The life of 22-year-old Mika McKinney has almost always revolved around horses. After beginning lessons at a local barn in her hometown of Belfast, Maine, McKinney fell in love with the world of horses, dressage and, eventually, competition. Since McKinney’s beginnings, the rider has gone on to earn her USDF bronze medal and participate on her university’s dressage and hunt-seat teams as well as serve as captain of her collegiate dressage team. But in early 2017, she was forced to face perhaps the biggest obstacle in the course of her life—the sudden diagnosis of osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. As an important member of the equestrian community both within her university and in her hometown, McKinney’s diagnosis resulted in an outpouring of love and support from various individuals, proof of the incredible and widespread impact that she has already made on the people and the horses who have crossed her path.
A Competitor is Born
For McKinney, riding competitively was not always her goal. Rather, she began taking riding lessons at a local barn at the age of 7 simply because of her childhood love of horses. When she was 11 years old, her father encouraged her to compete in her first schooling show. She was hesitant and intimidated by the pressure of a competitive environment. Although initially skeptical, she thought of the process as a good way to gain experience and accomplish small goals. And in spite of her nerves, McKinney’s first show was a success and she came away with two first-place ribbons. “After that, I was hooked,” she says with a laugh.
Since her first jump into the world of competition, she hasn’t looked back. “There are so many intricate pieces to dressage,” she says, referring to what originally appealed to her about the sport. In addition, she says, she has always loved the opportunities that dressage gave her, not only in the show ring but also outside of it—the chance to build relationships with people and with horses at her local barn, something that still remains a highlight of McKinney’s passion for what she does.
Although McKinney’s first schooling show helped to launch her forward into a competitive career and lifelong passion, she remains casual and modest about her accomplishments, even though her success so far is impressive. “In the beginning, I actually never had huge goals,” McKinney says while recounting the history of her dressage and hunt-seat career. Over the past 10 years or so since her very first dressage show, the rider’s competitive spirit has certainly evolved and today she has her sights set on riding at the Olympic level. “Now you probably wouldn’t be able to meet someone more competitive than me,” she says, acknowledging that she is very much fueled by the ribbons, the scores and trying to best her past rides at every show.
A Life-Changing Diagnosis
Without a doubt, McKinney’s competitive spirit and dedication to self-progress have been instrumental in her battle with osteosarcoma. In March 2017, McKinney was home for winter break and riding one of her favorite horses, Ali. “We have a perfect fairy-tale bond,” McKinney says of her relationship with the 21-year-old Thoroughbred/Clydesdale-cross mare. “We’re the exact same age, so I used to call us twins.”
But that day was snowy, McKinney was bareback and Ali wanted to race other horses in a pasture nearby. McKinney ended up falling off, and although she was largely uninjured, her leg didn’t ever fully recover. Eventually, she went to a sports orthopedic doctor who recommended that she get a scan performed. “It was such a strange situation,” McKinney says. “Before all that happened, I had no idea.” Falling off Ali, one of the horses most important in McKinney’s equestrian career, was the turning point.
Soon after, McKinney was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in her knee that was gradually spreading to her lungs. “It was devastating,” McKinney says.
The Blessings of Dressage Lessons
Since March 2017, McKinney has been undergoing intensive chemotherapy treatments and spends a lot of her time in the hospital. When she discusses how this diagnosis has affected her daily life, she’s upbeat and positive, but she misses riding and interacting with horses. “My life revolved around horses,” she says. “I would ride at least four times a week at school.” Still, her intense upbringing in dressage and her many years involved with the equestrian community have greatly influenced her perspective as she undergoes chemotherapy.
“Having a background in dressage has been helpful,” she says, noting that the sport has given her a healthy perspective about the process over the course of the last several months. “It’s like when you’re in a lesson and practicing transitions over and over again,” she says. “They don’t seem to be building, but when you look back, you can see the progress, and it’s a huge achievement. That’s how I’ve been looking at my treatment. Sometimes it feels like I’m not getting anywhere,” she says, “but when you step back and look at the bigger picture, it makes it all worth it.”
McKinney praises the power of horses for their therapeutic benefits in multiple ways. Although she hasn’t ridden since April, she tries to go to the barn nearby and visit the horses as much as she can. “It’s very mentally therapeutic for me,” she says. “I have never doubted the power of horses, but it really has shown through in this situation.” She also credits horses for giving her something to work toward—beating cancer and getting back in the saddle so she can ride and compete again.
The Meaning of a Team
In addition to being a USDF bronze medalist, McKinney is accomplished on the intercollegiate dressage circuit. McKinney attends Mount Holyoke College, located in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she studies psychology and biology while also serving as team captain of the school’s Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) team and is an Equestrian Fellow, working as a liaison between her school’s admissions office to reach out to prospective students to join the Mount Holyoke community.
Under McKinney’s leadership, the Mount Holyoke IDA team qualified for IDA Nationals for the first time in three years. “Before my diagnosis, I was a very involved team member and captain,” she says. She would help coach the other riders on the team, work with the Mount Holyoke coaches and prepare the team for competitions.
Without a doubt, the team’s support is a major aspect of McKinney’s journey, as a dressage rider, as a person battling cancer and simply as a human. “They’ve made being a cancer patient much more enjoyable,” she says with a laugh, talking warmly about the support of her friends, coaching staff and equestrian community at Mount Holyoke. Camille Reppert, one of McKinney’s closest friends, as well as a member of the Mount Holyoke IDA team, says that the diagnosis brought the team even closer together. “We all really pulled together at the shows to help her and each other out,” Reppert remembers.
CJ Law, McKinney’s coach at Mount Holyoke Equestrian Center, says working with McKinney over the last three years has been nothing short of incredible. In the wake of McKinney’s diagnosis, Law says she tried to be a good friend and help out McKinney as much as possible. “She’s such an exuberant and positive person,” Law says. “For all of us at the barn, she’s just been inspiring nonstop.”
McKinney herself often seems overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support she’s received throughout the process. “It’s weird to think about,” she says, “but I feel very, very lucky to have been diagnosed with cancer while surrounded by the Mount Holyoke Equestrian team and staff. I know that the love and caring gestures wouldn’t be the same anywhere else.”
Shortly after her initial diagnosis, she received a tremendous rush of support. Friends made care baskets and photo collages and stopped by McKinney’s apartment frequently. Once McKinney’s chemotherapy started, some of her friends pooled money to purchase her an FEI TV subscription so she could watch dressage shows even from the confines of her hospital bed. Her coach, Law, organized a meal-train, asking people in the Mount Holyoke community to bring McKinney meals daily so she wouldn’t have to cook.
One of the most awesome and inspiring things, McKinney remembers, is one of the last shows that she missed due to her chemotherapy schedule. Her friends and teammates from Mount Holyoke, as well as riders from other schools in the region, designed embroidered hats that read, “Ride for Mika,” and wore them throughout the weekend. In addition, all of Mount Holyoke’s school horses were braided with yellow ribbons and wore yellow saddle pads in support of the fight against bone cancer. Although McKinney was in the hospital at this point, she watched both the last IDA regional show and the IHSA Zone show on livestream and recalls being overwhelmed as she witnessed the entire region rally together to support her. “It was huge for me,” McKinney says. “It was such a special act of kindness.”
Along with the continued strength and solace McKinney finds in horses, she brims with gratitude and astonishment at the response and support of her friends, her teammates and her coaches throughout her diagnosis. “When I was first diagnosed, I had no idea how to tell my team,” she says, knowing that some individuals would take the news much harder than others.
Reppert says that she was with McKinney when she received the biopsy results. “We sat in the office and cried together,” Reppert says. She, too, talks about McKinney’s competitive, never-give-up attitude and remembers that even as McKinney received the news of her diagnosis, she seemed ready to fight it.
Initially, she says, McKinney was devastated about the tumor, yet when she found out that it was cancerous, she seemed oddly at peace with it. She spoke with her coaches and figured out the best way to tell her team. “I think we were all just in shock,” says Emily Tarantini, another teammate and close friend of McKinney, about the effects of the news on the team and the equestrian community. “Everyone processed it differently.” Once the news was out though, McKinney remembers the enormous outpouring of love and support she received from her teammates. “We’re so close-knit,” she says. “My teams and my coaches all went above and beyond what I could have ever expected.”
Ready for the Fight
At the very core of McKinney’s life is her endless dedication and tremendous motivation to continue pursuing what she loves. A perfect example of this is her journey to ride at the IDA Nationals last spring. After a solid placing the year before at the 2016 IDA Nationals, McKinney had her heart set on competing again and representing her school. When she snagged the wildcard spot to show as an individual for the 2017 IDA Nationals, she jumped at the opportunity.
Unfortunately, the timing of her journey to IDA Nationals clashed with a new challenge—the start of chemotherapy. As a result, McKinney was unable to compete at the last IDA regional show of the season, marking the first show that she had to miss as team captain. She remembers how difficult it was to be away from her friends, teammates and coaches while they were competing, but luckily, they were able to video-call her for all of their rides. Mount Holyoke won the last regional show, earning a team spot at IDA Nationals in April for the first time in three years—a dream come true for McKinney, who had hoped for the team to have this opportunity since her first election as captain.
But by the end of April, with IDA Nationals quickly approaching, McKinney had undergone three chemotherapy treatments and was starting to feel the effects. Her left leg was incredibly weakened due to a tumor and her breathing capabilities were lessening as the cancer spread to her lungs.
“In comparison to how I’d been all season, I was very weak,” she says. On top of that, she had only taken three formal riding lessons since her diagnosis in March, although she occasionally was able to go out on hacks to simply enjoy riding and have a little therapy session. Despite all of this, McKinney recalls her journey to IDA Nationals as filled with positivity, saying that she was just so happy to be there with her teammates, all of whom had worked so hard for it.
For McKinney’s individual ride, the odds were stacked against her and she was well aware of it. “I wasn’t trying to win,” she says. “I just wanted to go in and ride the best I could.”
In addition to the IDA team’s presence, Mount Holyoke’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team also drove several hours to the show with Law to support McKinney’s ride. Her extended family was also on the sidelines, totaling approximately 30 people, all there to watch McKinney ride.
“They made it so memorable for me,” she says. And although McKinney had a solid ride, she ended up placing eighth in the class and remembers being slightly disappointed by the results.
Her second chance came with team day, and McKinney was determined to represent Mount Holyoke in the ring. She drew a nice horse, she remembers, and she felt confident about the potential for her ride. “I had a pretty good test,” she says. “I felt as though I had done my part and ridden the best I could.” And certainly, it seems she did—McKinney won her class with 71.4 percent. Teammate Tarantini says that the crowd was silent during her ride and when they found out that she had won, the team was ecstatic. “I was just over the moon about it,” McKinney says. “Remembering that day just remains so special to me.”
Since McKinney’s incredibly memorable Nationals ride, she’s been unable to return to the saddle due to her intense chemotherapy schedule. She’s hopeful that she’ll be able to start riding and competing again soon. Although she’s had to miss a bit of school, she’s been able to keep up with her coursework with online classes and she’s planning on graduating in 2018 with her class.
Above all, McKinney has become an enormous source of light and inspiration in the equestrian world and the many lives she has impacted at a young age is incredible.
“To say I’m proud of Mika would be an understatement,” says Tarantini. “She has handled everything with an unbelievable amount of grace, class and poise.”
Law echoes a similar sentiment: “Without a doubt, Mika has been put in all of our lives for a particular reason. We’re just so proud of her and we’re all rooting for her.”