Until breast cancer struck for the second time in her life, the 2007 show season held great promise for dressage rider Cathy Morelli. At age 63, she felt fit and her horses were going better than ever.
She wanted to try for the Pan American Games team with Sitni, as well as compete in the United States Equestrian Federation's National Freestyle Championship and the National Grand Prix Championship with BeSe. It was quite an agenda, but Morelli, as perky as always, felt ready.
Then, just as she was gearing up in February, she learned that her breast cancer had resurfaced. After a lumpectomy and radiation treatment eight years ago, Morelli had been declared cancer-free. But when a new lump appeared this year, she put her plans on hold. Though she had a double mastectomy at the end of March, Morelli was determined to continue pursuing her dreams, albeit in a revised form. She just wanted to ride as soon as possible, and turned down the idea of breast reconstruction because of the complications it entailed.
On the plus side, she noted, "There's no bouncing. It's great."
A few days after her operation, the indomitable Morelli started teaching from the front porch of her winter home in Wellington, Fla. Only a week later, she was back in the saddle.
"I was dying to know what it felt like, how much it was going to hurt," she recalled. "The first horse I got on, I could walk, trot and canter. I said, 'Oh, yay; I can do this.' By the end of the second week, I was back riding all the horses. I thought it was amazing. I think it helped--being active helps your body heal faster."
With the support of her husband Frank, as well as friends and clients, she took steps to pick up where she left off. Luckily, she didn't need chemotherapy. The Pan Ams and the freestyle championship had to fall by the wayside, however. Her surgery and recovery period left her no way to qualify for either.
But June's Grand Prix Championship turned out to be an achievable goal.
She knew she was on track May 12 after winning the Grand Prix on BeSe during her first show since the operation. The score of 72.7 percent was their best ever.
Thanks both to her own efforts and a few dropouts in the rankings, Morelli qualified for the championship at practically the last minute. That achievement gave her a big boost. A part of the Festival of Champions, this event had special meaning for her because it is held at the United States Equestrian Team Foundation's landmark stable in Gladstone, N.J., just a few miles from her home in Bedminster.
"I didn't think I had a chance to get in, but I just kept riding as if I were getting ready for the Festival. You can't really let down, because you always have some goal to go for," Morelli said. "And lo and behold, I got the call."
She finished 11th of 15 overall, with her best effort coming in the Grand Prix test, where she was 10th. But for Morelli, more important than any ribbon or trophy is what working with the horses and competing did for her after such a traumatic health scare.
"I tried to focus on the riding. These horses, they're such a blessing. They can get you out of your troubles and get you focusing on other things," she said.
Morelli, who competed in the 1990 World Cup finals, is a United States Dressage Federation gold medalist who has been working with dressage horses and riders for more than three decades. Although she primarily trains on her own, she also has received pointers from Scott Hassler, the USEF's developing horse coach.
She's now hoping that her health problems are behind her and that she can pursue another dream without physical setbacks. She mentioned trying out for the Alltech World Equestrian Games in 2010 in Kentucky. Morelli is not going to let a few more birthdays stand in her way.
"I definitely would be the oldest one," she laughed. But, she noted, "I feel great," and her age doesn't discourage her. After all, her daily routine generally involves riding seven horses and teaching four lessons.
For riders who find themselves facing breast cancer, Morelli has some advice. "You just keep going, taking every day as it comes, and keep riding," she said. "Once you're treating it, let it go and go about your business. Keeping your mind positive is so important."
Check out the winter 2008 issue of Everything For Horse & Rider. To order, call 301-977-3900 ext. 0.