Unrelenting—A Dressage Rider’s Story of Success, Strength, and Sheer Determination
Photos courtesy of Mika McKinney; Emily Tarantini; Ashley Littlefield
With a burning passion for dressage and an unwavering will to persevere, 22-year-old Mika McKinney has no plans of stopping on her way to the top of the sport, even if that means overcoming an unexpected adversity. For herself, her love of horses, and her dad, this inspirational equestrian and Maine-native is showing that anything is possible with the right attitude.
Like many girls, Mika caught the horse bug at a young age. “I was drawn to anything horse related ever since I can remember. From sleeping on horse-patterned sheets to running, jumping, and performing dressage tests in my driveway as if I were a horse, my world revolved around horses,” she says. By the age of seven, she was on a horse, and by the time she was nine, she had found dressage, trainer Barton Patrick, and the Belfast Polo Club in Belfast, ME. Thirteen years later, Mika is still riding with Barton.
With Barton’s focus being dressage, Mika quickly fell in love with the intricacies of the sport. “The relationship between horse and rider was always intriguing to me, as well as the precision needed and what seemed like silent communication between horse and rider that made dressage tests look so effortless and graceful,” she explains. “At the age of 11 I entered my first dressage schooling show and to our surprise I won both of my tests! As I reflect on my beginning years of riding, training, preparing, and showing at my first competition, it was a huge turning point. It built a large amount of self-confidence as well as increased my trust and bond I shared with the horse I was currently leasing and showing.”
Though most girls dream of owning a horse, Mika stuck to leasing instead. This allowed her to progress as a rider and to match with different horses along the way as her ability grew. For Mika, the choice paid off. “Since the inception of my riding, I have gone on to compete through Fourth Level dressage, earn my United States Dressage Federation Bronze Medal, and have had the honor and privilege of riding on both Mount Holyoke College’s Varsity Hunt Seat Team and Dressage Team,” she says.
Fast-forward to college, where Mika chose to stay in New England and sought out a school with a science program and riding team, attending Mount Holyoke College (MHC) in South Hadley, MA. With academia being so important in her life, the perfect fit was important. “When Mount Holyoke came up on my list, it met and exceeded all of my requirements. I was blown away with the academic offerings, small class sizes, low teacher to student ratio, and Hogwarts-like campus,” she says. “To seal the deal, MHC’s equestrian program was nationally ranked; the riding facility was on campus with three teams to choose from!”
Transitioning to a team mentality about a usually individual sport, Mika eventually was named captain of the Dressage Team her junior year and qualified for the Intercollegiate Dressage Association Finals. “Through being on the team I have learned a lot about myself both in and out of the tack. I had the honor of being the captain of the Intercollegiate Dressage Association team my junior year, which gave me the perspective into team dynamics, management and leadership. Working closely with my coaches, I learned the potential rewards that result from setting high expectations for the team as well as individually,” she explains.
In March 2017, an unexpected obstacle sent Mika’s world spinning. “I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer, while I was a junior at MHC. My cancer had metastasized to my lungs, causing my treatment and journey to get healthy to be more complex, involved, and harsher,” she explains. “After receiving my diagnosis, I immediately started an intensive chemotherapy regimen, causing fatigue, weakness, and my blood counts to drop.”
Thankfully, Mika didn’t have to fight this battle alone. Her coach, teammates, and other riders in her region were by her side, making inspirational posters, designing “Ride For Mika” hats, and sporting yellow ribbons while in the competition ring. “My teams, both the hunt seat team and dressage team, as well as [Head Coach] C.J. Law and [Assistant Coach] Morgan Lynch went above and beyond in regards of supporting me. C.J. has been a constant advocate for me, including helping me tell the teams about my diagnosis, setting up a meal train so that I wouldn’t have to cook while I was in recovery and on crutches, and now connecting me with people in the equestrian world in regards to para-dressage. Seeing and having that amount of support truly helped me through some of my most challenging times while getting chemotherapy.”
But her fellow equestrians weren’t the only support and inspiration Mika had alongside her. Her father, Paul, stood by her every step of the way. “My dad was definitely my biggest inspiration throughout it all. His positive, kind, and supportive qualities have been keeping me going. My father has been my only parent since my mother passed away when I was five, so our bond is different than many, strengthening our relationship and making us closer than most fatherdaughter combos,” she says. “I have been blessed with a father with such a big and generous heart. He has devoted his life to raising me; if it is waking up for countless horse shows, packing homemade lunches, sending me to school, and now sleeping in my hospital room for nine months and counting for chemotherapy, surgeries, and rehab, he has shown me what love and family is all about. I keep fighting to make him proud, to make sure he doesn’t have to go through more loss, to walk across the stage and get my diploma this spring, and to ensure that our irreplaceable bond continues for years to come.”
Due to her diagnosis and the resulting lack of riding, Mika and her coach thought that competing at the 2017 IDA Nationals that April was no longer an option, but she wasn’t about to stop trying. Being ranked second in her region, Mika was in the running for (and later received) the individual wild card slot to compete at Nationals, and Mount Holyoke had qualified as a team for the first time in three years, with Mika cheering them on from her hospital bed. “As Nationals approached, my never-give-up, competitive side came out, striving to be my best and ride for my team,” she says. Competing at Nationals, Mika received eighth in the Individual First Level Championship, but wasn’t happy with the result and was inspired to ride her best the next day for her team. “I truthfully feel so extremely lucky to have made it to the National Championships for two years in a row at First Level, and being able to win the Team First Level National title last year to help the team earn Reserve National Champion Team was a dream come true.”
After completing her 30-week cycle of treatment, Mika was faced with a challenging decision, and on December 22, 2017, she went into surgery. “Having been presented with various treatment options going forward, I chose the most aggressive option, opting to have an above-knee amputation on my left leg, as well as both of my lungs operated on to remove the nodules, to greatly reduce the cancer within me,” she explains.
Now, Mika is learning to live life as an amputee, finishing school online, and setting goals to get back in the saddle less than six weeks after her operation. “My immediate goals are to focus on rehab, which includes physical therapy and occupational therapy, and gaining back muscle strength, as well as learning about my life’s new ‘normal,’” she says. “But I am planning on riding for the first time in February, which is more exciting than you know! I am worried about my balance in the saddle and, as I advance my seat, staying centered in the trot and canter, but with time and practice, I am confident I will relearn how to ride with my new body configuration.”
With long-term goals to get back in the dressage arena, Mika has her sights set on becoming a para-dressage rider and an Olympian. “As soon as amputation was settled upon with my medical team, I immediately started focusing, learning, and reaching out to people that are involved in para-dressage,” she says.
“I have been fortunate to be connected with so many para-equestrians, and each of them have their own story,” she adds. Specifically, Katie Jackson, an above-the-knee amputee who is now an accomplished para-dressage rider and U.S. Para-Equestrian National Champion, acts as a role model to Mika.
“It has truly been a pleasure to get to know Mika. The similarities of our paths created an instant connection, and I know Mika will continue pushing forward no matter what obstacles she faces. She is an unbelievably strong woman and I am thankful to be a part of her journey,” says Katie. “Horses have an amazing way of connecting us and are a source of happiness and love through our most difficult times. I know Mika is going to be successful in beating her cancer and returning to the sport we all love.”
While Mika’s path to dressage fame may have shifted with her diagnosis and amputation, she found the strength to keep aiming for her dreams. And she encourages other riders facing difficulties to do the same. “Life can seem so unfair at times but try to refrain from comparing your life to other people’s. What has helped throughout my diagnosis is keeping focused on future goals; it gives you something to work towards. I use the analogy of a dressage test sometimes; they are made up of multiple movements, some more challenging than others depending on the horse’s strengths. Those movements are comparable to life challenges; you have to face them one at a time. Remember to always think forward and you can’t get caught up on something that is already in the past,” she encourages. “Despite even the biggest adversities you might face, you have to continue to try to see the silver lining, not letting the hardships diminish our goals and dreams. You might have to slightly alter them along the way, but never give up on things you want to achieve and who you want to become.”