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Grace Mitchinson

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The Comeback Kid Returns: Pursuing Success on the Difficult Horse

In June 2016, Grace Mitchinson shared the story of how she met her special horse Truffle, and since they’ve been on a roller coaster ride of setbacks and breakthroughs together. Today she catches us up on their journey. 

The day I met Truffle — Who wouldn’t fall in love with that innocent face? Photo courtesy of Dawn Mitchinson.

For the record — I didn’t buy a difficult horse. I bought a nice little mare who was kind and took care of me even when she didn’t quite know where her own feet were or exactly what her job was. Unknowingly, I bought a mare who had been stoically hiding an illness, we suspect, for a very long time. Truffle was officially diagnosed with EPM a mere eight months after we met her, and as the disease progressed she transformed into an anxious, borderline psychotic mess living in my backyard. Her rehab was tough and she relapsed the following winter, but she fought hard and when she started back under saddle she felt strong. She grew nearly two inches and gained muscle and strength, and for the first time in years I think she felt good. To me it was nothing short of a miracle.

What everyone failed to mention to me upon Truffle’s return from the near-dead was coincidentally the hardest part of the whole rehab process — the end of it. One day I was suddenly sitting atop an animal who didn’t have restrictions on the type or duration of work she was allowed, and she was more than ready to celebrate. I however, had no idea what to do with her and became the overly cautious helicopter parent who was afraid she was in pain every time she took an exuberant step.

To this day, I can’t say for sure whether it was the mental or physical aspects of those months that took such a toll on me, but my little mare and I fought to fall back into a normal routine, and I struggled to get to know this new horse that had suddenly surfaced. Post-EPM Truffle was hot and easily became frustrated, especially if I asked her to work the areas of her body most affected by her EPM. If she bucked or hopped I was quick to assume she was hurting or that her illness was back, and instead of working through her dramatic moments I gave her excuses. Of course this offered her an out, and we soon became the pair bolting across the ring interrupting lessons, or the loose horse at the show, or the horse all the tiny Pony Clubbers were very scared of. Thus was born “difficult” Truffle.

Difficult is always the word people use, closely followed by quirky, or something else that is not necessarily an insult, but close enough to it that it rubs me the wrong way more often than not. Comments on my ability to ride the wild mare were inevitably made at every show or clinic or barn event that I attended, and while most were encouraging and vaguely complimentary, others made me unreasonably angry. I felt like I constantly needed to apologize for my mare’s acrobatics or explain why I was even trying to take her off property, and eventing briefly lost its appeal as I sat at home and quietly prayed that we’d get our act together soon. My goals were put on hold and I questioned how I would find success on a horse that I fought with every time I worked her.

Living up to her new reputation, Truffle’s return to the eventing world was (how do I put it mildly?) … entertaining? We launched, we bucked, we picked up some new scars in Kentucky as we failed to make it to the arena at a Beginner Novice, and we both went swimming at a clinic when we got a little cocky and forgot what a half halt was. For the last two seasons we’ve been a seemingly incompetent pair wrapped in red ribbon, fumbling around Beginner Novice and Novice schooling shows while struggling to find our eventing legs again. Not something I’d call successful by any means, but things seemed to be slowly sliding back into place. We’re figuring out what routine works best for the princess, and lately our effort is being rewarded by quiet, confident rides. My years with Truffle have given me an entirely different perspective on notoriously difficult horses, and I realize now that most are carrying mental and physical baggage that simply needs to be unpacked by the right person.

Getting back into the swing of things! Photo courtesy of Jonathan Long.

As cliché as it sounds, I’m a big believer in the idea that you have to see something in a horse that not many people do. You have to believe in your partner. I’ve had people whom I love and respect ask me if there are any “other options” for Truffle — many have politely suggested to me that I find her a soft landing and pursue my goals on a different horse. While these conversations often leave me discouraged, it comforts me to know that I’ve found a team of trainers, professionals and friends who believe in us and our process. To have a barn family who can build us back up after nearly anything is something I still don’t take for granted, and I feel so lucky to have finally found it within the last few years. Finding my people has been instrumental to Truffle’s growth.

2018 brought a newly cooperative Truffle and despite a desolate show season due to my own scheduling faults, she stepped up to the plate and began schooling harder questions with a great attitude and scope for more. As we continue to grow as a pair, I’m so grateful for the progress we’ve made, the people we’ve met, and the battles we’ve won. However, I recognize we have a hell of a long way to go. Difficult horses don’t quit being difficult overnight, but we’ll claw our way forward for as long as we can.

Storming around Novice cross country this year. Photo courtesy of Lumineer Photography.

Success on Truffle will never be conventional. It will never be based on a ribbon or an award or a check. I cried harder after completing our first Beginner Novice following her rehab than I had in years, and I guarantee it’ll be the tiny, random victories that keep me going throughout the rough spells for years to come. If nothing else, Truffle has made me hungry. She’s made me braver, stronger, and smarter. She’s forced me to work for every small triumph, and she’s shown me both blissful and terrible days.

Lendon Gray was spot-on when she said that the difficult horses have the most to give you. Throughout her illness, injuries, and dramatic moments, Truffle has given me new barns, vets, coaches, clinicians and internet strangers turned friends who simply like her nickname “devil horse.” She’s also taught me how to ride each of her 18 personalities, which is a pretty sick deal considering I can only afford one horse for the foreseeable future. This mare has unintentionally handed me so many opportunities and new relationships which I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

Truffle’s antics have led me to some of the best people I know! Photo courtesy of Dawn Mitchinson.

So here’s to the difficult horses who own us more than we own them, who make us fight for every inch, and who will never admit that they’re wrong. To the horses who have so much to give and only need to find the right person to give it to. And to the best partner I’ve ever known, who keeps me humble and hungry and brave.

Grace Mitchinson is a 19-year-old eventer based in Area VIII. She currently attends the University of Michigan, where she studies biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience. She owns a thoroughbred mare named Truffle, and trains with Emily Ballard of EmD Eventing.

Secluded Way: The Comeback Kid, Presented by OCD

EN’s contest from our sponsor OCD and Doc’s Products Inc. invited readers to share their rehabilitation stories with us. The winner of the contest will receive an awesome prize pack from OCD. Entries are now closed, but we had some wonderful submissions that we’re happy to share with you.

Grace and Truffle set out on course at Jump Start Horse Trials 2015. Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchinson.

Grace and Truffle set out on course at Jump Start Horse Trials 2015. Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchinson.

Secluded Way was born on Welcome Here Farm in February of 2008 and was given the barn name “Truffle.”. She lived a normal, healthy life on the farm until she decided to sideswipe a tree and fractured her right hip as a yearling. Once she was fully rehabbed, she raced, later steeplechased and was finally put into eventing training with L&N Equestrian in 2014. Truffle’s sweet disposition and strong work ethic made her a favorite in the barn, and she quickly progressed.

I met Truffle on a freezing day in Aiken, South Carolina in March of 2015. The little bay mare standing quietly in the aisle might have looked plain to some, but there was something about her that seemed to tell me that there was more to her than meets the eye. I watched as the talented Nilson Moreira da Silva piloted her around the arena, and when it was time for me to get on, I was both terrified and excited. Our first ride was anything but smooth, but I immediately knew that this mare had a lot to give. She was talented and forgiving, and a week later she was mine.

Truffle stayed in Aiken for the month of April to tackle her first Training level event. I waited nervously in Michigan to hear the results, but the call I received was definitely not the one I was hoping for. Truffle never made it to the event because she had coliced and was in a clinic in Aiken where she stayed for four days. Truffle returned to the farm much skinnier than she had left it, but we hoped that she would put weight back on quickly.

At this point I was anxious to get her home, but I knew that she needed some time to return to her normal routine before I shipped her the 14 hours north. A few weeks later, she was en route to Michigan, and I held on to the hope that we had gotten all of our bad luck over with in the beginning of our partnership. Boy, was I wrong.

Truffle and I quickly bonded over our mutual dislike for loud noises, love of dogs and a popsicle after many of our rides. The mare had spunk to match my own and we seemed to click almost instantly, especially on cross country. After attending clinics and our local Pony Club rally I was looking forward to the season ahead, but unfortunately it’s never that easy in this sport.

Grace and Truffle getting ready for cross country after Truffle's recovery from Potomac Horse Fever. Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchinson.

Grace and Truffle getting ready for cross country after Truffle’s recovery from Potomac Horse Fever. Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchinson.

On the fourth of July, I walked out to the barn to feed my horses and found an incredibly droopy Truffle standing disinterested in the corner of her paddock. Although I knew she was tired from the clinic we had just gotten back from, there was something unsettling about her half-closed eyes,the sweat on her body and a build up of swelling in her left front. I went to take her temperature and had the vet on the phone before the thermometer beeped.

Truffle was diagnosed with Potomac Horse Fever as well as a strained tendon in her left front. She was immediately put on stall rest and, much to my dismay, was given a hefty dose of DMSO. The next morning Truffle seemed a little more upbeat, and the routine I would follow for weeks to come began. The day started at seven when I would mix her breakfast, feed her some hay, and try to clean her stall before she picked up the muck tub and flung it at the wall. She was allowed to go for one 20 minute hand walk followed by ten minutes of grazing.

Next, I removed the poultice from her injured leg and she received a dose of Banamine. Immediately following, the poor girl had her legs soaking in ice water to treat both the tendon injury and prevent the possibility of laminitis. I repeated the process, reapplied her wraps, and the day ended at two in the morning with her last dose of Banamine.  

Although I didn’t get to show much that year, Truffle’s rehab went smoothly and she returned to work after a month. She was able to go to two Beginner Novice derbies and one recognized event before the season ended, and she was a star each time. Things were finally starting to look good, and I had high hopes for the winter. The fall brought with it no stirrup work, dressage boot camp, and a nasty buck during every transition.

Truffle seemed to be off in her hind end, but multiple lameness exams, massages, chiropractic work and saddle fitting couldn’t bring her relief. In December she was finally diagnosed with EPM. As her attitude changed, I was greeted with a full set of teeth every time I tried to touch her, and my sweet little mare seemed to disappear. Truffle hit an all time low of biting, kicking, rearing, bucking, squealing and leaping straight up all during our 30 second walk to her stall each night.

Grace catches up on summer reading for AP English while icing Truffle. Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchinson.

Grace catches up on summer reading for AP English while icing Truffle. Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchinson.

To say I was disheartened would be a massive understatement, but still I dutifully braved her acrobatics to administer her medication, change her blankets, and run a brush across her body. The winter was bleak, but by the start of spring she was beginning to resemble the horse I had met in Aiken.

With the help of our wonderful dressage trainer Ruth Hill-Schorsch, Truffle and I have slowly walked through EPM rehab for the last six months. I’ve reintroduced her to working in an arena with other horses, trotting in a straight line, and standing for grooming. Truffle took the opportunity to show everyone her true jumping ability during the lunging portion of her rehab by leaping over every shadow on the ground like they were Prelim tables. Her coordination improved, and finally it was time for me to sit on her.

Getting on Truffle for the first time in four months was one of the most intimidating things I have ever faced. I worried that she wouldn’t feel the same, that she would immediately turn into a fire breathing dragon, that she’d buck me off and go running around, injuring herself further. Instead, I got on and she turned to look at my leg hanging tentatively at her side, gave a content sigh, and proceeded to go plodding around the arena with me beaming like I had just won Rolex.

Truffle and I will have a very slow season this year, but I’m hoping to have her schooling cross country by September. We plan on attending our region’s Pony Club dressage rally and a few other dressage schooling shows along the way with the hope that she will stay sound and healthy. I’ve learned to appreciate every moment spent with this very special horse, and I hope we can return to what we love: tearing up the cross country course.

Grace and Truffle's first ride after recovering from EMP. Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchinson.

Grace and Truffle’s first ride after recovering from EMP. Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchinson.

Truffle has faced a lifetime of difficulties. Fractured bones, life-threatening illnesses and strained tendons have yet to slow my girl down, even though our time together has been a whirlwind of ice boots, vet bills, and shoving a tube full of paste down her throat.

This horse has taught me countless lessons in the time that I’ve had her, but the clearest and most important one must be that one has to have heart to be successful. Truffle has the most heart of any horse that I have ever worked with. She always gives 110% whether we’re schooling simple leg yields, running cross country, or going for a trail ride by ourselves.

This mare has overcome every single difficulty that has affected her, and I’m confident that she will always have that urge to fight through. Henry Ford once said “When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” Truffle and I have finally taken off, and I cannot wait to see where we land.