training about half of the horses she worked before but has learned that she was over-extended in the past and will focus on training the kind of horses she loves – hot, sensitive horses.
Although she recently had a scan that showed no cancer, she is facing surgery and radiation therapy. “They’re hitting me with all they’ve got,” she said. Still, Hill keeps on going. “I’m a soldier,” she said. “That’s what my doctor calls me.”
She credits her level of fitness before the diagnosis as a reason for her stamina and her ability to handle the chemotherapy.
“They say nausea and fatigue are the biggest side effects and that exercise is the biggest help with the fatigue,” she said.
Her doctor told her she was able to continue riding and showing because she never stopped and kept pushing herself. She was worried about upsetting the balance between forging on and healing, but when the recent scan results came out positive, she knew she was on the right track.
“It’s been really good for me to keep riding,” she said. “If I couldn’t ride, I would feel like I lost my identity. The last few treatments I have been really sick, and there were four or five days when I couldn’t ride, and by the end, I was not so good emotionally. I’ve got to ride.”
Hill said her husband of 20 years and her 14-year-old son is helping her as well as clients and friends. She said that Bo’s owner is a nurse and Hill said she is constantly calling to check on her. She hopes that she can be an inspiration to others with breast cancer and said she has met several riders battling the disease.
“I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring, but I’m still OK,” she said.