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Region Two Survivors

Three long-time AQHA Region Two Championship riders made a commitment to face down cancer.

By Christine Hamilton
The American Quarter Horse Journal
September 26, 2013

2013 AQHA Region Two Championship cancer survivors participated in a Ride for the Cure Survivors Ride.

These cancer survivors pledged to make it to the 2013 Region Two Ride for the Cure Cancer Survivors' Ride. Left to right: Mary Roes, Rosie Elmore, Todd Iszler (Journal photo)

“We made a commitment to make it here again,” explains AQHA Region Two Championship committee co-chairman Todd Iszler of Bismarck, North Dakota.

The “we” is Todd, his fellow co-chairwoman Mary Roes of Hemingford, Nebraska, and their friend and Region Two rider Rosie Elmore of Hot Springs, South Dakota. At the 2012 Region Two “Ride for the Cure” Cancer Survivors’ Ride, the three pledged to live and participate in the show’s 2013 ride (Scroll down for the Journal slide show).

It was no small task. Previous to last year’s show, Mary had spent the year battling breast cancer; Todd had just been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma; and Rosie was facing a Stage 4 spread of previously-beaten colo-rectal cancer – it had gone to her lymph nodes. (Read, “Got Courage?” about Mary and Rosie’s experience at the 2012 Region Two Championship.)

But they made it to the September 21 ride in Rapid City, South Dakota.

“It’s been a great motivational tool for all three of us all year long,” Todd says. “Both (Mary and Rosie) constantly reminded me (of the commitment) when I was so down and so sick.”

The Long Year

At the 2012 Region Two Championship, Todd had just started radiation and felt for the first time the fatigue to come. He finished radiation just before Christmas, but after the holiday they found that the lymphoma had spread, and Todd began chemotherapy in January.

“I didn’t handle treatment very well,” Todd says. “I had so much pain from the neutrogen shots that I was heavily medicated just to make it through the day. There are many weeks I don’t remember. (My wife) Tammy said I did a lot of hallucinating at night.”

Blood transfusions and emergency room visits characterized the first months of 2013 for the Iszlers as Todd’s body reacted to the chemotherapy. Neighbors pitched in to feed horses for the Iszlers’ young sons, Trey and Chris. A teacher from the school where Todd works with autistic children organized meals twice a week for the family, taking some of the pressure off Tammy, a full-time teacher herself. Trey handled the family’s calving, while Chris was his father’s “shadow,” getting anything Todd needed. The family cut back their herd of halter horses.

“One time, my potassium went so low that I blacked out walking on the sidewalk, and (Trey) had to carry me into my in-laws’ house, and they called the ambulance,” Todd says. “I was close to a heart-attack.”

Todd dropped down to 127 pounds.

“(After one two-and-a-half-week hospital stay,) I was alone at home for a couple of hours, and I was so frustrated that I had to get on the ground to get something out of the cupboard. And I couldn’t get up. I sat there until someone came home to help me get up. That was difficult.”

Keeping in touch with friends through Facebook was a “saving grace” of encouragement for Todd.

“Todd would ask me about medications and ask me why he was feeling the way he was,” Mary says. “All I could tell him is what happened with me, and it will get better. The tiredness is normal; you’re not going to remember things; trust me; it’s normal.”

She continues, “After my chemo was done last year, I had a lot of frustrating moments with my strength. I tried to help my husband and I just had no strength to hold this piece of iron he needed held up while he bolted it, and I just sat on the ground and bawled. It just takes so much out of you and it takes so long to get it back.”

The monthly Region Two Committee conference calls gave Todd “focus.” Some calls he couldn’t attend, and Mary would send him email summaries for his input. Todd handled organizing and ordering all of the Region Two awards.

“I would work on awards from the hospital bed, when it was 2 or 3 in the morning and I couldn’t sleep,” Todd says with a laugh. “I’d be on the computer searching and taking notes trying to fit things into my budget.”

“Those are the kinds of things that you need when you’re going through treatment,” Mary adds, “to say, ‘I’m still me, I can still do things.’ ”

Back in the Saddle

In April, Todd scanned clean, and his treatment ended although the work of recovery was just beginning.

“I had lost so much muscle mass I was in a wheelchair,” Todd says. “I had leg braces … and had to learn how to walk again. It was like being a baby.”

By mid-May, he was itching to ride his mare, Miss Golden Credit, aka “Cash.” Three people helped to get him in the saddle. His hands were so weak he couldn’t hold the reins together, so they tied them together with mane-banding bands.

In June, he rode in the local Bismarck Horse Club’s benefit for him, “Trotting for Todd,” and won the walk/trot class, “scared to death” that he was going to fall off.

The weekend prior to the Region Two Championship, he rode in a walk/trot futurity in Valley City, North Dakota. It was a trial run to see if he could make it to the Region Two “Ride for the Cure.” Todd wanted to be able to go to Region Two alone.

“I was determined,” Todd says. “A friend drove with me the first day (that Saturday). I did a 15-minute ride before the class, rode in the class, and drove back, and rested when I got home. And I did the same thing again on Sunday with my family. On Tuesday, I was on the road to Rapid City.”

Though he is walking now, Todd still has to be careful of his balance and to rest often.

“It’s the little things that frustrate you, like (working) zippers or the stupid little snap on my hay bag,” Todd said. “I’m not a proud person. … When I couldn’t get the snap, I found the first body I could and asked, ‘Can you give me a hand?’

“A week ago I couldn’t get the saddle on my horse, and this week I can!”

On September 21, Todd saddled Cash for the Region Two “Ride for the Cure” Cancer Survivors’ Ride, and Mary rode her reiner, Chex Spinnin Smoke, “Freckles.” They lined up with several other riders to enter the arena behind the Ford truck carrying Rosie, along with several other Region Two participants. The three survivors made their date.

Looking Ahead

When Mary sees Todd now, she sees where she was herself a year ago: “I had to work to get stronger.” She started weight training with a friend in February, and has put a performance Register of Merit on Freckles this summer.

“She’s a motivator for me in that,” Todd says. “I don’t have the strength to lope now. That’s OK; that’s next year’s goal. … So much has improved (for me) in just three months … it’s a small gain, but it was a tough climb to get it. I wish it didn’t have to take that long, but I’ll take what I can get.”

Rosie’s cancer has now spread aggressively.

“It’s hard to face that,” Mary says. “That woman has the most optimistic attitude of anyone I know. She is a wonderful woman.”

In 2012, Rosie was awarded the Region Two Don Brunner Memorial Grit and Perseverance Award, named for the respected longtime South Dakota Quarter Horse breeder and exhibitor who died from cancer in 2011. For 2013, the award went to Todd.

“It’s amazing: Cancer really touches your faith, your marriage, your relationship with friends,” Todd says. “I’m surprised my wife didn’t leave me because I wasn’t always kind. I was so frustrated.

“Trey, my oldest, had to grow up overnight. I had gotten a new round baler before I was diagnosed. He physically got me into the tractor in early summer, and I was able to make it for 10 minutes to show him how to run it. He did all our round baling this summer. I feel bad that (my boys have) had to grow up too quick and not be kids this last year.

“It’s been a tough, long year, but I never would have done it without my family and friends.”

The Region Two “Ride for the Cure” is just one example of how the AQHA Region Two Championship has become more than a horse show for those who participate in it and put it on. Now in its eighth year, it’s a chance to welcome new people in, giving them a place to enjoy their horses and to challenge their horsemanship, and, more importantly, to make lasting friendships.

“We have a great team with the Region Two,” Mary says. “We have an awful lot of good people who work with us. I don’t think any one of us can take credit for a great show, it’s a community effort.”

“It’s not just a horse show,” Todd adds. “It’s a family reunion.”