August 8, 2013
By Jody ReynoldsThe American Quarter Horse Journal
Mary Huddleston hitches a ride from one of her best friends, AQHYA Region 4 Director Lindsay Brush.
Her motto is, "It could always be worse."
Seventeen-year-old Mary Huddleston of Farmville, Virginia, is grateful to be alive. In fifth grade, she found out that she had Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare disease in which cancer cells are found in the bone or soft tissue. She had a softball-sized tumor at the top of her hipbone. While her classmates enjoyed a normal, youthful year, Mary endured an exhausting year of chemotherapy and radiation, followed by a hemi-pelvectomy that removed half of her hip.
No horses, no sports, no running around like all the other kids. Doctor’s orders.
But Mary bounced back, strong and determined. As soon as she had the strength, she jumped back on her horses and even tried out for basketball. Before long, she was a ninth grader playing varsity basketball at her high school, and life was good.
Then the cancer returned, this time in her other hip. She faced another year of chemotherapy followed by a hip replacement and painful physical therapy.
“They pushed me hard during physical therapy so I’d be able to ride and do whatever I want to do,” she remembered. “They said horse riding was actually good for me. It helps loosen your hips.”
Toward the end of her recovery, she looked toward the fast-approaching 2011 All American Quarter Horse Congress. Her horse, 2006 bay gelding Assets In A Artbeat, was at the trainers and ready for her.
“I told them, 'I am showing!' ” she said. “I have a horse at home. We’ve been best friends since I was 5 when I got him as a 4-year-old. I got him out and rode him a few days before I left for the Congress to see how I was going to be. At the Congress, I had to hold on to my dad because I couldn’t really walk. I was very tired. I didn’t ride my horse before I showed. I just got on and went into the pen.”
Mary immediately noticed something different about “Ralphie.”
“He can be really lazy,” she laughed. “But I’d never felt him ride like that before. It’s like he knew something was wrong with me. He was so careful and so good.”
She ended up sixth in her hunter under saddle class at the Congress.
Mary knew that she was fortunate to have her horses – they were helping her heal in more ways than one.
Mary most recently endured a stem cell transplant, in the summer of 2012, to ensure her immune system would be strong enough to fight off any future disease. This was a long process that kept her out of school and away from the things she loves to do. In fact, she wasn’t allowed to leave her house all summer.
“This time last year, I was watching the Youth World from my computer inside my house,” she remembered.
Meanwhile, her high school rallied around her, getting tattoos of her name and creating #TeamMary hashtags and posters to show their support.
Again, Mary bounced back, and decided to get as involved as she could with AQHYA and make the 2013 Youth World a special return to the horse world.
She ran for – and won – an AQHYA national director position in which she helps with a variety of duties that help make the Youth World happen. She helps organize trophies and awards, helps manage the youth officers’ office and does all kinds of other tasks to make the show a success.
She’s also a Region 5 director and helps organize a spring conference in her area and plan her region’s roles in the Bank of America Youth Excellence Seminar each summer.
She says the experiences she’s had through AQHYA are preparing her for college and have made her a better leader. Plus, she says she’s made invaluable friends through AQHYA.
Mary will return in 2014 for her last year at the Youth World, competing with Ralphie in hunter under saddle. She’ll also be concentrating on her future goal of becoming a veterinarian, attending Virginia Tech.
“Mary is so wonderful,” said AQHA Manager of Youth Activities Robin Alden. “I’m privileged to have her as a national director. She’s so pleasant to be around and gets along with everybody. She treasures her accomplishments.”
Her friends agree – Mary’s attitude is contagious.
“I wouldn’t change any of it,” Mary said. “I couldn’t have done this without my horses and my friends and family. I get on my horse, and he's my legs.”