We all know the saying that when life hands you lemons you make lemonade. Let me tell you what Paralympian Roxie Trunnell did with her lemons. In 2009 she contracted a virus that caused swelling in her brain. She was put into a medically induced coma. When she woke up she found she was unable to walk or to do many things without assistance. However, she refused to let this stifle her dreams. Trunnell was a dressage rider and had set her goals on riding in the Olympics. She elicited the help of her family and friends to get back in the saddle. After a long recovery, Trunnell slowly began to ride again and completed her Masters in Psychology with a focus in Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy. Striving to compete, Trunnell found para-equestrian dressage. In November of 2012, she was classified Grade 1a (for the most severely disabled riders. The entire test is ridden with the horse at the walk) In May 2013, she rode in her first CPEDI at the Golden State Dressage. She went on to be a Paralympian in 2016 in Rio and also Tokyo in 2021.
In the Tokyo Paralympics, the 36-year-old from Richland, Washington, became the first American equestrian, in 25 years, to win a gold medal when she won the Grade I dressage individual test. Then she helped the U.S. para team to a bronze medal And lastly Trunnell won a second gold medal with a record breaking score of 86. 127% in the Grade I individual freestyle test. Here are Roxie’s answers to the questions I asked her
When you woke up from the induced coma and found you could not walk, what did you think? Did you think you would ever be able to ride again?
When I first woke up from the coma I was terrified, not because I couldn’t walk or do the basic things such as feeding myself, getting dressed, etc. but that I wouldn’t be able to ride again. I started riding at the age of 10 years old and horses were such a huge part of my life, that I wasn’t really sure what life would look like without these furry creatures to ride.
How did you get back to riding? Tell me about the horse you had then and how you got back on.
I was very depressed when I actually got to go home from rehab and it was my mother (Josette Trunnell) who realized if they didn’t figure out away to get me back on a horse, I was not going to snap out of being depressed. So she contacted my very first riding instructor Lindy Cogswell of Happy Horse Riding School in Burbank, WA about figuring out how they could make this happen. Lindy had zero experience working with a handicapped rider but she said she would try, and there was a lot of trial and error that happened but I am very stubborn so quitting was not an option for me. I fell off a few times, had vaulting girls sit on top of me so I wouldn’t bounce right off the horse while it’s trotting (I can’t post), and did other things that probably made us look half crazy. It was helping my depression just to be doing something that seemed so normal to me, but what I really wanted to do was ride my mare Touchè who was my able-bodied dressage horse. I have an incredibly special bond with my naughty redhead, and I have owned her since she was 7 years old and rode all the way to Prix St. George on her. She is a very spirited redheaded mare who has put me in the dirt more times then I can count! Everybody was nervous to put me back on her because of her difficultness but I was stubborn and wanted to ride her again. When she saw me sitting in the wheelchair she bent her knees and leaned over to help make it easier to get me on her back. When I got off balance in the saddle she would slow down or do some kind of lateral work to help compensate and let me find my balance again. She recognized I was not the same rider I used to be and she was going to make it her job to make sure I was safe. I ended up taking her to the 2014 WEG (World Equestrian Games) in Normandy, France where she was the oldest horse there at 18-19 years old but she showed those young horses how it was done by being the best horse on the USA Para Dressage Team. I made a promise to her there that I would never make her go down another centerline again if she just got me through my first big international show and she did me so proud. She is now 27 years old and living a cushy retirement at IDA Farms here in Wellington, FL. I still ride her practically everyday but now it is at this painfully slow walk unless she see’s the horse walker moving then she becomes this fire breathing dragon lol. She may be an old lady but there is still plenty of power under her hood!
3. You had wanted to ride in the Olympics when you were an able bodied rider. When did you decide you could be a Paralympian?
Originally I was very against the whole becoming a Para Equestrian, due to the fact that I didn’t fully understand what it was. I like to just blend into the crowd and not stand out so to me becoming a Para Equestrian was too different than the able-bodied dressage Olympian version of myself that I had in my head, and again this is due to lack of knowledge because what para is short for is parallel so Para Equestrian is not different than able-bodied dressage the dispensations just level the playing field for people with physical handicaps. So there I was struggling with my two able-bodied trainers (Heather O’Keefe in Spokane, WA; and Diane Royce in Walla Walla, WA) to get Touchè ready to compete at 3rd level, when Diane who had just come back from judging a show in Candace that had several Para riders competing in it and suggested that I consider moving to Para Equestrian. My parents and I flew down to a Para Symposium in Maine during 2013, just to see what it was all about and I got sucked in lol, I haven’t given a thought about competing in able-bodied dressage since then!
Rio was your first Olympics. How was that experience? You were not riding Dolton then, who was the horse you were riding then?
The 2016 Rio Paralympics were very different from the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics in that yes, there was a pandemic going on, so that made things very difficult with traveling but the sense of team support/working towards the same goal was so much stronger in Tokyo than I felt it in Rio. The Rio Paralympics in my opinion was a practice run to the awesome showing that the USA was able to achieve in Tokyo. It got me mentally prepared in knowing what had to happen out in the sandbox for a podium position to be achieved both individually and as a team. It also helped me understand how flexible you need to be at these bigger competitions, the show officials are dealing with multiple nations and there is going to be schedule changes. You just have to go with the flow and not let the changes bother you, everyone is doing their best to make things run smoothly so there really isn’t any need for you to be getting your panties in a knot as well. I was riding Royal Dancer at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. He belonged to my ex-trainer’s daughter Julia Handt. He is a sweet boy but better suited to able-bodied dressage than Para Dressage.
I understand you got Dolton in 2017. How did you find him and how did you know he was the right one for you?
I actually don’t own Dolton, my sponsor Karin Flint is his owner. It was very surprising how we actually found Dolton, my current teammate (Kate Shoemaker) owned Dolton and had brought him to Wellington, FL to be evaluated by Michel Assouline, USA’s Para Dressage team chef. Michel had been looking for a Grade I horse who would help the USA get on the podium and it was decided that Dolton was that horse, he contacted Karin about sponsoring us through World Equestrian Games and once he earned the bronze medal in the freestyle Karin snatched that special boy up.
The equine massage therapist, JP Hourdebaigt, told me that Dolton is very protective of you. He told me that if someone goes up to you he will check them out. Does he do that? Do you feel he is protecting you?
When I first tried out 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 and how right I was! I started riding Dolton just shy of a year when we went down center line at the 2018 World Equestrian Games where he won bronze in the freestyle and it’s just been uphill with this special boy in every sense. Dolton is such a funny guy!! He does check out who I’m talking too, he’s very much a people horse and if you aren’t “Dolton approved” he’s not sure if I should be talking to them. I get a sense that he has taken it on as his duty to protect me. During the Team test in Tokyo an apartment building had caught on fire and even though he was tense and on his tippy toes the whole ride he didn’t bolt out of the arena. I think he held it together for me during that ride because our bond is so strong, I’m not sure he would be that well behaved for another rider.
I think horses know what our limitations are. Do you think that Dolton knows you have limitations and he looks after you?
I definitely think Dolton knows. Before I get on my trainer (Andrea Woodard) rides him and he can get a little feisty with her, but when I get on he never has done anything naughty with me. My mare Touchè is like this, she was extremely feisty while I was an able-bodied rider but when she saw me in the wheelchair it was like she just knew I couldn’t handle all her naughty tricks. Over the years with her she has gotten back to doing them but they only feel half-hearted now. It’s like she adopted me as her foal and it is her job to take care of me, I’ve read that once you have won a mare’s heart, you have won all of her- she will give you everything. There are no truer words than that to describe my relationship with Touchè
I have heard that athletes who compete in the Olympics sometimes have a bit of a post Olympic slump. So much goes into preparing, going, competing and then it is all over. Have you had any of that following your triumphs in Tokyo?
I’ve heard of the post Olympic/Paralympic slump but I have never experienced it myself. I know that the Paralympics is a very big deal, and that there are a ton of people watching and media presence but when you take all that away, it is just a horse show and that’s how I treat these big championship shows. I prepare at home the same way for them that I do any show, the tests are the same, and the arena is the same so with that mindset I don’t feel like once we compete it is all over.
I understand that Dolton had an injury so you could not compete at the CPEDI in Wellington in 2022. How is he doing now?
In March 2022 Dolton had mildly injured one of his back legs in his stall while at the Global Dressage Festival 9 CPEDI3*. His vet Dr. Mitchell has stated that he will fully recover, it just is the back legs are a long way from the horses heart & it will take time to heal. He will be back in the show ring in 2023 to make a run for a spot on the USA Para Dressage Team heading to the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. Lehua Custer the coach of my teammate Kate Shoemaker has graciously offered the ride on her horse Fortunato H2O so that I would be able to compete for a spot on the USA Para Dressage Team headed to the World Championships this August in Herning, Denmark.
So now you are competing with Fortunato. Tell me about him.
Fortunato H2O (his barn name is Tuna but I call him Fish because I think that’s cuter)is a 6 year old Oldenburg stallion owned by Lehua Custer. He reminds me so much of my two loves (Touché & Dolton)! He reminds me of Touché not because he’s naughty like her (he’s an amazing good boy), but because of his body type. He’s quite a bit wider than Dolton, and with Touché being a old style Dutch warmblood she’s a big boned girl so riding a wider horse feels very natural to me. He reminds me of Dolton because of his great brain, who would have thought a 6 year old stallion would be so good for a Para rider? Certainly not me! One of Dolton’s quirky things he does is he loves to lick you like a dog, they are his “little kisses”, Fish has started doing the licking thing as well. I feel special to be getting kisses from two handsome boys
This past weekend June 17-19, 2022, Roxie and Fortunato competed in the CPEDI at the Tryon International Equestrian Center. They won all their classes with good scores. To me this is further proof that when they have a real connection with their rider, horses know what they must do to help.
Thank you Roxie for taking the time to answer my questions. I am certain that many people who read your answers will be inspired by your resilience and determination. I wish you all the best going forward both in life and riding.