Jacksonville woman is an inspiration to many

3-time cancer survivor, horse preparing for 'Century Ride'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A three-time cancer survivor is about to cross off a pretty incredible item on her "bucket list."

Wanda Wiggins is 71 years old, and she intends to climb aboard her 29-year-old horse "Dusine" and compete this weekend at a nationally recognized event at the Jacksonville Equestrian Center.

You could say rider and steed have a lot of miles on them, because together, they add up to 100 years. They're ready to make their "Century Ride," serving as an inspiration to many.

"This is sort of like, 'The old gray mare ain't what she used to be,' but we're still movin' on," said Wiggins.

And they'll be movin' on, trotting right into the Dressage Foundation's Century Club, with the help of trainer Suzanne Graham.

"Keep it nice and slow. There you go," Graham tells Wiggins while riding Dusine.

Graham knows you don't want to push a 29-year-old horse, an equine senior citizen, too hard.  This girl has already earned her oats.

"It's just an incredible achievement and not many people get to do this where the horse and the owner are 100, and all the things that they've been through together is amazing," added Graham.

But, the ride for these two has not always been smooth.

"She's brought me joy. She's brought me back from surgery so many times, and I brought her back a couple times from stuff, too," said Wiggins.

Dusine was born in 1987 and has given Wiggins years of competition, even taking her to the respected Regional Dressage Competition. This mare has also given Wiggins a baby -- a little black filly who grew into a powerful gray mare herself -- and enjoys sharing Dusine's hay.

But it's the care Dusine gave Wiggins through her three bouts with cancer that has her permanently residing in this woman's heart: Her horse has always been a steady ride following surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

"It was very good (for me)," said Wiggins. "It gave me a reason to get up out of bed every day."

Wiggins survived two rounds of breast cancer and later a battle with lung cancer. Her sickness threatened to keep her out of the show ring, but Dusine wouldn't have it.

Just one month after surgery, Wiggins was competing in a recognized show.

"I think maybe that's why everyone was clapping," Wiggins laughed. "I got out of surgery and I was on this horse immediately, just immediately, with Suzanne saddling her, bridling her, and she still does."

Wiggins thanks Graham for helping her stay in the saddle as long as she can. She is also grateful to all her friends in her riding club who have pitched in through the years.

They'll all be rooting for Wiggins and Dusine this Saturday when they perform their "Century Ride" in the Northeast Florida Dressage Association's March show at the Jacksonville Equestrian Center.

To learn more about the national association or read its newsletter and other touching stories from Century Club members from around the country, go to www.dressagefoundation.org.

The "Century Club" was formed to further awareness of the longevity and endurance of horses, and to encourage seniors to take up riding for therapy -- or like Wiggins -- simply stay in the saddle as long as they can.

About the Authors:

At WJXT for a quarter of a century, Mary Baer anchors the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. news weekdays.