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U.S. Para-Dressage Rider Roxanne “Roxie” Trunnell Overcomes Physical Challenges

by Betsy LaBelle | Sep 18, 2018, 10:00 AM EST

Mill Spring, N.C. - Roxanne “Roxie” Trunnell prepares to take on the toughest championship competitions at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games™ Tryon 2018 (WEG). She is one of the four selected U.S. Para-Equestrian Dressage Team presented by Deloitte athletes. Roxie has an incredible story about overcoming enormous physical challenges with gratefulness towards family, her personal team, and the para community. In 2018, the entire U.S. para-equestrian dressage team and staff has spent countless hours strategizing each and every detail of their training in order to support one another to further the sport in the United States, and, most importantly, to stand on the podium.

Born in Washington State, the 33-year-old, Trunnell shared her journey on becoming a U.S. WEG competitor and a Paralympian. "When I was two years old, I got sick and had a problem with my balance, so my parents signed me up to take vaulting lessons, and the whole horse thing just kind of took off from there."

Riding as an able-bodied athlete until the age of 23, Trunnell competed to the Prix St. Georges level. At 23, she became ill with the H1N1 virus that turned into encephalitis, causing her brain to swell and then a blood clot lead to a stroke. She was officially diagnosed with cerebellar ataxia. “The main things I struggle with are my fine motor skills, which have been impaired, and I sometimes get bad tremors in my hands,” she said.

Roxie Trunnell and Dolton (Tylir Penton Photography)

“When I first woke up from the coma it was very important to me to go out to the barn as much as possible. Even if I couldn’t ride, just to feed carrots and cookies felt ‘normal’ to me,” she said.

With an incredibly special bond with her mare Nice Touch, “Touché,” a horse she’d owned and ridden all the way to Prix St. Georges, Trunnell wanted to ride. And ride again she did.

Trunnell rode Nice Touch to an eighth-place finish in the Grade I Individual Test at the 2014 Alltech® FEI World Equestrian Games and a seventh place in the Grade I Freestyle. In 2016, she successfully competed in her first Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Currently from Texas, she traveled to Florida this past winter to compete her mare NTEC Daytona Beach in the CPEDI3* competition, with the hopes of qualifying for the U.S. Para-Equestrian Dressage Team presented by Deloitte in preparation for the 2018 WEG. Trunnell said, “[NTEC Daytona Beach] just didn’t have that big walk that an international Grade I horse needs to have.”

A large number of people from the U.S. para-equestrian community decided to pull together in February to help Trunnell further her equestrian career. Kate Shoemaker, a fellow para athlete, who owns Trunnell’s WEG mount Dolton, graciously offered her a horse. Then, she was introduced to hunter/jumper supporter, Karin Flint.

Flint is not only a Wellington resident, she also owns Flintfields Horse Park near Traverse City Michigan where each year the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival is held. The hunter/jumper horse show (AA FEI Rated) starts in July and runs into August every year and is on the yearly circuit for the top riders. She said, “We are a six-week horse show (AA FEI Rated) starting July 4 and going on weeks from that day. It keeps me really busy.”

“I met the entire para-equestrian dressage group because I am neighbors with a top para-athlete, Annie Peavy. Her family are my neighbors in Wellington and Becky kept saying to me, ‘Come on over and meet the para-dressage athletes.’ I kept on going over when they had dinners for the entire group, and I loved everybody I met. They are special. I have never worked with such a close group.”

"The more I got to know them, we all got together to talk about what our goals might be as we move forward. Those involved in U.S. para-equestrian dressage definitely want to be on the medal podium. We really asked, ‘How can we do it?’ By then, the US Equestrian Federation hired Michel Assouline to work with Chef d’Equipe Kai Handt. They started discovering new, FEI-competitive horses already within their own group. As the quality of the horses started going up, the momentum everyone felt made them all work harder. I really became interested and wanted to become part of it all.”

“These para athletes work very hard to make their aids invisible and to overcome quite a few challenges. Every one of them has a special passion to succeed,” Flint said.

In February, when Assouline asked Trunnell to try out Dolton, she was just finishing up at the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival CPEDI3* with her mare NTEC Daytona Beach.

“I had to catch a flight back to Texas later that afternoon, but I thought just going on a ride with this mysterious horse wouldn’t hurt. All I knew about him at the time was that he was six-years old and had an international walk, plus I was pretty curious,” Trunnell said.

Roxie Trunnell and Royal Dance (Erich Linder Photography)

“Imagine my surprise when I found out that it was Kate and Deena Shoemaker’s horse, Dolton. While Kate was getting his bridle on he took a few steps over to where I was sitting to say ‘hi’. That was my first inkling that this could turn into a special partnership. When I rode Dolton, it was like we just clicked and it felt so natural to me, like I had been riding Dolton far longer than this being our first time together.”

“Even though Dolton had no international experience and is quite young at only six–years-old, there was no denying his potential, so it was agreed that I would train with Dolton, sponsored through Karin Flint until the WEG Test Event at Tryon in April.”

“I had a very wonderful and supportive team on my road to the 2018 WEG. A major contributor on my team is Dolton’s sponsor, Karin Flint. She is a huge reason that this exciting adventure is even possible. I am so grateful to everyone for this opportunity.”

At the April WEG CPEDI3* Test Event, Trunnell and Dolton scored a 73.155 percent in the Grade I Individual Championship Test, a 74.345 percent in the Grade I Team Test, a 73.278 percent in the Grade I Musical Freestyle, and became the highest-scoring para-equestrian athletes in the FEI Para-Dressage CPEDI. She has since scored even higher this past summer leading up to the WEG. “Everyone was completely blown away by what Dolton accomplished at the FEI WEG Test Event. To go into a big international competition for the first time, at the minimum age the FEI will allow a horse to compete (six-years old) and to win all of his classes, and be the highest-scoring horse at the competition was totally unexpected, but that is just what Dolton did.”

Quite a mature horse, Dolton has proven his bond with Trunnell.

After Dolton’s impressive showing, Flint signed on to sponsor Dolton and Trunnell as she continues to be his rider. “It makes me smile that when I’m coming down the barn aisle and he hears me coming and he'll stick his head out and watch me approach. It's like he knows he's going to get lots of pats, kisses, carrots, and cookies. We have a wonderful partnership.”

Flint shared, “I just love Roxie. She’s always got a smile on her face. She is an amazing young woman. When I met her and got to know her, and they came to me and asked me to be a sponsor, the word, ‘no’, just wasn't in the English language. She is just that special. They are all special, the entire group. They have all overcome so many huge obstacles to get where they are today.”

“The way I see it,” continued Flint, “it’s all about the people. It’s all about pulling together from the top, able-bodied dressage athletes to the high-performance para-equestrian athletes, to the therapeutic riding side of the sport. The U.S. is creating a path for the athletes to get to the high-performance levels. The USEF Centers of Excellence are really a place where a future para athlete could come and train and learn what it takes.”

An excellent athlete, Roxie’s road to the 2018 WEG has been a solid team effort. She is one to watch.