Hackettstown, N.J. – May 12, 2017 – For 21-year-old Mika McKinney, horses have been her passion since she was 7, and her father encouraged the driven equestrian to set goals within her dressage endeavors. Over the years, she has accomplished more than many do in their lifetime: she earned her USDF bronze medal and has represented Mount Holyoke College for the past two years at both the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) and Intercollegiate Horse Show Association’s (IHSA) National Championships.
“I was just a young girl who really loved horses, and any time I spent at the barn was very special to me,” McKinney said.
As the 2017 season kicked off, McKinney had her eyes set on the highly anticipated IDA and IHSA finals, and she had spent time in Wellington, Florida, at HavenSafe Farm to earn her Fourth Level scores with the goal of earning her USDF silver medal. Little did she know that she would soon be fighting for her life instead of titles and ribbons.
In February, the third-year college student from Belfast, Maine, received an unexpected diagnosis of osteosarcoma that had spread to her lungs. Osteosarcoma is a form of cancer that originates in the bones, causing localized bone pain, swelling and other symptoms as it spreads in the body.
Determined that her diagnosis would not stop her from riding, McKinney trail rode Haflinger ponies at a local barn as a form of mental and physical therapy.
“Posting trot and cantering was really challenging so I couldn’t even put a whole dressage test together — it was very discouraging,” she said. “Just being able to find my body and ability to ride again was a miracle to me.”
Beating all odds, McKinney began riding again at Mount Holyoke, while balancing her five-week cycle of treatments and only missed one regular regional competition.
“I was fortunate to have this diagnosis towards the end of the [collegiate] competition year so it was kind of a blessing,” McKinney explained from her hospital bed. “I had to skip one of the regular season shows. Missing a competition was huge for both me and the team. I’m the dressage captain so it was even more important that I should’ve been there. The team rallied together in the last show of the season. It was so heartbreaking for me not to be there cheering them on but I had to do my treatment.”
The doctors mapped out McKinney’s chemotherapy schedule and explained the debilitating side effects that it may cause including fatigue, low platelet levels and nausea. Fortunately for McKinney, the side effects have been minor during her first round of treatment, which allowed her to balance her school work and riding with the time she spent at the hospital.
“It was just really motivating to me knowing that I needed to do XYZ for academics to be able to be eligible for IDA championships and to be able to spend time at the barn,” she said. “Throughout my college career I’ve had to balance my academics and riding. The treatments just made it that much more important to me to do what I needed to do in academics because riding has been special to me and it was almost taken away.”
Over the fall and spring semester, the dedicated rider had qualified for regionals for IHSA, with the hopes of continuing onto zones and Nationals. For IDA, Mckinney received the wild card spot for her region, as a bid to the National championships taking place at Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey, April 29–30.
“Due to my diagnosis of osteosarcoma, my coach and I didn’t think that I was going to be the strongest hitch for the team riders,” she explained. “I had a very intensive chemotherapy treatment about a week and a half before nationals, so we didn’t want to predict how I was going to be. It was all up in the air until about five days before the competition.
“My coach switched me in because I was feeling strong and really wanted to represent Mount Holyoke for the team at First Level,” McKinney said. “The pressure was on and I just wanted to ride the best that I could — I thrive under pressure! I enjoy competition, so I was thrilled to just be able to compete.”
During the team competition, McKinney drew the first ride time in the First Level division and she won the class with a 74.198 percent.
“Being the first ride of the day was actually really inspiring to me,” McKinney explained. “I knew that I had to set the standard really high and the judges were looking to see my best. I was able to compete last year and was the first rider then as well. I think that really put me in a good mental space. It’s definitely been a long journey of getting to where I am — I wasn’t expecting to win.”
McKinney rode down centerline at IDA Nationals with the support of her teammates Ellie Demmons, Shannon McCarley, Sarah Etzel and Emily Tarantini, and the team earned the reserve champion title. However, her fellow Mount Holyoke riders were not the only ones to show their love for her that day. As word of McKinney’s battle with osteosarcoma spread prior to the competition, riders from numerous schools at the championships showed their support by wearing yellow ribbons on show day and posting on social media using the hashtag #RideforMika.
Demmons, a teammate and senior at Mount Holyoke, won the Upper Training Level Individual Championships, and she explained how special it was to have McKinney by her side.
“It was pretty exciting being there together as a team,” Demmons said. “This year has been particularly tough with our team captain Mika being diagnosed with cancer this semester. We have all worked very hard to qualify but Mika’s diagnosis has put things into perspective for us. We were riding for Mika.”
“It’s really touching to have support from so many people,” McKinney said. “It’s truly special and I couldn’t imagine going through what I’ve been going through without them. The entire IDA and IHSA community in my region, as well as my Mount Holyoke Equestrian network, have been amazing. Whether it is ringside cheering me on or making food for me because it’s hard to prepare food when I’m on crutches, they’ve just done so much to show that I have all their love.”
“The IHSA community also surprised me at both Zones when they braided all of our Mount Holyoke school horses with yellow and blue ribbons in their manes, they sported yellow saddle pads and had big sparkly yellow ribbons on their butts to support me,” she said. “That was the first week of my treatment, and it brought me to tears to watch the live stream, seeing all of the support as I received my first round of treatment.”
McKinney has persevered and found the strength to continue riding through the pain with the help of horses. Looking forward to the future, McKinney plans to graduate from Mount Holyoke College in 2018 with a major in psychology and minor in biology. She will attend occupational therapy school with the end goal of earning her hippotherapy license to work with physically and mentally disabled children.
“My health has been up and my spirits have been up,” she said. “Riding has actually made all of this so much more worth my time in the hospital — I just love riding so much.
“I feel really fortunate — of course, I would not want to wish that I had this sickness, but I couldn’t wish for a better support system than I have,” McKinney concluded. “I am very fortunate to have the people that I do in my life, especially my team from Mount Holyoke.”