From Trauma to a USDF Bronze Medal with Cheri Isgreen
Being an equestrian comes with many highs and lows. Riding a horse is no cake walk, as I am sure many of you know, and it can be downright dangerous! It is also one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding sports you can take part in. But, it is the most beautiful, invigorating, and rewarding feeling to ride a 1200lbs animal that connects with you on such a deeply personal level.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Cheri Isgreen (aka real-life Wonder Woman)! Cheri is a passionate life-long equestrian, mother, talented artist, and a downright inspiring woman. We dove into her personal journey; going from traumatic 50-year-old injuries to getting back in the tack, competing, and working towards a USDF Bronze Rider Medal. Saddle up for this one, it’s a wild ride!
Hi Cheri! Thank you for taking the time to join me in the Spotlight. I’ve heard a little bit of your story, and you are like a real life Wonder Woman! Before we dive in, please introduce yourself! When did you start riding? Anyone or anything in particular that ignited your passion for horses?
Thank you for asking this important question. I was born in love with horses. My first pony was bought at a yard sale for $10 in the early 1960’s. My sister, my brother, & I pooled our money and walked him home; we were just kids, 6-8 years old. I grew up with backyard horses. We lived in the country, so we were able to ride the fields and forests surrounded my house in Northern Illinois in a time before subdivisions. We were too small to lift the saddle, so we just rode bareback. I think kids are intuitive riders and can ride by feel without needing to know much. I think horses deeply connect with kids, so they are the best teachers.
You have had quite the equestrian journey. Tell me more about it! What challenges – mental, emotional, and physical – have you faced? How did this impact your riding career?
As stated above, I grew up (literally) on the back of the horse- no saddle, no breeches, just cutoffs and sneakers. By high school, I was horseless, and rode catch-rides. Later, in college I took an equitation course for PE, and I was hooked on English riding. I began jumping lessons on school horses, but my instructor was somewhat bipolar and abusive. When I bought my next horse, I moved to a dressage barn. I took both dressage and jumping lessons. Unfortunately, this horse became navicular, so a breeder who liked her bloodlines asked to adopt her. Horseless again, I continued more catch riding at the dressage barn. By the time I got my TB Trisha, I was thoroughly hooked on dressage. Like Alois Podhajski’s famous book, My Horses, My Teachers, she taught me much about basic dressage.
So why did I continue to pursue my passion for horses? Many girls grow up, and horses are replaced by a myriad of other pursuits. Concurrent with my horse-life, I grew up active and athletic. Though successful in competitive sports, I didn’t like competition; I gravitated toward sports where I could be in my mind and body. Rather than winning, I wanted to feel speed and the endorphin-producing high of coordinated, effortless movement. Both riding and skiing fulfilled those needs. In the summer I rode, and in the winter I skied. When I was 16, I had a terrible ski wreck. Bindings were primitive in 1968, I was skiing spring snow, and the freeze/thaw cycle iced my binding. When I fell, the left binding didn’t release. I sustained soft tissue damage to my left knee and spent several months on crutches. The following winter, I had another terrible ski accident. I was a 100 pound teenage girl. On a ski slope, I was hit from behind by a huge 200 pound college football player. Whatever was left of my shredded knee was subsequently destroyed. I spent another several months on crutches and underwent knee surgery upon high school graduation. When I awoke, the doctor discussed the surgery with me. He told me he had removed my torn ACL and cartilage. “Without you anterior cruciate ligament, you have no lateral stability. Don’t run, dance, or do any sports, but you can walk again without pain.”
“I was 18 years old, and a doctor had just told me my life was over.” – Cheri Isgreen
I was 18 years old, and a doctor had just told me my life was over. In those days, orthopaedic surgery was primitive, and there was no procedures to repair soft tissue. This was not something I was ready to accept. I continued to ride, and I found a doctor who gave me a knee brace so I could ski. I also hiked, danced, played tennis, and more. Riding and skiing were good for me, but other activities caused repeated injuries, as my unstable knee slipped out of alignment and I was back on crutches. Eventually I grew up and learned to live within my limitations, but the damage was done. My knee continued to deteriorate. By the time I was 50, I was forced to completely give up all activities, except riding. The horse gave me the legs I had lost.
About that time, I sold my thoroughbred mare, planning to buy my dream horse. Dream horses take time to find. I had my eyes open, deciding a Lipizzan would be my choice. After a few years of looking, I found Jennifer Thurston at Weaselskin Farm, a Lipizzan / Andalusian ranch in Durango, CO. I went to see her Thoroughbred / Lipizzan cross, but he was unsuitable. Instead, I made arrangements to return to her farm for a week of intensive riding and training. When I returned, I took lessons riding several of her stallions each day and doing green-horse groundwork.
Over the course of the week, I helped with the barn chores between lessons, which included feeding a large herd of yearlings twice a day. In the yearling herd were a couple of two-year old colts, including a coal black gelding with tangled dreadlocks and a star on his forehead. Whenever we arrived to feed, the greedy yearlings would crowd the hay wagon, but the star-faced two-year old would come to me, lay his head on my shoulder and offer affection and company. When I first asked Jennifer the cost of this beautiful colt, she told me he was beyond my budget. Over the course of the week, she noticed the bond that was developing between us. Near the end of the week, Jennifer said, “Cheri, if you come up on your budget and I came down on my price, you could purchase Monarch, and I will finance the difference.” She even made arrangements for free delivery to Montrose, 3 hours and 3 mountain passes away.
Eighteen years later, Monarch has become my dressage partner and fast friend. In rural western Colorado, there is a dearth of qualified advanced dressage instruction, so our progress was slow until Monarch turned 16, when I found a trainer that could help me move up the levels. With her help, we easily earned our 1st Level qualifying scores. I earned one qualifying score at 2nd, but I felt there was too much “hand” involved in the training, and the work wasn’t correct. I moved to Susan Schneider’s barn to focus on classically correct 2nd Level movement. Last year, we were successful in earning our 2nd level qualifiers.
As I continued to train and move up the levels, my injured left knee continued to deteriorate. Though I was hyper-aware of my position, my seat suffered from the shortened, stiff, weak left leg, and the subsequent back issues from not having a level base of support. At this point, even riding had become difficult. I had to make the difficult decision to undergo total left knee replacement in January 2019. Within 3 weeks of surgery, I was back on Monarch, riding in sneakers and no stirrups, with a handler to lead us around the arena. Post-op I had terrible nerve pain which only relieved itself on the back of a moving horse. Monarch had become my therapy horse. Both my doctor and my physical therapist knew my goal was to ride for my 2nd Level scores in August; we had eight months. But I knew we were in trouble when I began PT, the week after surgery. Most patients have a good 90-100 degrees of flexion when they start therapy. I had 70. The goal is to achieve 120 degrees or more within 6 weeks of physical therapy. I was different. After 50 years of trauma to my left knee, the replacement surgery left me with very little range of motion: little extension and less flexion. Beyond the stiffness, I had a great deal of nerve damage and pain. My therapy would be prolonged and painful lasting seven months. In July, I finally achieved 2 degrees extension and 110 degrees flexion.
“I debuted at Training Level in a schooling show in April. I was barely 3 weeks post-op, still weak, and very painful. I rode two tests and made a very good showing- first place.” – Cheri Isgreen
Through it all, we kept our eyes on the prize, qualifying at 2nd level and moving to 3rd toward my USDF Bronze Rider Medal. I returned to training with Susan 1 month post-op. At first we only worked on the lunge line. I learned to sit again, and with my new knee came a more balanced seat. I debuted at Training Level in a schooling show in April. I was barely 3 weeks post-op, still weak, and very painful. I rode two tests and made a very good showing- first place. After that show, we began to train for 2nd Level. I rode 5-6 days/week, trained with Susan twice/week, as well as my scheduled PT three days/week, and an hour of therapy at home on the off-days. With all the trauma I had sustained, working so hard training and rehabbing, as well as being 67 years old, I was exhausted. Knowing my windows was closing on a dream I had held for so long kept me focused and motivated, despite the pain and weariness. I debuted at 2nd Level in a schooling show in June. Though still painful, I was much stronger with improved balance, range of motion, and stamina. We ended up winning our classes, and the test feedback directed where my training efforts would focus for the next two months until the USEF recognized show.
August came with much physical improvement, better understanding of the 2nd level movements, but also intense heat (high 90’s every day) and VS. Many farms were quarantined. Two weeks before the show, a boarder at Susan’s came up positive for VS. I could no longer go to train with her. Also, all her horses were now quarantine and scratched, so I had to do the show alone. No coaching; no help. It turned out my sister drove down from Montana to help me. I was so grateful. I really don’t think I could physically have done all it takes to show alone, as I was still not strong or flexible enough. Susan stayed in touch with me by text, and ended up advising me remotely. In the end, we earned 4 qualifying scores- all our tests were above 60%! I was over the moon, grateful for my horse, my sister, my trainer, my PT, and all those who supported me over the past 7 months.
This year we have moved on to 3rd Level. This year is a learning year for us. We both need to learn/feel the half pass and the changes. I am lucky to be able to ride my trainer’s 3rd level schoolmaster, to help me understand, ride, and aid the correct feel. Though Monarch will be 21 and I will be 69, I am confident we will achieve our Bronze Medal in 2021.
It is so beautiful that you shared a bond with Monarch since he was a yearling. You’ve have had quite the journey together within the past year as well! How did you make your comeback? Was there anything that helped you cope and persevere?
Making my comeback was sheer tenacity. Though I’m in my late 60’s now, I don’t feel old. I have lots of energy and focus. I can visualize my dream and the path to success. I cope by knowing my window is closing. I don’t have the luxury of time. Though I believe in the old cowboy adage, “the quickest way is the slow way,” that only applies to teaching a horse. It doesn’t mean I can blow off training, regardless of whether I’m tired or sick. I have a “20 minute rule.” No matter how I feel, I have to get on. If I still feel poorly after 20 minutes, then I give myself permission to get off and put Monarch away. I have only had to invoke the “20 minute rule” once; usually endorphins kick in once we begin schooling. Both Susan and I keep our eyes on the prize, and Susan is dedicated to helping me realize my dream.
How are you doing, presently? Are there any challenges you continue to face?
This month Monarch was shod too short, which has developed into severe laminitis. He is now on strict stall rest in deep sawdust for the next 4 months or so. At this point, my greatest hope is that he will come sound. I can’t think about training and showing him. I just want him to be comfortable and move with grace. Showing is no longer important. Susan has gifted me with Lizzie, her 3rd level schoolmaster. I can learn and train on her. If need be, I will take her to the shows.
What is some advice you would give to another equestrian who is struggling right now? Whether it be physically, mentally, emotionally…
Life is filled with silver linings. Stayed focused on what is going well; look for consoling, hopeful, and/or advantageous aspects to your situation. It’s just as easy to be positive as to be negative. Both emotions are self-fulfilling. For me, getting to ride Lizzie is a godsend. Neither Monarch or I have 3rd level experience, so we are both trying to learn together. That is a steep learning curve. Lizzie will give me the experience and feel to teach/ride Monarch correctly when he comes sound. Also, because Monarch is stall-bound, I’m spending a lot of time out here with him, (like right now as I write this). I don’t want him to feel that he is in solitary confinement, so as I focus on my business as an artist, I can do a lot right here in his stall, including making studies for paintings and marketing my art. In fact, I am spending more time with him now than I normally would, so he and I continue to deepen our bond, even though we are no longer training.
Learn from your horse. Horses are endowed with immense wisdom. Most of all, listen! Horses don’t speak with words, so cultivate your nonverbal, receptive listening skills.
In addition to being a warrior woman, you are an incredibly talented artist with your own business Cheri Isgreen Fine Art! How did you discover your love for art? Did art help you in any way throughout that rough period in your life?
Thank you! Like horses, I was born with a love for art. I remember my first artwork was a self-portrait of my twin sister and I. I took the plug from the bedside lamp and scratched that portrait on the headboard of my bed. I was 3 years old. I don’t believe I was punished for scratching the wood, so I guess my mom thought the portrait was pretty cute!
I take great solace from making art. When I am creating, I enter a space of utter peace and harmony. I believe even “angry art” can express beauty, which is the way I approach creative expression. During the quarantine, when so many were filled with unease, I found that time to be immensely satisfying. Spring was unfolding in the Rocky Mountains, with all its drama, unpredictability, and beauty. The unfolding of nature’s rebirth stimulated me immensely; my productivity was prolific! I couldn’t wait to get up each morning to begin creating. These works became part of the #Artist Support Pledge, where 20% of my sales are promised to purchase another artist’s work. This is a triple win: the collector gets a piece of art to enliven her home/office space, I can have a livelihood despite galleries and art centers being closed, and the seed money from one purchase can support another artist to continue her work. When George Floyd was murdered, my outrage was channeled to direct my artist support pledge into supporting a black artist. I love this initiative because it not only sustains art, but helps it grow. Art matters; it nurtures our humanity, especially in these times of incivility, racism, and worse.
You managed to turn two of your passions into a career; horses and art! Can you tell me about your business? When and how did you start out? Where do you draw your inspiration from, for your beautiful work?
A long time ago, I used to dream of blue horses, purple ponies, and I knew one day I would paint them. I love color, and I love light. Light defines color, pumping it into brilliant saturation or shading it into subtle neutrals. Light also defines form. I know when you groom your horse, you’ve noticed how an early morning sunbeam will highlight the outline of your horse’s leg, and that form is sublime with such stunning beauty, it takes your breath away. The light at the end of the day can make a muzzle and mane glow. I’m drawn to capture the exquisiteness that is a horse’s essence. I was an art educator in the Colorado public school system for many years. As an art teacher, I taught the gamut of art media and techniques; art styles, movements, and history; art criticism and what makes masterful art excellent; art elements, principles, and how to put them together in harmonious combinations; and finally using visual vocabulary to make strong statements. Teaching art gave me a strong background both in depth and breadth which I draw upon when I make my own art today. My actual business began when a good friend and I, both passionate equine artists, decided to do a show together. That one show morphed into a full year of traveling shows with a different Colorado venue each month in 2014. I learned so much from scheduling shows, setting up displays, negotiating contracts, representing the work, and follow up sales; it was an invaluable learning experience.
What kind of challenges have you faced with your artwork (creatively, and in the business aspect)? What advice would you give to another artist starting out, or second-guessing themselves right now?
My biggest challenge was last year when I was rehabbing my knee and training for 2nd level. I had no stamina left for making art, and I had to rely on existing inventory and my card sales to sustain my business. It was hard to keep my name and reputation alive when I was physically and mentally able to create new work. My advice to artists experiencing a dry spell is to look to nature. At times the Earth rests and lies fallow. Later after resting, the Earth bursts back to life. This is exactly what happened to me this past spring. If art isn’t coming, focus on something else. Give it time to lie fallow, then come to fruition.
If you are interested in keeping up with Cheri, feel free to connect with her on Instagram. Be sure to check out her beautiful artwork at WWW.CHERIISGREEN.ART. Cheri has kindly offered TPE readers a complimentary gift for following along her journey – be sure to connect with her!
I hope you found today’s TPE Spotlight inspiring. It takes a lot of physical and mental rehab to ride again after a traumatic injury, let alone compete mere months after surgery! Cheri is an incredible example of a dedicated equestrian, even at the age of 68 years old she is still full of passion. I can only hope that I am half as energetic and passionate at that age. Tally-ho!