Shannon Dueck, a Pan American Games silver medalist (pictured at left on her Grand Prix mare, Ayscha), was kind enough to create a training article on canter pirouettes for a special breast-cancer issue of Dressage Today in March 2011. During the time the article was produced, Dueck was battling breast cancer. While the story was originally intended to be a standard training feature, the two-part series proved to be a memorable experience for everyone involved.
In 2009, Dueck’s life changed when she, her mother and her aunt were all diagnosed with breast cancer. As soon as she learned her diagnosis, she ordered books and had them shipped overnight to learn as much about the disease as she could. Thanks to her supportive husband and early detection, Dueck was able to fight the disease full force. She opted not to undergo chemotherapy or radiation and instead had a double mastectomy. Just 17 days after surgery, Dueck was back in the saddle and she returned to her normal schedule in six weeks. Though her battle with cancer shifted her focus in dressage, she returned to the sport stronger than ever.
In the following interview, Dueck discusses how breast cancer changed her outlook on dressage—an incredible transformation that took place, in part, during the time she was working on her training articles.
Q. When and how did you get into dressage?
A. I probably knew what dressage was by the time I was 5 years old.My mom, Jacqueline Oldham, was instrumental in bringing dressage to British Columbia, where I grew up, and she lived and breathed it. While I was having a blast competing in every horse sport known to man, she was very serious about top-quality dressage. I was reading every classical tome out there in my preteen years, so my book knowledge and theory as a young rider were vastly superior to my actual ability to ride dressage. I thought it was just a bit of torture they made us go through to get to the cross-country course.
Q. How did that shape your approach to life out of the saddle?
A. I’m naturally very goal-driven in everything I do. My choice to tackle dressage excellence as a lifetime goal has really helped me balance this tendency out. I know now that the journey is actually more important than the destination and I try to enjoy everything good in my life as it happens, not afterward.
Q. You were dealing with many personal and health-related issues in 2011 and said that it helped a lot to have the two-part DT article to focus on. Looking back at the training pieces, what memories does that bring back?
A. Breast cancer had arrived in my life with a vengeance in 2009. My mother, my aunt and I were all diagnosed in that year. I had always been athletic and healthy, but mortality had suddenly become real for me and my loved ones. So I think my best remembrance of the time we did the articles was a feeling of immense gratitude that I had of my physical self. I really did rejoice daily in my ability to ride these wonderful horses. Prior to the diagnosis, I had always taken how my body worked for granted. That attitude has changed forever.
Q. When we were working on the article, you mentioned that the photo shoot helped keep your mind occupied and, that no matter how you were feeling, you knew you had to go out and ride to get this project done. Can you talk more about how riding can help you work through life events?
A. We all know that life is not easy sometimes. Everyone has sadness and stress come into their life, and during these times we need to have a happy and wholesome place to escape to. It was amazing to me how my hours with the horses—both on and off their backs—allowed me to forget my stress and worry and made me feel whole again. Afterwards, all those worries would come flooding back, but when I was focused on my riding, the world was just all right.
Q. How have riding and horses helped you recover mentally?
A. Luckily, I was able to throw myself into teaching pretty much full-time very soon after the surgery, and teaching always gives me great rewards. My riding was soon to follow. Mentally, I was pretty healthy. To be honest, I think part of this was due to the fact that my breasts were kind of an afterthought for me, so losing them was not as sad as it can be for some women. I believe some of my attitude can be attributed to my husband. He only cared that the reconstructed “girls” were cancer-free. His attitude helped me tremendously.
Q. How was the physical rehab? Were there many bumps in the road?
A. My physical rehab took time, but I was very fit before the surgery, which helped me rehab. There were no bumps in the road, just slow and steady progress. And, really, we don’t use our pectorals much in riding. I just took lots of care getting on and off, which is when we do need them to be strong. A nice tall mounting block was a necessity.
I think cancer opened my eyes and my mind in ways that never would have happened otherwise. I often just stop to appreciate the beauty and wonder in my life, and this is a gift I did not have so much “BC”—before cancer. My passion for horses helped me tremendously, and I truly hope these magical creatures can help others during their treatment and recovery.
Q. What advice would you give to a rider who has been diagnosed with breast cancer?
A. There is so much to say here. As for the horses, keep them near and dear; they will help you be strong both physically and mentally. Medically, I think if it comes down to one piece of advice, it would be to do everything you can to strengthen your immune system. The more your body can fight the cancer, the less the chemo, radiation and surgery have to.
Q. What is your current perspective on dressage and how has it changed over the past few years?
A. Honestly, I think I have more fun with every horse I ride and every student I teach now. I used to equate competitive success with happiness. Although I am still very goal-driven, I think I get much more happiness out of my daily training than I used to. I think my horses like the new attitude.
Q. In your original article, you wrote: “I remember wondering if I was ever going to enter international competitions or even get down centerline. However, having that goal got me out of the house and back to the barn. I sure know that having the horses was a huge psychological benefit.” It seems you are doing better than ever. What is new with you since that article?
A. So much! In 2011 I was incredibly lucky to spend six months with my Grand Prix mare, Ayscha, training in England with Carl Hester. Yes, he is a fabulous trainer and person. At the same time, the wonderful Sally Alksnis became a client and then a sponsor, and in 2013 Carl helped us find two talented young geldings that Sally and I are partners in. Now it’s up to me to develop them, and I am loving every day I get to sit on them.
Shannon Dueck represented Canada at the 1999 Pan American Games (individual silver medal), the 2002 World Championships, the 2003 World Cup Final and the Open European Championships aboard her self-trained horse, Korona. In addition to being an FEI-level trainer and international competitor, she holds a master’s degree in equine nutrition and physiology and served on the faculty of Lakeland College, Olds College and Johnson & Wales University. She lives and trains year-round in Loxahatchee, Florida (dueckdressage.com).