PVDA Raises Over $1 Million for Johns Hopkins Breast Center
by Katherine O. Rizzo (first published in the August 2023 Equiery)

Over the course of only 20 years, the Potomac Valley Dressage Association Ride for Life show has raised more than $1 million in donations for the Johns Hopkins University Breast Center. One milliona dollars … from a local, volunteer-based organization during a two-day show. That is an average of $50,000 per show and $25,000 per competition day.

The money raised is not the only reason PVDA has put on this show. It is also to raise breast cancer awareness and celebrate breast cancer survivors as well as to honor those who lost their lives.

A Vision of Hope
The first Ride for Life show was held as a small one-day USEF-licensed dressage show in October of 2004 at the then Menfelt Farm in Frederick. It was the brainchild of PVDA member and breast cancer survivor Pat Artimovich.

Artimovich was a horse crazy kid who took a break from riding as an adult while she pursued law school and raised a family. In 1999 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. While undergoing treatment at Johns Hopkins, she developed a close friendship with Lillie Shockney, who was a Johns Hopkins nurse and two-time breast cancer survivor. Shockney is now a University Distinguished Service Professor of Breast Cancer, among many other titles, at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “I remember her one time pushing a doctor out of the room, giving me a hug and saying, ‘I’ll be with you the whole way,’” Artimovich said of Shockney’s care during her treatments.

Shockney and others involved with Artimovich’s treatment encouraged her to think of things she wanted to fight for. “Of course, that was my children and my husband,” she said, adding, “But I also wanted to ride again, and made that a goal.”
“I believe [riding] was therapy for Pat… and a goal she greatly wanted to achieve,” Shockney stated. “She in turn inspired other riders to want to make a difference in the world of breast cancer.”

Artimovich got back in the saddle as soon as her treatments ended. “I was very physically weak at first and rode a lot of schooley types before really getting involved with dressage,” she explained. Once she found how much she loved dressage, Artimovich looked for more ways to get involved with the sport and began volunteering with PVDA. “I also reconnected with Jeannette [Bair], who was a longtime friend, and it was like we never missed a beat!” Artimovich said.

During this time, Artimovich was also volunteering at Hopkins as part of its survivors’ program. “Here I was volunteering at dressage shows and at Hopkins and I just wanted to find a way to support both,” she explained. She mentioned to Jocelyn Pearson, who was then on PVDA’s board, an idea she had to create a benefit show on PVDA’s calendar and offered to buy the prizes with her own money as well. “The idea wasn’t initially received enthusiastically,” she said, but eventually, Artimovich convinced the PVDA board to host a “little show to raise a little money.”

“In my heart of hearts, I could never give John Hopkins a million dollars myself,” Artimovich said. “But I firmly believe that the fusion of passion and purpose can make anything happen.” Shockney echoes Artimovich’s feelings stating, “Pat is proof that when passion and purpose come together, extraordinary things will always happen.”

“I NEVER expected [Ride for Life] to become as huge as it did,” Shockney said. “My expectation was perhaps raising a maximum of $10,000… and that would have been fine and greatly appreciated.” Shockney, who was often called a cheerleader by Ride for Life organizers added, “Years later, [PVDA has] exceeded $1 million. Pat’s efforts working with the PVDA board went way beyond what I ever imagined could happen.”

In the Beginning…
At the first show, riders found donors to pledge $1 per point earned on one test during the show. In dressage, the higher scores win, thus the higher the score, the more money raised. “We raised about $3,000 that first year,” said PVDA board member Carolyn Del Grosso. “Then the following year, at Menfelt, we more than doubled that, raising around $7,000.” In 2006, the show was moved to Taylor Made in Damascus and raised around $33,000, according to Del Grosso.

PVDA member Jeannette Bair came on board the third year of the show, when it was at Taylor Made. “I had asked her to scribe at one of the early shows and afterwards, Jeannette offered to help raise more funds,” Artimovich stated. Since then, Bair has held many roles including volunteer, donor, fundraiser and rider.

“I met Pat [Artimovich] at Westinghouse where we both worked but we lost touch when I left the company,” Bair said, adding, “Then one day I put an ad in The Equiery for a half lease on one of our horses and Pat answered the ad and we started riding together.”
Bair began riding in college and quickly went from basic lessons to jumping and foxhunting before she and her husband purchased land to build a Hanoverian breeding program. Her first dressage horse was one of her own broodmares, Demetria. She currently has earned both USDF Bronze and Silver medals and is working on her USDF Gold Medal with her homebred Rockette.

“I am very proud of PVDA for wanting to support a show like this,” she said. “Everyone worked really hard to put it all together.” As Ride for Life’s Rider Donation Coordinator, Bair led by example and has raised more than $100,000 with the help of personal friends and family.

In these early shows, only riders were eligible to raise funds, so the Ride for Life organizers needed to grow entries to grow donations. “We knew that if we wanted to go bigger, we needed to move the show to earlier in the year so the riders could use the show to qualify for fall champs,” Artimovich said. PVDA reached out to the Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro and secured a June weekend to create a two-day USEF-licensed show. “This is when things really took off,” Del Grosso stated.

Dancing Horse Challenge
By moving the show to PGEC, PVDA now had access to several arenas for competition as well as the indoor with its concourse and large spectator seating. The show quickly expanded to add vendors, sponsors, a gala and… the Dancing Horse Challenge.
Participants from all over the country created freestyles and exhibitions that were performed in front of gala guests. The Challenge winner was the rider or riders who raised the most funds. “Celebrity” riders such as Olympians Debbie McDonald, Bent Jensen and Courtney-King Dye participated several times, as did local FEI riders Chris Hickey, Julio Mendoza, and Felicitas Von Neumann-Cosel. “There were several years where the winners would then donate their prize money back to Hopkins too,” Artimovich stated.
“It truly was an extravaganza!” Bair stated. “We had guest riders and trainers like Kathy Connelly, George Williams and Scott Hassler as MCs, a gala, silent auction… and of course the Dancing Horse Challenge.”

The Dancing Horse Challenge was initially orchestrated by FEI rider and Maryland-based trainer Barbara Strawson, who not only rode in the exhibition, but also encouraged other riders to do so. “I had been riding in Ride for Life since 2005 and the idea was brewing [in my head] to have a freestyle fundraiser,” Strawson explained. “I had just lost a dear friend and mentor to cancer, Jill Hassler-Scoop, and I wanted to be more involved in the Ride for Life.”

Strawson went to Ride for Life chairs Artimovich and Bair to pitch the idea and was told if she could raise $8,000 they would hold a freestyle fundraiser to honor Hassler-Scoop the following year. “I can’t remember the exact number, but I raised about $12,000. Thus, the Dancing Horse Challenge was born in 2007,” Strawson said. Strawson went on to chair the Dancing Horse Challenge for a few years and has ridden in it several times. “There is always a special feeling and camaraderie at this show. Its is amazing what these dressage riders have been able to accomplish!” she said.

This year, Strawson returned with Barossa, whom she rode in the very first Dancing Horse Challenge. They performed the same freestyle as in 2007, this time dedicating the ride to the memory of Anne Healy, who was the sister-in-law of Barossa’s owner Carol Heron.

“I think it is important to note that the exhibitions were not just about dressage,” Artimovich said. “PVDA deliberately involved lots of different types of horses and riders to show spectators all aspects of the sport and introduce a lot of people to the equestrian community in a fun and memorable way.”

Artimovich reminisced about several memorable performances but summed up the Dancing Horse Challenge best when she said, “we had kids on ponies to Olympians dressed as Lady Gaga all competing together in what [the late] Betty Thorpe would often say was ‘the spirit of the ride.’”

As with many volunteer driven local organizations, the commitment to putting on such a big show year after year rose and fell a few times and then in 2020, the show was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That year, PVDA held an online fundraiser. “We had people submit their own riding videos and people could donate online instead of live,” Del Gross said.

Ride for Life did return in 2021 and 2022 and although the USEF-licensed competition portion of the show remained large, the participation in the exhibition continued to fall.

The Final Show
Earlier this year, the PVDA Board of Directors announced that 2023 would be the last Ride for Life competition. At the time, PVDA had already raised nearly $975,000 for Johns Hopkins and stated they wanted to end with a goal of raising $1 million.

In a February 2023 press release, the board stated, “a fundraiser of this size combined with a large horse show requires enormous time and effort from an organization that is run 100% by volunteers.” It was due to the decreasing number of volunteers that PVDA is closing the door on the fundraising part of the show. “We will still hold a summer licensed show at PGEC,” Del Grosso said. “It just won’t have the Ride for Life fundraising aspect any longer.”

Although the early announcement of this being the final Ride for Life did boost donations and entries, volunteers were still too low with organizers scrambling during the competition just to get all volunteer jobs filled. “I’m not sure what the solution is [to the volunteer shortage] and I know there are other shows having the same problems,” Del Grosso stated. “But we can’t keep running these things with just a handful of overly dedicated people.”

“It is bittersweet,” Artimovich stated about the final Ride for Life. “There have been so many great riders and great horses. The spirit of this show is how it touched so many people. That is a thing of beauty to watch.”

“It is really hard to succinctly put into words what this show and the fundraiser mean,” Strawson said. “For me, it is certainly rewarding to give to the community by fundraising. But it goes beyond that. It is sharing the beauty of horses with others and somehow during the exhibition rides one hopes to show others how beautiful and healing horses can be.”

With online donations, PVDA was able to hit its goal of raising $1 million for Johns Hopkins even before the show opened on June 24. “The great atmosphere and comraderie was as present this year as it is every year which is so nice to see and be a part of,” Del Grosso added. Del Grosso rode in the very first Ride for Life but had sat out the last several years while she was the official show organizer. This year she made a point to get back in the saddle and down that center line one more time. “I rode in the first one, so I wanted to ride in the last one!” she said.

“This show transcends its beginning and end. It has transformed lives, had given people hope and really has had a great impact on our community,” Artimovich said.

Ride for Life’s Legacy
Although it may seem to be the end of an era, Ride for Life’s legacy will certainly live on. If it was not for this “little show to raise a little money,” the Johns Hopkins Breast Surgical Oncologist Fellowship position would not exist. “It was Hopkins who came to PVDA and asked if we could start sponsoring a fellowship program,” Artimovich said.

The new program brought in a surgical oncologist to Hopkins to learn how Hopkins creates a whole community around each patient and then have this oncologist take that knowledge back to their own communities and teach other doctors. “Just one person can then make an impact on many, who go on to impact even more people,” Artimovich explained. Bair added, “it is like that one little ripple in the water that gets bigger and bigger!”

Shockney explained that the surgical fellow learns all aspects of breast cancer over a 12-month intense training program. “Surgical techniques, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, radiation therapy, pathology, community outreach, breast imaging radiology, nurse navigation, survivorship care, end of life care, genetics, psychosocial needs, family caregiver needs, the impact breast cancer has on children when their mother is diagnosed, and much more,” she said.

Dr. David Euhus of Hopkins said to Artimovich after the final show, “The small seed you planted with Jeanette [Bair] and Lillie [Shockney] has indeed grown into a solid oak.” He went on to share that one of the first fellows of the program was Maureen O’Donnell, who is now an Assistant Professor of Surgery at Johns Hopkins Sibley Memorial Hospital. “In 2016-2017 we went through a very laborious process of getting the fellowship nationally accredited,” Dr. Euhus explained. “We were successful on the first try and from then on we have had access to a national pool of highly accomplished applicants who participate in the match system each year.” Shockney added that it was because of Ride for Life support that this accreditation was made possible.

Over the past 20 years, money raised from Ride for Life has supported seven breast cancer surgical fellows including this year’s recipient Dr. Tahereh Soleimani, who has accepted an appointment as Assistant Professor of Surgery at Indiana University. “The fellowship is highly sought after and one that people compete to get accepted into,” Dr. Euhus added. “The Department of Surgery has agreed to support [the fellowship] fully when the current PVDA funds run out.”

“To me, the greatest happiness is that Ride for Life’s legacy will continue long past the show. Look at what a lasting impact it will continue to have,” Artimovich said, adding, “PVDA and the equestrian community came together and made this impact. Horse sports in Maryland matter!”

Graduates from the fellowship program have gone on to become highly trained breast surgeons in Beirut, Lebanon; Tel Aviv, Israel; New York City; upstate New York; Oklahoma; New Mexico; and West Virginia. “We are so grateful for what the PVDA was able to get started,” Dr. Euhus stated. “Thank you again for making this possible.”

Shockney added that each fellow is required to do a research project while at Johns Hopkins. “Last year the research conducted by our fellow actually resulted in changing the standards of care nationally,” she said. “There is no other training program in the world that surpasses ours now. We could not have been able to sustain our fellowship program without Ride for Life funds,” she added.
In addition to the fellowship, Ride for Life funds have supported five metastatic breast cancer retreats. These retreats were each filmed to use as teaching tools for other breast centers around the country. These semi-annual retreats put on by Shockney, “provide a window into the real issues that patients who will die of breast cancer are facing, along with the family member accompanying them.” Shockney said that Ride for Life directly funded four years of these retreats. “What an incredible privilege it has been to be a part of all of this,” Bair remarked about PVDA’s involvement in these retreats.

Funds raised also went directly to education and support of a breast cancer survivor volunteer team that provides one-on-one patient support, the purchase of breast health education items for use at community outreach events, purchase of parking vouchers for breast cancer survivor volunteers who come on site to hold the hands of patients having breast cancer surgery or biopsies, and the purchase of breast health and early detection educations items to reach more than 10,000 people.

Shockney feels that Ride for Life’s biggest legacy is “that connecting the passion of dressage riding with the purpose of making sure breast cancer patients get the best care they can, resulted in changing the breast cancer world.” She added that Ride for Life has “taught me that even I don’t know to what degree the impact of one person supporting a patient through their treatment really can have on their lives.”

As final parting words, the PVDA board stated in the 2023 Ride for Life program, “And remember: the Ride for Life might be ending, but the fight against breast cancer never ends, so we hope you will continue to support the vital mission of the Johns Hopkins Breast Center.”