In February 2020, the 34-year-old became the first U.S. rider to be ranked #1 in the world for para-dressage
Roxie Trunnell’s story began just like that of any other horse-crazy girl. She started riding at the age of 10, fell in love with dressage and climbed her way up the ranks, earning her USDF bronze medal on her Dutch Warmblood mare, Nice Touch, a.k.a. Touché.
But in the fall of 2009, everything changed. A mysterious cold quickly escalated into something much more serious. Within weeks, 23-year-old Roxie was in a wheelchair. Her life was upended, and her riding career appeared to be over.
Yet, with the help of her beloved Touché, Roxie discovered a new way forward: representing Team USA as a Grade I para-dressage rider and becoming the first American to be ranked the number one para-dressage rider in the world.
A Twist of Fate
It was Halloween when Roxie realized something was terribly wrong. She’d thought she had a simple cold — but suddenly she started having trouble walking and speaking.
She was airlifted from her home in Richland, WA, for emergency treatment in Spokane. At the hospital, doctors struggled to pinpoint what had happened.
“The closest they could come was that I got H1N1 and it turned into encephalitis,” Roxie explains. “Then, as if that wasn’t enough, a tiny blood clot dislodged itself from my leg and went to my brain.”
That blood clot, Roxie says, completely rearranged her “computer and navigation system” and led to a diagnosis of cerebellar ataxia, a condition that causes difficulty with motor skills, balance and coordination.
When Roxie woke up after three weeks in a coma, she remembers her first thought was that she’d never be able to ride Touché again.
Roxie’s illness put her in a wheelchair, unable to walk. But despite her physical challenges, Roxie’s ability to ride — to truly understand the feel of the horse — remained.
“It’s a mystery why I can ride the way I do,” she says. “It’s like the file folder in my brain where I store all my riding knowledge wasn’t damaged when I got sick, so I still have all the knowledge and I remember how things are supposed to feel.”
Riding is simultaneously the most challenging and the most natural thing for Roxie to do. “I know and feel how it is supposed to be and look,” she says, “but my body just won’t cooperate with me exactly the way it used to.”
The Journey Back to the Saddle
For two years, Roxie rode vaulting ponies — “little things that didn’t care if I wobbled or was unsteady” — but she longed to get back to riding Touché.
The mare could sometimes be a handful, and no one could anticipate how she’d react to Roxie’s new condition. With some convincing, Roxie’s dad helped her create a makeshift mounting block out of the bed of a pickup truck. They hoisted Roxie up and then brought over Touché.
“She took in the sight of me in the wheelchair, walked up to the truck, aligned herself like it was a mounting block, bent her knees and leaned into me,” Roxie recalls.
After that incredible moment, Roxie and Touché’s new partnership was off to a strong restart. As Roxie learned to ride again, the mare was calm and patient. “It was like our bond was so strong, she was determined to take care of me just like I was her foal,” Roxie says.
Even though 25-year-old Touché is now retired from competition, Roxie still rides her every day for 30 minutes. “She is, without question, my once-in-a-lifetime horse,” Roxie says.
Moving Forward and Dreaming Big
Roxie — whose motto is “It is what it is” — has found joy and success in her journey, no matter how unexpected it has been.
“It was never part of my plan to have my life turn out like this,” she says. “Even though my life was completely turned upside down, I figured out how to compensate for my handicap in order to continue doing what I love. It’s an incredible feeling, and it’s awesome I’m able to inspire others to work hard to adapt to a handicap to better their lives.”
Support from the equestrian community — including people like you! — has fueled Roxie’s comeback. She recalls her home region adding para-dressage classes to their shows to give her an opportunity to return to the dressage ring and pursue her dreams.
Today, Roxie is hard at work with her new partner, Dolton, thanks to her wonderful sponsor and horse owner, Karin Flint. In 2018, they represented Team USA at the FEI World Equestrian Games, bringing home an individual bronze medal in the freestyle. In September 2019, the duo won the Adequan/USEF Para Dressage National Championship title and in 2020 they were the first U.S. para dressage rider to be ranked #1 in the world.
Roxie hopes a gold medal at a Paralympic Games is in their future. I’ve been working really hard with him, even through the coronavirus outbreak, “she says. “Our partnership and bond are getting very solid,” she says.
No matter what comes next in the competition ring, Roxie remains motivated just by spending quality time with her favorite horses. “When I’m at a show, you can usually find me just hanging out with him at his stall,” she reveals.
“I think if you treat your horses special, they will go out of their way to take care of you because when it comes down to it, it’s just you and your horse in that ring and it’s up to the two of you to give the judge chills, no one else.”