Martine was interviewed by Emily Covington in 1999. Our questions, and her answers, are presented below.
Background: Martine Fennelly is the founder of the Equestrian Cancer Initiative (ECI), an organization which aims to help cancer patients within the equestrian community. Martine intends to develop ECI into a nationally organized program that provides assistance through various means of volunteerism. This program recognizes the deeply healing impact horses have on us, and acknowledges the essential place they have in our lives.
In this second part of our interview (Click here for Part 1) Martine shares her personal story. She explains how her lifelong love of horses became central to her healing process, during treatment and recovery from cervical cancer. From this deeply affecting life experience, Martine has chosen to give back to the horse community through her creation of ECI.
Equerry: When did you become interested in horses?
Martine: The love of horses was just always there. Riding was something that I always wanted to do. I started lessons when I was in my late 20s. When I began, it was a real treat. I leased a little Quarter Horse cross in New York where we lived at the time. I ended up buying him because we moved back to the west coast and I didn’t want to leave him. He was fabulous.
I bought my first dressage horse as perhaps many people do, with more money than brains. He was 18.2 hands and had navicular. I thought that we could handle a little navicular. I think everybody goes through those purchases! So I began to get a small collection of horses. At a certain point, I had four horses who were all in various stages of training.
Equerry: What was the time frame of this?
Martine: It was about three or four years from when I started riding. In the beginning, I kind of dabbled. I didn’t ride dressage at first because I didn’t know much about it. I was in Los Angeles at the Equestrian Center. Dressage was not so visible there at that time. I was with a jumper trainer but I wasn’t very happy with that. So, I was always looking at other things and trail riding a lot. Then, about six to six and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Equerry: Can you explain what was that process like for you?
Martine: I started out by kind of ignoring it, mainly in that I was just going to my treatments. I wanted the doctors to just take care of it, make it go away. It seemed too much for me to really think about. Nothing much changed in the beginning. It wasn’t that hard. At first, it was even a bit liberating in a way because my thinking was that this was one of the worst things that could happen. Of course, it is not the worst, but at least I had a chance to fight it. And I thought, ‘It’s all right, I’m still here, I’m still riding’.
The treatments started to weaken me the more I got into them and then the pain started. Things began to change at that point. I really began to get concerned because all of a sudden I realized how much the process had impacted me physically. Going through the treatment, a person just has no energy, no strength. There is pain, and one is under so much medication most of the time that it is difficult to do much of anything. I became very concerned about my horses. That was a big worry for me.
Equerry: Was the fact this process prevented you from being with your horses an important point for you?
Martine: It was hard because it wasn’t so much the fact that I couldn’t ride at that particular point. At that point, I didn’t really think that I wouldn’t recover. I always operated under the premise that I would get through it.
On the other hand, it was financially a huge drain. Four horses require a lot of care. Physically, I couldn’t do it. And, to put four horses in full training is a lot of money. I was definitely looking at it in the context that I would lose my horses because I couldn’t care for them. That was the worst prospect, really - the most stressful thing.
Equerry: What did you do?
Martine: I found a place with a handicapped riding program for Wintermaerschen, the one who was a rescue. I paired up Lobo, my first horse, with a lady at the barn who had just gotten back into riding. She got along really well with him, so she took care of him. I had friends take care of my 18 hand Kabuki since he wasn’t really working. The fourth one, Finn ,who I still have, was at that point a young and fairly green Dutch warmblood. I put him into training. So, I managed to kind of farm them out. It was a good situation and I was really lucky. I could then concentrate more on the things I really needed to do.
Things happened quite rapidly. I think I went through two months or so of radiation treatments, with a couple of weeks of rest followed by a surgery. They ended up having to do a very, very radical procedure. That all happened in the span of four months or so. When I came out of the hospital in February the horses started to have a really big impact because then my recovery started.
Before the recovery process, everything happened very quickly. I was actively involved in doing something about the problem. When I came out of the hospital, however, I kind of felt like I was pushed out into this hostile land where I had gotten ill before. That was a very unsettling kind of thing. All of a sudden, it was like the Big Nothing. I weighed in at 98 pounds and I’m 5’10”. I could only walk with a cane, I was so weak. For a couple of weeks I couldn’t get around so I couldn’t see my horses - but I really needed to. Once I was able to see them and spend time at the barn, my horses started to become my meditation, my safe zone. When I'd spend time at the barn and then come home, I’d realize that I had spent 2 hours where I didn’t think about my illness once. I didn’t think about cancer once. That’s two hours of being free of fear. I can’t express how important that was to me.
Equerry: Did your relationship with your horses take on a new meaning for you?
Martine: Not really because I always had a very deep relationship with them. And, they were each different personalities. Lobo was always a horse whose job it was to take care of somebody. As long as he could do that, he was happy. At that time, he had Karen to take care of so I had taken a somewhat lesser role in his life. With my rescue horse, Wintermaerschen, I got the feeling he would say “I could do a little work if you really want me to, but I’d rather not”! I had an amazing relationship with Kabuki, my big horse. He gave me the most feedback in a way because he was the most dependent on me. The young one I hadn’t done much with at that point. He was in training.
So, my relationship with my horses didn’t change much. Physically, I didn’t have energy so I was just glad if I could spend some time outside with them. That was the important thing.
The chemotherapy was rough. At a certain point I was just so weak because I had lost heart muscle as well. On a good day, I could maybe get up and watch TV, for an hour. That would exhaust me so much that I would have to go back to bed. This was before I was able to go out and spend more time at the barn. At one point, I told my husband, “You know, I’ve got to go out to the barn. I’ve just got to.” I had him put me in the car and we drove out to the Equestrian Center. There was a horse show going on and one of the vendors was selling herbs for horses. I read the ingredients and what they said they would do for the horses and I said, half jokingly, that I should try some of the herbs. The vendor actually agreed and we started talking. It turned of that she was a cancer survivor as well. She had battled melanoma for years and as a result of that she researched these herbs. So, I bought some and made some tea. Within 48 hours I was able to go to a movie. It was dramatic, really. Before that, I had never been too involved in nutrition or vitamins. From this experience, I developed an interest in herbs and they were very beneficial to my recovery process.
That was in February, early March of 1994. It was kind of like opening a door. It seemed as though an internal engine had been started and for the first time there seemed to real hope. Before this, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever get my strength back. I really got into the herbs, bought books and researched. Within six weeks I was on a horse’s back. It was incredible.
As my recovery progressed, I was able to spend more hours at the barn. It was a time of complete happiness and peace. I was where I loved to be. My animals gave me strength and confidence and peace. I was never afraid when I was at the barn. I was there every day for as many hours as I could. I was really lucky. I wasn’t yet physically strong enough to work. My husband was very, very understanding. He supported me in whatever made me happy and helped me. It took about a year to get better.
Equerry: How did you begin to conceive of Equestrian Cancer Initiative?
Martine: Part of it was that I considered myself to be so lucky. I could not help but notice that there is more to life than meets the eye on perhaps a spiritual level. It goes beyond human design. I think a person is given things. The first order of business is that one ought to appreciate those things. The second thing is that the more one is given, the more one ought to give back. I think this is a concept that could really change the fabric of life if more people could understand it and adhere to it. I believe that people who have been given so many blessings do have a responsibility to give something back. ECI was an obvious direction for me. It was quite clear as to what I thought needed to be done. Everybody can find what it is that they can do.
The most important thing in my own recovery was my horses. They were the most precarious thing as well, the thing that I could have lost most easily. There are cancer patients who might say ‘I am just going to take care of business. The horses are not a priority right now’. They may have to mentally justify having their horse. In a situation like that, people might think about having to get rid of their horse. They may not realize fully how beneficial their horse is to their recovery process.
One can be scared at so many levels. If a woman is single and by herself, the whole prospect of fighting a life threatening situation alone- and this includes finding a microscopic knot in your breast- is almost overwhelming. All of a sudden the body can seem to become a time bomb. It is the most unsettling experience because the body is where you live. This is all you have. All of a sudden that can seem to turn on you. One might think ‘If I can’t depend on my own body, what can I depend on?’ The experience is like having the rug pulled away from under your feet. At this point, the practical mind can take over. That mind might tell you that horses are not reasonable. They cost so much money, you cannot properly take care of them while you are ill, you have to take care of yourself - these sorts of justifications. I think a lot of women would tend to think that they have to take care of themselves and that horses are a frivolity, a luxury.
This is how I saw a need for ECI. If it were known that there is a solution, that cancer patients could have their horses taken care of until they are once again able, perhaps many people would make different choices.
If ECI could help eliminate the stress of others’ worry during such a time, so that these people could enjoy the benefits of their horses, then that would be a tremendous service.
Equerry: Thank you very much, Martine.
For more information on the Equestrian Cancer Initiative, or if you would like to help, call (619) 483-6920.
Emily Covington was employed at Hilltop Farm, Inc. in Colora, MD from 1992 through 1997. Starting as a working student, she later served as assistant stable manager, and rode young horses, including her own. She has produced a variety of photography and artwork for the farms publications. She now lives in Redlands, CA where she continues to ride and does various freelance work for Hilltop.
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