Republished with the permission of The Plaid Horse
When Stephanie Ray Peters arrived at the Desert International Horse Park in January to show her four horses, she took a seat outside of hunter ring 1. She watched beautiful rounds in the picturesque setting, but instead of enjoying the horse show, Peters found herself overcome with the urge to hide, shielding her face beneath a sun hat.
“I felt so uncomfortable, but I couldn’t figure out why,” she tells The Plaid Horse. “I didn’t want to be seen. I’d been through a lot of surgeries in the last two years—including brain surgery and a double mastectomy—due to a hormonal disorder, so my body had changed and I was worried about what people would think. But there was also something more.”
For four days, Peters watched hunter ring 1. “I watched riders go in and come out. Do well, people clap for you. Do badly, and it’s silent. It was this very empty feeling,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘This is not what showing is supposed to be.’”
Despite renting a house in the desert with plans to show her horses throughout the circuit, Peters scratched all of her classes. She left Thermal during week 2, having never set foot in the irons. “It was the first time in my life I didn’t want to get on a horse,” she says. “I thought getting back to horse showing would be the answer to my sadness after battling through all these health issues, but for some reason, it wasn’t. I spent a lot of time soul-searching.”
What she discovered was two-fold: Her personal health struggles had left her feeling insecure, but she also noticed a pervasive, toxic theme at the horse show. “I felt ashamed that my body had changed. I gained some weight after surgery, I wasn’t in the same shape I’d been in two years ago when I last showed. I no longer had breasts, and my show clothes fit different,” says Peters. “But there was something more, too. It took me a while to process it, but there’s this vibe that floats around the horse show. A secret, unspoken vibe. Some people might not recognize it, but I think most do, even if they’re not exactly sure what it’s about.”
“And that vibe is shame.”
The more Peters thought about it, the more she realized that nearly everyone in the horse show world is affected by shame in one way or another. “Whether it’s the way you look, feeling like you don’t have enough money or the right horse, or not being perfect … everyone has these feelings, but it’s just not something people talk about.”
And that’s the first thing Peters would like to change. Speaking from her 17-acre farm in Bend, OR, the 32-year-old insists she’s not looking for pity or admiration in sharing her personal story. Instead, she wants to kick off conversations so that all riders, trainers, and parents can look critically at our sport and the way that shame thrives in it
The Kid Who Always Felt Different
Though Peters couldn’t name the uneasy feeling until earlier this in Thermal, she’d already had a lifetime of experiencing shame.
In recent years, she’s earned great success in all three rings against some of the industry’s best, though her beginnings in the sport were much simpler. Like it does for many, it all started with a pony. Ginger, a shetland pony gifted to Peters and her sister when she was four years old, introduced her to the magical presence that horses can have. “Something about her energy made me feel calm and happy,” says Peters. Kids at school bullied her for being bigger or generally “different” in any way, but Ginger showed her a quiet acceptance of friendship.
“I felt like she cared about me just as I was. She understood my secrets and emotions, and we could keep them just between us,” says Peters. The bond between her and this gentle pony was quick and powerful. It would be the foundation that carried Peters through challenges that she couldn’t yet imagine.
Relaxed afternoons whispering secrets to Ginger and going on pony rides turned into riding lessons and horse shows as Peters began to advance through the sport. School remained a prison for her, full of judgmental peers unwilling to step outside of their own experience, but she looked forward to going to the barn every day. Through learning the nuances required for the hunter and equitation rings, she also learned a greater lesson—living in the present. “Being on a horse forced me to focus on the ‘now,’ and I loved that feeling,” she says. “Being able to feel every step and have an animal of that size with such incredible power listen to what you’re asking of them made me feel worthy and capable.”
Gaining that sense of power and accomplishment from horses lit the path for Peters to make strides in the show ring that would have shocked her younger self. With her hunter superstar partner, Castle Hill, she won three Hunter Prixs back-to-back as well as qualifying for Prix finals and indoors on the east coast. She’s earned many tri-colors at Thermal in both the Amateur-Owner Jumpers and Hunters, and continues to be an essential partner to her team of talented horses. Simply put, she’s a powerhouse of an amateur rider.
If you asked Peters four years ago what she was proudest of, she would have listed these accomplishments in the show ring. But a lifelong struggle with an unnamed illness and a seven-hour brain surgery changed her perspective. And her answer. “The day I got back on after recovering from brain surgery I cried and cried and cried as I cantered around on Avery (Castle Hill),” she says. “I didn’t know if I would ever be able to ride the way I had for so long, and being back in the saddle after eight months of recovery was the best feeling in the entire world.”
Solving the Medical Mystery
But to be able to understand the joys of recovery, she had to first diagnose the illness. After a lifetime of frustrating health issues physicians were unable to pinpoint, Peters was finally diagnosed with Acromegaly. The disorder causes the pituitary gland to produce too much hormone, resulting in bones—including those of the hands, feet and face—to continually grow. Acromegaly can also overgrow organs and produce joint disease, which caused Peters to require several surgeries, including a double mastectomy when a tumour produced too much prolactin, causing chronic infection. The scars, both emotional and physical, are all hidden under a show coat. Sometimes the greatest tests we face are never seen by a judge.
“My life for two years became a blur of appointments, tests and operations,” Peters explains. “I got lost in this horrible reality of illness and the person I always knew—rider, friend, traveler—was put on hold.” Struggling with the diagnosis put Peters in a situation unlike any before. No amount of hard work could fix it. While she battled against something she couldn’t control, she felt the shame of living in an unruly body. “I felt so ashamed that dieting and exercising couldn’t control this disease that I didn’t even know I had,” she says. Without her knowing, Acromegaly caused rapid weight changes, dramatic spikes and drops in blood sugar levels, and many bad days of malaise that kept Peters away from the horse show. “Most of the time I would push through and stay strong in the midst of all the struggles,” she says, “but it was very difficult to fight something I didn’t even know I had.”
The official diagnosis came with a sense of relief that this unknown adversary could finally be named, but it also brought an unwelcome threat—a large brain tumour. The tumour, pushing against Peters’ pituitary gland, pushed her growth hormone levels to 700. Normal is under 10. It made her disease progress very quickly, and had to come out.
Feeling thankful for finally getting an answer to her health struggles—but also fearful about the extensive surgery—Peters prayed the night before her operation. Eight doctors watched over her in the O.R. as they went through her nose and into the skull to remove the tumour during the seven-hour surgery. The extensive surgery began an eight month long recovery process where Peters had to push through chronic headaches and side effects such as losing her sense of taste and smell for three months.
While her body healed and adjusted to the hormone changes from removing the tumour, she reflected on life and how she would aim to live the rest of it. Through everything, horses kept her strong. Although she wasn’t allowed to ride, she still went out to visit and enjoy the same support that horses offered her when she was the young girl who had no conception of hospital visits or brain tumours. She rescued and rehabbed horses and ponies from afar as she recovered, and then went to the barn to visit. “Seeing them made it a lot easier for me to cope with what I had gone through, and the thought of being back in the saddle one day was what kept my determination strong,” she says.
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Ray Peters
Turning Struggles Into Celebration
Peters knows she’s not the only person in the horse world who’s faced struggle—we all have, to varying degrees and visibility. But if we can learn to own our truths, we can start to truly celebrate our comebacks.
After she left Thermal in January feeling too ashamed to ride, Peters was back on the operating table later this winter for a full shoulder replacement. (Acromegaly causes bone and joint disease as well.) Now, with another physical recovery behind her, she’s eyeing a return to the saddle in June—and a shift in the collective horse show vibe after that.
“It’s time for all of us to take personal responsibility for recognizing where we feel shame, and for the shaming we’ve done to others,” she says. “Horse shows are a very competitive environment, which I totally respect. When you walk out of the ring with a blue ribbon, you’re on top of the world. But where we go wrong is in our quest for perfection. Perfect in this industry is the ideal thing. Perfect horse, perfect round, perfect outfit. But we don’t have to strive for this unrealistic expectation of perfection. ”So what should we be working toward? More honesty, for starters. “Having any sort of real depth comes from struggle and from getting knocked down ten times and standing up again, over and over. That’s what needs to be celebrated,” says Peters. “Everyone is going through something, maybe without even knowing it. Shame is rampant everywhere, but it really thrives in the equestrian world. People feel shamed for the way they look, for not having enough money, for not buying certain horses when they do have the money. I’m a people-pleaser, and I’ve felt shamed into giving trainers commissions and going through a ton of horses that weren’t the right fit for me. No matter what your situation, you can’t escape feeling shamed.”
When she returned to Thermal in January after two years of health battles—with plans to show in the Adult Amateur 18-35 division, as opposed to her usual 3’6” A-Os—Peters was plagued with worry over what people might say. Why did she step down? What’s wrong with her? Did she gain weight? Are her horses lame?
“It would certainly help to have a little more kindness in the way we speak to and about one another,” says Peters. “But I think it’s more about realizing that everyone has to have a fresh start at some point. Broken bones, cancer, divorces, loss of money, everyone has to re-start at some time in their life. And we shouldn’t be ashamed of having a new normal.”
So what can an individual do to help the horse show culture shift from a place where shame flourishes? Peters suggests focusing on vulnerability instead. “Being vulnerable and raw is being true to yourself. In speaking up, I hope people will be more willing to bring up the tough conversations within their barns about facing what makes us feel ashamed and owning our challenges. We all struggle. Being proud of that, owning it, is the hardest part. But I think the minute you do it, it sets you free.”
“With all the surgeries and procedures I may have to take breaks at times, but I’ll never give up on what I love,” she says. And when she returns to the show ring, hopefully later this year, “I want to get back in my show clothes on my beautiful horses and to feel powerful and proud,” Peters says. “I want to say: Look at everything I’ve freaking been through and I’m here now.”
Because at the end of the day, no matter your level, size, or finances, “Horses are healing,” says Peters. “At a horse show, at our most happy and most accepted place, if you’re feeling the opposite, that’s wrong. We need to change that.”
WHO IS RENNIE DYBALL?
Rennie Dyball is the author of several books, including The Plaid Horse’s middle grade novel series, Show Strides. She’s also a contributing writer for TPH and a ghostwriter for celebrity books. Rennie lives in Maryland and competes in hunters and equitation.
WHO IS LAUREN MAULDIN?
Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.