● By Melissa Mendonca
Hope Equestrian Relay Organization’s Ride For Life
The horse trailers that arrive at the Tehama District Fairgrounds on April 5 for the HERO Ride for Life are sure to raise a little dust. You won’t hear anyone complain, however. The horses and their riders, who will arrive from throughout the North State, will be there to raise something bigger: funds to cure cancer.
Now in its sixth year, the Hope Equestrian Relay Organization’s event is notable not only for the money it has raised for the American Cancer Society — around $150,000 in five years — but the remarkable way in which it came about.
At its inception, Jessica Macdonald, now 18, was a young teenager looking for a community service project to earn her Emerald Star award in 4-H. An aunt mentioned a student she taught in Eureka who had started Ride for Life there and the idea resonated with the young horse enthusiast.
“I had an aunt who was battling cancer at the time, and knew other people who were dealing with it, too,” she says. “I had ridden horses all my life so it seemed like a good idea.”
The good idea was also a really big one. She decided to ask her friend Bailey Brownfield to join forces with her. The two had met through horse shows and were active in the Antelope 4-H Club in Red Bluff.
“I was losing my great-grandmother to cancer at the time,” says Brownfield, who quickly signed on with Macdonald. Together the two would not only earn their Emerald Stars, but develop a signature event for cancer fundraising that tapped into a new demographic: equestrians. They would also honor family members who ended up losing their battles with cancer before the first event was held.
“I kept in mind how she would have done the same, and how much she would have liked it,” Brownfield says of the memory she held of her great-grandmother while she continued to organize Ride for Life in the face of loss.
Ride for Life is much like the well-known Relay for Life, with two big differences. It operates from 9 am until 4 pm, rather than for 24 hours. And all participants are on horseback.
As an equestrian event, it is fairly unique in that it gathers riders from all realms of horsemanship. People who ride for pleasure walk the track with those who compete at high levels in all types of horse shows and rodeos. It’s a popular event for 4-H members, but brings out adults as well.
In that first year, the girls thought they might bring in $5,000 from about 50 riders. They ended up with about 200 riders and raised around $23,000. “It was astonishing, that’s for sure,” says Macdonald. “We thought, ‘How can we not do this again?’ It obviously means a lot to people.”
In their second year, the girls enlisted the help of Taylor Collins, now 17 and a senior at Red Bluff High School. The event continues even though both Macdonald and Brownfield have graduated and completed their time in 4-H. Brownfield remains in Red Bluff and attends Shasta College, where she is majoring in agriculture business with a plan to transfer to Chico State. Macdonald attends University of Nevada, Reno, where she is a nursing student. She wrote her sponsorship letters for the event when she was home for the winter break.
While the event continues to grow by incorporating new entertainment and activities, the most meaningful element remains the Survivors Lap that occurs just before lunch. “We have a horse-drawn wagon for survivors who don’t ride horses or who can’t ride horses,” says Macdonald. A riderless horse is walked in memory of those who have not survived.
Many riders honor family and friends in some way as they ride. Often horses are draped with a sash that bears the image of someone fighting cancer or lost to the disease. Some teams of riders develop a theme. One of the most memorable was when each team member outfitted herself and her horse in a color representing a different type of cancer.
For Collins, the 2014 event will be particularly meaningful. Her great-grandmother is currently fighting her third bout with cancer and, just two days before Christmas, her grandfather was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It’s difficult, she admits. “It’s why we ride.”
April 5, Tehama District Fairgrounds, Red Bluff