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Ryan’s return

A life-threatening disease has only made Ryan Melendez take the reins of his life even more firmly in hand

From Horsetrader staff reports - June 16th, 2016 - Cover Story, Feature Article

1606BCoverDEL MAR — Born into the family of a top Arabian horse trainer, Ryan`Melendez didn’t have long to wait before finding himself in the saddle.

“I am sure my dad had me on horses as soon as I could sit up by myself,” Ryan, who’ll turn 18 in July, says of Bill Melendez. “I remember riding like six or seven horses a day, and it was a lot of fun.

“He didn’t always put me on the best of the best horses,” he adds. “I felt like he put me on horses that were going to teach me how to learn to ride — that’s probably the best thing that he could have done because to be a really good rider, I wasn’t going to get there by riding just the easy horses.”

His main ride, a mare named AM Liberty Parade, tried to buck off the 7-year-old Ryan in their very first horsemanship class, a 10-under test at the Scottsdale Arabian Show. They stayed together and years later, in 2014, they won an Arabian Horse Association Youth Nationals Championship in Horsemanship.

“That’s my most memorable, best championship,” Ryan says. “Years and years of hard work. In the beginning, she definitely was not happy with being out there. One year at Youth Nationals, she actually flipped over on me, and then we went in the class and got Top 10. I like challenges — what’s the point, if you are not going to work hard for it?”

The teen-ager’s accomplishments extend beyond the showring — he hopes to play Division 1 collegiate golf, he performs for crowds with his guitar, and he is pursuing a pilot’s license — all challenging exploits. But his biggest challenge reared up on him last September at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, where he was diagosed with an acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Nine months later, the cancer is in remission, but treatments will continue for 2 1/2 more years. Leukemia is a blood cancer, and unfortunately it likes to hide, lurking in the shadows as if waiting for the right moment to strike, says Ryan’s mother, Kristal Melendez-Raiger.

“Throughout this battle, Ryan has shown an incredible amount of bravery, strength, courage and determination to make sure he wins the war,” she says. “He continues to inspire all of us everyday with his passion for life. He hasn’t once let cancer define him.”

One inspirational moment came last fall. Ryan, separated from his Valley Center High School classmates because of his illness, was invited to play the National Anthym on his electric guitar before his school’s homecoming football game in October. Earlier that day, he had undergone his first chemotherapy using a harsh, higher-powered treatment. Still, he wanted to perform.

“From the hospital, we went home for about an hour and then to the high school to set up,” says Kristal. “He didn’t warm up or anything — he just kind of stepped up there and played. When he came down, he said, ‘mom, I got to get home, right away’. He said when he was up there, it was all instinctual. He didn’t know how he got through the song. His mind was fuzzy. He could not feel his fingers. He was really sick, like he was going to pass out.

“That is an example of his mindset,” she adds. “He just totally pushed through that.”

Another inspirational moment came before his supportive, extended family of the Arabian show circuit. At the Region 1 Championship Horse Show May 17-22, Ryan returned to the arena.

“You know, before going through cancer, I might have really worried about winning and stuff,” he says. “But now, it’s just about the journey and being able to do things like that — they are such a blessing.”

His return was inspired by the generous, ongoing support he has received from the Arabian community since his diagnosis. It also was somewhat of a reversal of his “retirement” from the show arena after the 2015 Scottsdale show in order to concentrate on golf — and potential scholarships.

“Horse showing and golf are both very time-consuming things, and if you are going to be great at one of them, you can’t really be great at both because of the time required,” he says. “But everyone has just supported me so much, and the Arabian community is amazing. I felt like it would be nice to go back and just show a few more times.”

He asked his father just let weeks prior to the show, and Bill turned a multi-champion Half-Arabian hunter horse into a western horse.

“Ryan hadn’t ridden a western horse in over a year, and one of the chemos he takes effects his ankles, legs and hands,” says Kristal. “It’s hard for him to put his heels down and his fingers are always numb from the neuropathy he lives with everyday.

At Region 1, Ryan only rode the horse twice before showing in their first class together. He showed Rebecca Shupek’s beautiful mare, Kharmen Electra, to a total of three firsts, a championship in Western Horsemanship in the mare’s first time doing a pattern, and a Reserve Championship in Half-Arabian Western Pleasure JTR 18-under.

Ryan, who says he’ll compete at the Region 2 Championship Show June 17-21 in Santa Barbara, also showed Khing of Diamonds at Region 1 in the Half-Arabian Sport Horse in Hand Geldings Open and ATH, taking home two seconds and two Top Fives.

“Ryan never gets nervous, so for him, it was just normal,” says Kristal. “But for me, I was very nervous, but it was a different sense of anxiery. Before, it was, ‘Is he going to do really well?’ This one was like, ‘Just be OK, and may nothing happen!’ ”

Kristal appreciates the lessons gleaned from her — and her family’s – -journey with Ryan the past nine months.

“He’s just a remarkable kid that has this wisdom beyond most,” she says. “He’s like, ‘I am going to do what I want to do.’ If he feels good, he just goes and pushes himself and does it.

“When he first came home from the hospital, the first instinct was to bubble wrap him and keep him in the house — a lot of fear sets in. Well, you do have to be careful. You can’t be out without a mask. He’s susceptible to infection, and it could be deadly. You have to wash everything, sterilize everything. You literally live in a bubble and want to keep him in the bubble.

“The secret is, yes, you have to take care of yourself physically, but I think the mental aspect to beat this is a far bigger element,” she adds. “And that has helped Ryan, more than anything else.”

Ryan echoes the importance of a positive outlook.

“The most impotant lesson that I’ve learned though battling this is that if you keep a positive attitude and mindset, then anything is really possible,” he says. “Through the nine months, I have not thrown up once because I have told myself that I am NOT going to show signs of being really sick or anything. I would just mentally push through. The nurses at Rady say they haven’t seen anyone go through treatments without throwing up, and that’s what I tell myself I’m not going to let happen.

“You know, there are other kids that have what I have, and they have a much harder time with treatment and stuff,” he adds. “But they might not have quite as positive outlook, so I feel like that could be why they kind of feel the effects more than I do. They don’t find the good that can come through the cancer.”

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