Haute école, costumed freestyles, quadrilles and reining demonstrations evoked cheers from the crowd at the eighth annual Dancing Horse Challenge breast cancer benefit, but for Canadian freestyle exhibitor Shannon Dueck, the evening also held personal significance.
“In 2009, my mom was diagnosed [with breast cancer], my aunt was diagnosed, and I was diagnosed, all in the same year,” said Dueck, 49. “I’m really the poster girl for early detection, because my aunt now has a difficult fight and my mom lost hers, but they were diagnosed later. I can now say that my mammogram caught it.”
Dueck, who is originally from Vancouver, B.C., but now based in Loxahatchee, Fla., made the long trip to Maryland specifically for the event, which was held in conjunction with the Potomac Valley Dressage Association’s Ride for Life Show, June 25-26, with proceeds benefiting the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Cancer Center.
“I want to do whatever I can to support breast cancer research and early detection, but also for all of the women and men who are affected by this, to hopefully show that there are other passions in your life that can help you get through it,” she said.
For Dueck, that passion has unequivocally been dressage. With her 10-year-old Oldenburg mare Ayscha, Dueck—outfitted in a shadbelly, pink scarf and bejeweled mask—performed a new freestyle to the music of Lady Gaga in the dramatic low-lighting of the indoor coliseum.
“I didn’t know how [Ayscha] would react, but I was thrilled! That was by far the scariest thing she’s ever done, and I was so, so proud of her. She tried so hard in there,” Dueck said.
Ayscha (Welt Hit II—African Dream, Rouletto) was originally imported from Germany as a 6-year-old resale project, but after a few months schooling the mare, Dueck had other plans.
“I rode her for a few months and then thought, this horse is really, really special. So I put another horse up for sale and kept her. Since then, she’s done very little showing: one third level test, one fourth level test, probably about five Prix St. Georges tests, and then Grand Prix last year as a 9-year-old. She’s so talented,” said Dueck.
Though the Dancing Horse Challenge wasn’t judged traditionally, each performance raised money for breast cancer research through the “People’s Choice Award”: In order to hand in a vote for their favorite performers, spectators had to make an accompanying donation to Johns Hopkins. When the votes were tallied, Danish Olympian Bent Jensen and the Dutch Warmblood gelding Orlando (Karandasi—Jolita, Burggraaf) emerged the victors, but Dueck and Ayscha are already looking ahead.
“London [Olympics, 2012], is our goal, definitely. Dressage Canada gave us some funding to go to Europe last year, and we did some German shows and did very well. Last week, I got some help from Dressage Canada to go to England. We’re going to Hartpury [Festival of Dressage] and [Dressage at] Hickstead, which I just found out Tuesday of this week! It’s thrilling,” said Dueck.
A Growing Tradition
In 2003, Pat Artimovich, a breast cancer survivor, approached the PVDA Board of Directors with an idea.
“I’d never organized a show before. I was a nobody then,” Artimovich joked, though her idea of holding a breast cancer benefit event touched the Board of Directors, and the inaugural PVDA Ride for Life show was held later that year.
Since then, Artimovich has had her hands full. Now in its eighth year, the Ride for Life has expanded to host more than 250 competitors in five rings over the course of the two-day show.
The idea for the show originally came about as the result of personal experience: Artimovich, who had formerly competed in hunters but given up riding for school and family commitments, became a dressage enthusiast after her diagnosis.
“You realize if there’s something you love, now is the time. So I talked to my doctors, and we decided that jumping wasn’t really an option, so that’s when I started with dressage,” she said.
Though she’s now cancer-free, Artimovich’s enthusiasm for both dressage and cure research has only continued to grow. Last year alone, the event raised more than $80,000 for the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Cancer Center.
“We’re hoping that soon enough, this will be a six-figure event,” she said.
In addition to the pledges brought in by competitors, one of the event’s chief fundraising avenues is the Dancing Horse Challenge, where the $20 price of admission treats spectators to a trade fair, silent auction and mounted and unmounted performances. Spectators can vote for their favorite performers to win the challenge by making additional pledges.
“I like to think of it as a mini-Cavalia. These performances are really incredible, and we hope attendance will just continue to grow,” Artimovich said.
Though the challenge began as a dressage exhibition, the event now features dancing and reining performances, and Artimovich hopes the scope will eventually expand to include other disciplines.
“We’d love to figure out a way to incorporate jumping!” she said.