Roxanne (Roxie) Trunnell, a horse rider since she was 10, was competing and winning medals in the Prix St. Georges level of dressage the year after graduating from Washington State University in 2008 with her psychology degree.
Thirteen years later, she was a gold medal winner in Paralympics dressage and ranked first in the world in her grade level.
Dressage is an English riding discipline in which the horse and rider perform controlled movements in progressively more difficult tests. Trunnell and her horse Touché had been training together since junior high to reach the Prix St. Georges, the first level of international competition in able-bodied dressage.
Her goal of competing on the US Olympic Dressage Team was shattered in 2009. In addition to daily horse riding near her Kennewick home, she was working a night job on a hotel desk and a day job in a dog kennel.
“I felt like I was coming down with a cold and started having trouble talking, so I crawled into bed and thought I’d sleep whatever it was off,” she remembers. “When my mother got home, I couldn’t stand up, and they took me to the hospital.
“Within two weeks, I was placed in an induced coma, had a breathing tube placed down my throat and was airlifted to a hospital in Spokane on Halloween night. Doctors could never pinpoint what caused all this. The closest they could come was that I contracted the H1N1 virus and that turned into encephalitis. A blood clot traveled to my brain, and I ended up having a stroke.”
She returned home having to use a wheelchair most of the time, unable to maintain her balance standing or walking without something to hold on to. “I got pretty depressed…Horses had always been a huge part of my life and that was just yanked away from me,” she says.
Her mother contacted her first riding instructor, who ran a vaulting school with horses that were used to riders not being steady. “She agreed to help me get back to riding again.”
She got back with a vengeance. After years of rehab, she set her sights on riding for the US Para Dressage Team, and she began successfully competing nationally in 2013 and internationally in 2014. Trunnell can get on a horse if someone holds on to her as she walks to the mounting block and she can sit in the saddle without falling backward or to the side. With her inability to keep her balance at a trot or canter, she completes the tests at a walk only (Grade 1, for the most impaired riders).
She went with the US Para Dressage Team to the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she placed tenth. Afterward, the team, which had serious structural problems, was overhauled with a new chef d’équipe (team manager), Trunnell says.
The progress showed in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics (postponed until 2021), despite the logistics of working around COVID. Trunnell won two individual gold medals and participated in the team bronze-medal performance with her horse, Dolton.
“A big highlight for me was when I was riding the team test and an apartment fire broke out right across the street. You could see the fire and smell the smoke. (Horses are generally terrified of fire.) Dolton was the youngest horse on the team, and this was his first Paralympics, and he had every right to bolt out of that arena. We were very bonded, and he knows it is his job to take care of me, and since I wasn’t freaking out, he wasn’t going to freak out either.”
Trunnell was ranked number one in the world for 26 months in 2020 through 2022, per the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) Para Dressage Individual ranking. She and her parents moved to Royal Palm Beach, Florida, with giant international show grounds in their backyard.
After Dolton hurt himself in 2021, Trunnell took a six-year-old stallion, Fortunato H20, to the 2022 FEI World Championships in Denmark. It was his first big show, and she had been riding him for only six weeks.
“We ended up helping Team USA bring home a team bronze medal and secure a spot for the 2024 Paris Paralympics,” she says. “Each of those amazing ponies earned as many cookies and carrots as they wanted at that show, and the riders aren’t half-bad themselves.”
During her years of rehab, she earned her master’s in psychology from Capella University in 2015 with an emphasis on equine-assisted psychotherapy. Although she is not practicing at this point in her life, she says she applies what she’s learned to her riding.
“I don’t get the show nerves that cripple some riders, and think this is because of my schooling,” she says. “I’m able to figure out what I need before a show—like I really need quiet and not to talk to anybody about an hour before. If I do get nervous, I am able to have a way of thinking that helps calm me down.”