Pat Thornton, a breast cancer navigator at Sentara Obici Hospital, always worries about her patients – and especially so, when all of a sudden, after they’ve been through months of successfully treating their disease, they experience a mental setback.
“They found so much strength to get through their surgeries and treatments, and then they’re hit with all they’ve been through,” Pat said. “They think ‘what happened? What do I do now?!’”
To help patients heal during this stage, Pat created Survivors in Saddles, a six-week program that gives women the chance to spend time outside, talk with fellow patients, and learn the new skill of horseback riding.
“I know the benefits firsthand,” shared Pat. “I started riding three years ago, in part to help myself cope with a chronic condition. The stress release is wonderful. Everything just goes away, and I come back from riding feeling like I’m 15 again.”
David and Monica Christiansen, owners of Indian Point Farm, host the women for the one-and-a-half hour sessions. The first one was held May 9 with six women who were cleared by their physician to participate. The trainers introduced the women to the horses and explained how to care for and groom the animals.
The participants later learned how to put on saddles, mount the horses, and walk in the arena. Volunteers guided the horses at a slow pace, giving participants, most of whom had never been on a horse, time to feel comfortable with the 1,200-pound animals.
The approach seemed to be just right for the women:
“I didn’t know how the horses and I would get along!,” said Carla Duck, a Zuni residents who learned she had breast cancer in January. “I’m an outdoor person and have always loved to look at horses, but I was afraid of them until now. My horse’s name is Zippy, and he must have sensed that this was my first time on a horse. He went very slowly for me.”
Carla is working part time in her job as an information systems technician with Isle of Wight Schools as she completes radiation treatments and recovers from two surgeries. She uses the Survivors in Saddles sessions as a form of physical therapy.
“My doctor wants me to get at least 20 minutes of exercise a day and to strengthen my right side where my breast and lymph nodes were removed,” said Carla. “This helps me do that. Believe me, it is a definite workout. Those saddles weigh a lot, and it’s work to get them on the horse.”
Pat, who raised the funds for Survivors in Saddles by hosting a silent auction at Sentara Obici Hospital, has been thrilled to see Carla and the other participants become stronger physically and emotionally.
“One person was worried and told me she was only going to stay on the horse for one walk around the arena. She got so comfortable, she ended up doing all three with a smile on her face,” Pat said. “Another woman said to me, ‘You know what two words none of us have thought about? Breast cancer!’ That gave me goose bumps.”
Thornton hopes to offer the program again.
“Indian Point Farm and Sentara Obici Hospital are great partners,” she said. “We reach out to the community and do whatever we can to make a difference. We’re thinking about new ideas, too, to help other patients.”