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.