Kennewick para-equestrian canters on

Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldApril 12, 2014 

Para-dressage rider Roxanne Trunnell and horse Nice Touch at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival CPEDI3* in Wellington, Fla., in March. This international show was a qualifier for the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France. Riders will proceed to the selection trials held in Gladstone, N.J., in June.

COURTESY LINDSAY MCCALL

Roxanne Trunnell has the goal of representing the United States at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, later this year.

And odds seem good she'll make it there.

Once the 28-year-old Kennewick woman sets her mind to something, she's not easily deterred. That inner steel helped Trunnell deal with a devastating illness that turned her life upside down. It's helped her go on to become the top-ranked para-dressage rider in North America heading into the selection trials in New Jersey in June.

And it's earned her respect and praise in the upper echelons of para-dressage.

"We call her Roxie with the moxie," said Hope Hand, president of the United States Para-Equestrian Association, or USPEA. "She's determined and confident. I think she'll really do us proud. She's a real competitor."

Trunnell grew up loving horses, making and selling candles at craft shows to sock away enough for her first competitive dressage horse. She got Touch, a Dutch warmblood, in 2003.

She was making a name for herself at dressage competitions -- the equestrian sport sometimes is described as ballet on horseback -- when an unexpected health crisis hit.

In 2009, Trunnell developed encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, brought on by an unknown virus. She lapsed into a coma and may have suffered a stroke. She couldn't talk or walk.

"When I woke up, my first thought was that I would never be able to ride my horse again," she wrote on her website.

Trunnell spent weeks in the hospital and in-patient rehabilitation. As soon as she could, she got back in the saddle again.

It was slow going. "At that time, I could barely sit upright on my own, but I was determined to ride a dressage test again on Touch," she wrote.

"Over the course of two years I rode vaulting ponies -- 'little things' that didn't care if I wobbled or was unsteady and were used to having people flop around on top of them. I was never let off the lunge line, but how I dreamed to ride all by myself again," she wrote.

"Eventually, I was 'turned loose' to walk, finally trot, and then on a cold day in December 2011, with the aid of several friends and my family, I was able to sit on top of my big girl and walk around on a lunge line."

Last year, Trunnell -- who still has limited mobility as a result of her illness and uses a wheelchair or walker -- began entering para-dressage competitions. Hand, the USPEA president, said Trunnell's skill and years of experience -- stretching back before her illness -- are evident. She's focused and graceful.

"We're just thrilled at her accomplishments over this past year," Hand told the Herald.

Trunnell has the support of her two older sisters and her older brother. Her parents too.

Her father, Sid, a former Hanford Patrol member who's now retired, is her travel and workout partner. They're in Texas now, where Trunnell is riding and working with a trainer, while also keeping up on her daily therapy.

She and Sid take trips to the gym, ride bikes and walk the aisles of Home Depot, she wrote in an email to the Herald.

Her mom, Josette, is a nurse practitioner who's burned up the phone lines hoping to find donors and sponsors to help with the hefty cost of competitive dressage. Getting Trunnell and her horse to the selection trials in New Jersey will cost about $15,000, Josette told the Herald.

Sid and Josette sold their house to help with the dressage expenses. Trunnell is a beautiful rider and a person who never complains, despite all she's been through, Josette told the Herald.

"It's our way that we gave her wings," the mother said, adding that they hope her success in para-dressage will give her a voice and a platform she can use to improve her own life and inspire and help others.

Trunnell has a master's degree in psychology and hopes to be accepted into an MBA program this summer. She's considering going into equine-facilitated psychotherapy, she said.

Along with the World Equestrian Games, Trunnell also has her eye on the Paralympics in 2016. Riding in that competition would fulfill a longtime goal -- Trunnell has dreamed of being an Olympian since she started riding as a girl.

She said she's looking forward to the selection trials in June. She'll likely be focused, intent.

With her inner steel and her heart.

Hopefully, enjoying the ride.

"Sometimes life gives your plans little detours," she said, "and if you're willing to take the detour it just might take you to a place where you can do amazing things."

To follow Trunnell's journey or to donate to help with her para-dressage costs, go to www.roxannetrunnell.com.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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