Things were looking good for 17-year-old equestrian Lilian Schaffer in the summer of 2017. Just three years into her showing career, she already had achieved some promising results and, more importantly, she’d discovered a deep and fulfilling connection with horses and the equestrian community. Lilian, who lives in Denver, Colo., had joined her barn’s Interscholastic Equestrian Association team in 2014. She went with them to the 2015 IEA Hunt Seat National Finals in Wellington, Fla. Representing the Front Range Equestrian Team, Lilian won the Junior Varsity Beginner on the Flat championship, helping Front Range take the overall team title.
Lilian returned to Nationals again in 2016 and won the Novice on the Flat individual championship, then followed up in 2017 with a fourth in the Varsity Intermediate on the Flat individual final. By that point, she’d also started riding at Cindy and Kelli Cruciotti’s Serenity Farm in Elizabeth, Colo., where she was excitedly looking forward to a bright future. She’d just bought a new young Dutch warmblood gelding, Especial (barn name: Special), that she hoped would become her jumper mount. Special joined Lilian’s first horse, a retired Thoroughbred ex-racehorse named Trey, and her hunter, the Oldenburg gelding Shareef (barn name: Neptune). Lilian was happily anticipating her senior year at George Washington High School, the coming show season, and, in particular, getting to know Special.
But then, in the fall of 2017, she began to get sick, terribly sick.
“I couldn't breathe, sleep, or eat; got fevers; and had horrible itches and pains in my legs,” she recalled. She kept riding and showing, but it was a struggle. “Right up until I received my diagnosis, my goal was simply to ride all three of my horses before I lost my ability to function for the day.”
Even as her symptoms worsened and doctors puzzled over them, Lilian kept showing, competing Neptune in the hunters and Special in the hunters and jumpers at local A shows. But her illness persisted.
“I was dismissed and misdiagnosed for six months by dozens of doctors before I finally was admitted to Children's Hospital Colorado with stage IIb bulky Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Lilian said. “I had so much disease in my chest, it was pushing on my ribcage, heart, and lungs, and had spread into my neck. I was immediately hospitalized for a week while they ran tests, did surgeries, and started chemo.”
Even then, Lilian was determined to find a way to ride.
“All the doctors came in to go over with us how many months of chemo she needed and what chemo and what radiation, all of that,” Lilian’s mother, Alison, recalled. “Her first question was, ‘Am I still going to be able to ride?’”
The answer was yes—and that answer made all the difference in the world, Alison says.
“She had surgery and started chemo, and then she got out of the hospital after having been there for eight days,” she said. “She had on her bathrobe and her slippers, and she said, ‘I want to go to the barn.’ We drove straight from the hospital to the barn. When her hair started falling out and she got her head shaved, the first thing she wanted to do was go to the barn. It just kept her going and got her out of the house every single day.
“It gave both of us something to look forward to every day,” Alison added. “She could be very sick, nauseous, and
unhappy, and literally the minute we walked into that barn, she was a different kid. She’s at peace, and she’s happy, laughing, and smiling.”
The benefits weren’t only emotional, Lilian believes.
“Being with my horses helped me in several different ways,” she explained. “Physically, they kept me active, which was very important. Since chemo eats away at your muscles, continuing to ride through treatment kept me stronger and made showing less impossible later on. I also believe that staying active helped the chemo move through my body faster and eased the impact of the side effects. Mentally, it was helpful for me to keep the same routine I had before I was sick. My doctors urged me to stay on a similar routine to avoid depression, although they did not expect me to do as much as I did. Emotionally, it was beneficial to go to the barn every day after treatment, as seeing my horses distracted me from treatment and cancer, so I could just have fun.”
Lilian underwent 100 days of chemotherapy involving six different drugs and spread over six months. She also had three surgeries and three weeks of radiation. But that didn’t keep her out of the saddle—or away from the show ring.
“Starting in the middle of my radiation, I showed for nine weeks on Neptune and Special,” she said. “In my experience, I felt worse doing nothing all day, as opposed to riding when I felt terrible. I think this was partially due to moving around and staying fit, and partially due to being around my horses. I may have pushed myself too much, but riding every day helped me feel better and gave me a reason to get out of bed.”
Lilian’s determination to keep riding inspired others, too. The staff at Children’s Hospital used videos of her riding to show kids they didn’t have to put their lives on hold due to their diagnoses, Alison said. And, remarkably, Lilian rode as well as ever.
“She actually did better this year than she did last year,” Alison said. “She wasn’t jumping super-high, but for a kid who had had seven months of treatment to do a whole circuit in the summer on two horses is pretty crazy. She just was determined.”
Lilian and Alison both credit the Cruciottis and Serenity’s barn manager and associate trainer, Kelli Clevenger, for making it all possible.
“My coaches were amazing throughout my journey,” said Lilian. “Kelli and Cindy Cruciotti were traveling for most of the time but were always checking in and encouraging me. They sent me a saddle pad autographed by world-famous riders, and a Butet beanie when they first came out. I truly couldn't have done it without Kelli Clevenger, however. She took great care of my horses and rode them all when I couldn't (even Trey). She was very flexible in terms of lessons, as well; she let me just show up at the barn whenever I woke up and would give me lessons. She didn't push me to do anything I didn't feel well enough to do but still gave me constructive lessons. She knew the exact right way to teach me, and I came out of the winter as a better rider, despite the circumstances. Kelli was incredibly nice and understanding. Thanks to her kindness, encouragement, and flexibility, I was able to continue to train and ride to the extent I did.”
The larger equestrian community rallied around, too. IEA teams who knew Lilian wore purple ribbons in her honor and signed banners for her. The gourmet horse-treat company Snaks 5th Avenchew held a fundraiser for lymphoma awareness. When Lilian was in the hospital, her barnmates brought her a poster with photos of each of her horses, along with cuttings from their manes, tied with ribbon.
“The barn has always been her happy place,” mom Alison explained. “There were things she could no longer relate to at that time, like being about to finish high school and thinking about college. The barn gave her a group of people that she had something in common with, and it gave her something she could accomplish every day. … As a parent, it was so special that that horse community rallied around her and empowered her and gave her confidence. She felt loved and supported.
“She was at a horse show this summer and a girl who was in the same division as her came up and said that she
followed Lilian on Instagram,” Alison continued. “She was from Oklahoma, and she wanted Lilian to know that she bought those horse treats to support her and that she was inspired by her. For a quiet kid who had spent her senior year going to school bald and not looking or feeling like herself, that stuff made a difference. The horses have brought the people into our lives that have helped her get through the hardest thing she’ll ever have to get through.”
The horses made their individual contributions to Lilian’s recovery, too.
Trey, the 20-year-old ex-racehorse, previously had been owned by a family whose oldest daughter had been treated for leukemia by Lilian’s oncologist.
“Thanks to Trey, we had someone to answer any extra questions and give us hope,” Lilian said. “Neptune was clearly very worried. He colicked when I first got sick and again when I finished chemo. We also were able to sympathize with each other more afterwards, since we had similar experiences—infusions, pokes, scans, stomach pain. He showed me that I could get better, too. Special became super-attached to me and loved to play. He would always lick my bald head and cheer me up. All three of them are wonderful anyway, but they were so sweet during this time.”
Lilian’s last radiation treatment was on May 10. After her post-treatment scans in July, her doctors declared Lilian in remission, although she’ll continue to be monitored closely. For now, she’s focused on rebuilding her strength, enjoying life, and honing her equestrian skills.
“I also want to get more confidence and move up with Special,” she said.
Lilian, now 18, also has some advice for any fellow equestrians who receive a cancer diagnosis: keep doing what you love.
“You don't have to put your life on hold,” she said. “Nothing is impossible if you put your heart into it. You are capable of more than you think, but don't push yourself too hard. Horses really do help, in more ways than one, if you let them. Just have fun and enjoy them!”
“I have learned that, as a parent, you can’t give up advocating for your child,” added Alison. “If you know in your heart of hearts that something is wrong, you can never give up. Don’t let anyone make you question your instinct about what’s going on with your own child. And I’ve learned about the healing, almost magical power of horses in some people’s lives. Some people are scared of horses. But, for Lilian, she had to be with them every single day of this.
“You know, as a mom, you think, ‘Oh, we’re paying all this money for horse shows, and it’s not like she’s going to the Olympics.’ You sometimes question the time commitment and the money, but I am telling you, my husband and I looked at each other so many times and said, ‘What would she have done without the horses?’ Buying her these horses was the best thing we’ve ever done.”
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