Alexis Miller never thought she and her gelding Roulette, a 15-year-old Oldenburg, would make it to the 2023 U.S. Dressage Finals, being held this week in Lexington, Kentucky—in fact, there was a time not so long ago when she thought she might never be able to ride again.
After a hard fall from “Chaplin” six years ago, Miller had been told by her medical team that the chronic pain in her hip could only be managed, not resolved. Pain was something the then 24-year-old would need to learn to live with, and riding was something she’d have to live without.
“The surgeons originally were like, ‘Are you sure you want to continue with horses? Maybe you shouldn’t. You’re probably never going to run again. You’re probably never going to be able to really ride that well,’ ” she said.
But Miller, who grew up on a farm in Collins, Ohio, couldn’t imagine life without horses. Not even after Chaplin (Renaissance Man—Kolina) bucked the rider off, landing Miller in emergency reconstructive surgery to repair a badly shattered hip. She spent three months on bed rest as she healed from the injury, eager to get back into the saddle with her new partner. She’d owned him for only two weeks before her fall.
“After the first surgery, even when I was in my wheelchair, [my fiance] would take me out to the barn, and I’d just brush him. I wanted to spend time with him and try to build that bond.”
Once Miller was cleared to get back on the horse, she realized that the pain was back, too. Subsequent x-rays showed that her injury site was refracturing, and her doctors determined that she would need a second reconstructive surgery. Recovering from that procedure, Miller gamely took on her physical therapy program, careful to give the second surgery the best chance for a success.
When, after a year of rehabbing from her second surgery, she felt her hip pain return during a dressage lesson, she knew what it meant: Her hip was refracturing again. Miller was devastated. She says that her doctors discouraged her from considering a hip replacement because of her age, but even with pain management, her hip made riding—her favorite thing—an agonizing experience.
Miller had grown up riding bareback on the Icelandic ponies in her backyard, showing hunter/jumpers and flying around barrel patterns. As she recovered with her seven horses right outside her back door, she couldn’t picture giving them up.
With her hip so vulnerable to reinjury, Miller considered her options. She knew that it probably wasn’t prudent to continue her partnership with Chaplin, whose quirks had put her in the ER in the first place. Finally, with hesitation, Miller placed a sale ad for Chaplin. She remembers when a prospective buyer asked Miller to put him through his paces.
“She said, ‘You look so beautiful on him. Why do you want to sell him?’ ” Miller said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t really!’ ”
Not many 28-year-olds have to worry about hip replacements, but after all her years of recurring injuries and failed rehabs, Miller approached her doctors to ask for the more drastic step. Finally, Miller was ready to commit: She would keep the horse and lose the hip.
Two years after her hip replacement surgery, Miller is now pain-free. The procedure has allowed her to return comfortably to her active lifestyle: She’s running, doing pilates and, of course, riding horses.
“I rehabbed up and started re-riding [Chaplin] three times in total,” Miller said.
The third time was the charm. But Miller admits that her mental game was as difficult to recover as the physical piece. After her accident, the rider says she was “terrified” of riding Chaplin, who was still hot and occasionally unpredictable.
“I mean, I used to go down the centerline, and we would halt at X and salute, and he’d just rear right in front of the judges,” she said. “We would halfway get through tests all the time.”
Miller worked on her own mindset, diving into motivational videos and books to regain her confidence. She also credits her trainers, Holly and Jeff Taylor at Blue Ridge Farm in North Ridgeville, Ohio, for helping her to work out the kinks with Chaplin. His previous trainer, Brittany Geglein, also gave Miller lessons, helping her uncover the Oldenburg’s quirks and buttons.
“I got into a really, really good routine with him,” Miller said. “We started to slowly piece everything together.”
Before his dressage career with Miller, Chaplin had been a jumper, and she feels it took the horse a few years to settle into the pace of his new job.
“Coming from 1.30-meter jumper, [it’s] a lot of go, go, go,” she said. “Getting into dressage, he’s realized we don’t have to go full-force all the time.
“He’s gotten to the point now where he’s happy with what he’s doing, and he’s happy with me,” Miller continued. “We’ve been going to all the rated shows. We’re completing tests all the time; we don’t have those issues anymore.”
Miller is thrilled to have qualified for Finals and to be at the show with her “Blue Ridge family,” the very support system who helped her get back on the horse, emotionally and physically. She’ll be showing this weekend in the adult amateur first level championship.
Against the odds, she stuck with the horse that bucked her off in their first weeks together, and the duo have spent the last six years getting to know one another inside and out.
“When I ride him now, I feel entirely connected,” Miller said. “I can feel his back legs, I can feel his front legs. I can feel everything, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re in a good spot. Yeah, this is exactly where I wanted to be. This was the goal.’ ”
The Chronicle will be on site at the U.S. Dressage Finals, bringing you gorgeous photos, interviews and more. Make sure to follow along at www.coth.com and on Facebook, and Instagram @Chronofhorse. For full analysis and coverage from the horse show be sure to check out the Dec. 18 issue of the magazine.
Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at email@example.com with their story.