By Lauren R. Giannini
Sandy Ferrell is a well-known professional rider-trainer on the AA circuit with many wins including the World Championship Hunter Rider title. She loves to teach, and her riders range from teenagers to ages in the 70s. She described herself as extremely upbeat, happy-go-lucky and fairly goofy, then added, “I’m a fun person. I can laugh all day long.” She’ll also tell you that she’s tough. Believe it: Sandy’s a breast cancer survivor.
“I consider myself very blessed and very lucky,” she said. “Back in 1985, I found a small lump and it came back benign. I do self-exams regularly. In 2005, when I was in Florida showing for the winter, I found several lumps in one breast. I don’t remember if it was the same one. I didn’t know who I should see about it. I didn’t have my family there. I told myself I’d be OK until I got home.”
After Sandy returned to Bernville, Pennsylvania, headquarters for her Royall Show Hunters, Inc. when she isn’t in Wellington, she turned to a client’s mother who was very involved in the nearby Reading Hospital. “I didn’t have a primary care physician, because I hadn’t been living there very long,” said Sandy. “Basically, she steered me in the right direction and I went to see the doctor.”
A biopsy indicated a very low level of breast cancer, and the doctor outlined her options: double mastectomy and reconstruction or she could do the single followed by chemo and radiation. But they also told her that cancer often appears in the other breast after a single mastectomy.
“To be honest, I’m a very strong person and I just wanted it out of my body,” said Sandy. “I wanted to recover and be done with it.”
Trainer Karen Caristo, one of Sandy’s best friends, said, “She’s dedicated, strong-willed and hardworking. She never let breast cancer interfere with her goals. She forged through tough times with a smile on her face, like she was riding a challenging horse, determined to come out on top.”
Sandy scheduled the double mastectomy and reconstruction in June. When she woke up in the recovery room, the first thing she asked her mother was, “Did they get it all OK?” The answer was yes. The lymph nodes that were removed came back clear.
“I had the best-case scenario,” said Sandy. “I had breast cancer, but it was fixable. It happened fast. The mastectomies were painful. They pull your muscle off your chest bone and take everything else out. You have temporary implants that get injected with saline periodically to continue stretching the muscle. That was the hard part. I recovered quickly and life went back to normal. I was very blessed. It was amazing. If nothing else, I don’t have to worry about breast cancer again in my life. There’s nothing left. I did the gene testing and it came back negative. I thank God for every day, every success.”
Horses as Therapy
After the surgery, Sandy went to the barn every day, because it really helped her to be around the horses. She also appreciated the camaraderie and support of all the people rooting for her return to health.
“I’m not someone who can sit on the couch all day,” admitted Sandy. “I didn’t have to go through physical therapy, but I walked a lot at the barn. I couldn’t lift anything. Two months later, I got back to riding. I was smart when it came to choosing what I rode. I took care of myself.”
Ginny Edwards, owner of Hidden Hollow Farm in Upperville, Virginia, recalled that Sandy was as concerned for the horses and her clients as she was for herself.
“From the beginning, Sandy’s outlook was positive and her concern for the horses dominated conversations,” said Ginny. “She worked harder than the doctors thought possible and was ready to get back to the sport she loves sooner than anyone expected. A cancer diagnosis is life-altering for anyone, but it brought out even more determination in Sandy. She loves riding and horses, and cancer wasn’t going to stop her.”
Sandy’s life with horses went on at a good pace, and she enjoyed a standout year in 2008. She garnered Devon’s Leading Lady Rider award when she rode two champions (Bolero, 3’6” green hunters and Andiamo, regular working hunters) and one reserve champion (Wilson, 3’9” green hunters). On October 3, 2008, Sandy earned the pinnacle honor for any professional when she won the 15th Annual Professional World Championship Hunter Rider Finals for the American Hunter Jumper Foundation Professional World Cup Champion Rider title at the Capital Challenge Horse Show in Maryland. Sandy beat the best of the best, including previous winners John French, Scott Stewart and Jennifer Alfano.
“That was a real celebration — it came at a good time in my life,” said Sandy. “I’d been in the class before and placed fifth and second. For any of us, it’s a wonderful thing to win that class. There’s so much camaraderie. Everyone’s cheering for everybody and helping each other. That’s what I liked about it. It was a dream to win. I had to do it. I did it and maybe I’ll do it again someday, but I did it.”
Early Aptitude for Showing
Sandy, who started riding with her mother 46 years ago, grew up on a farm in Maryland. Linda Andrisani and Jack Stedding were early influences on her horsemanship.
“I realized I had a little bit of talent when my dad started taking me to shows,” recalled Sandy. “After I graduated from college, I started working for Louise Serio. I didn’t have the money to be an amateur, but Louise gave me opportunities to ride. Then I was offered a job with a private family in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1992. It was my first real job being the #1 rider in a barn. I went with the family to California and started to work at a different barn. I came home [to the East Coast] in 2000.”
Two years later, Sandy established Royall Show Hunters. She’s ranked among the top professional hunter riders in the country. “I started making a list of my favorite horses, my horses of a lifetime, but it’s really long,” she said. “I’m very blessed to have very nice horses for nice people. I did some jumpers growing up, but hunters have always been my favorite.”
When asked what she would do if she hadn’t gone into horses, Sandy replied without hesitation: “I’d be an FBI agent. I majored in criminal justice in college.”
Life is good for Sandy, whose cheerful nature conquers all. After a spill in December 2015 punctured her lung and broke three vertebrae, she spent months in an orthopedic brace while her back healed. Every Tuesday she decorated the brace with a new theme such as Christmas, the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day. The MRI for that injury revealed three previous back fractures Sandy didn’t even know she had. Considering herself very lucky, she rides and shows in a Race-Safe vest.
“They’re a company based in the UK where the standards are very high for body protector vests for jockeys and equestrians,” said Sandy. “They approached me and took the standard size closest to mine and customized it. It’s an amazing vest and I recommend it. Mine’s black and I wear it over my show coat.”
In June at Devon, Sandy was thrilled when she rode Because to the 3’9” Green Hunter Championship, her first tri-color there since 2008 and another reason to celebrate and be grateful.
As for surviving breast cancer, Sandy believes in self-examination. “That’s how I found mine,” she said. “An ultrasound confirmed the lumps, but the mammogram was negative and didn’t even detect the lumps. I told the surgeon I wanted a biopsy and it came back showing early-stage breast cancer. If something doesn’t seem right, go to the doctor. Insist on a biopsy. Trust your doctor, but you have to take care of yourself and trust your instincts.”
Photos courtesy of Sandy Ferrell, unless noted otherwise