Grace Morgan won’t be putting too much pressure on herself when she steps into the Rolex Arena aboard Rollingwoods Up Up And Away next week at USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky)—she’s already coping with life challenges most 17-year-olds have never faced.
“Pony Finals was never necessarily the dream,” she said. “I just want to have fun. [Riding] needs to stay fun.”
Morgan, of Ardmore, Oklahoma, works mostly with Welsh ponies alongside her equine-focused family. Her mother, Katie Morgan, grew up with horses, as did Katie’s mother, Alice Litteken.
At a young age, Grace began working with Welsh ponies under the guidance of breeders and trainers Sally Ross Davis and Joanna Wilburn of Rollingwoods Farm in Olive Branch, Mississippi, competing in Welsh Pony and Cob Society of America regional and national shows with Rollingwoods ponies.
“The [WPCSPA] community is very supportive,” Grace said. “We all go out to dinner together after showing. If you fall off, there will be eight people in the arena trying to catch your pony. It’s super close-knit.”
While the Welsh community has provided Grace with kinship and competition, it also offered her solace. Grace experienced months of intense, unexplained pain after fracturing her left leg in 2016—a result of an accidental kick from a pony mare—before being diagnosed with a rare condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
“When Grace broke her leg, we were at WPCSA Nationals,” Katie said. “Grace is tough as nails, so she went ahead and showed the entire five days. It never bruised or swelled or anything like that.”
Long after the fracture healed, however, Grace was still experiencing intense pain, which doctors failed to diagnose correctly for months.
The family was finally pointed to an orthopedic group who diagnosed Grace with CRPS, a rare diagnosis for a person under 18.
“There really wasn’t any relief for a couple of years,” Katie said. “We tried medication and physical therapy. None of the pain management was really working.”
Grace’s ability to ride changed, and with it, her life. Her left leg atrophied to half the size of her right, making it hard to be fitted for tall boots, and resulted in a limp.
“It was easier to work my horses off the right leg than the left, of course, so if you ride one of the horses they go one direction better than the other,” Grace said.
Emotionally, she was struggling with the new limitations.
“There were lots of times where I just laid on the floor of my bedroom and didn’t want to do anything ever. I didn’t want to ride—I didn’t think I could. Having no solution was really difficult to live with,” she said.
Last autumn, Grace began seeing Dr. Adam Savage, a pain specialist who recommended a trial spinal cord neurostimulator. After experiencing a significant reduction in her pain levels—“my leg wasn’t purple anymore,” she noted— Grace was approved for a permanent implant, which she received at the end of December 2021.
Grace was told to take six weeks off from riding. Not even a week after the surgery, though, she was in Olive Branch for the annual Rollingwoods colt breaking.
“She just wanted to be around her people in her environment,” Katie said. “When I say she really lives through the pain to be around horses, she does.”
Rollingwoods Up Up and Away (Rollingwoods Easy As L—Rollingwoods Stick Em Up), who Grace and her grandmother purchased as a 2-year-old, is the pony she’ll compete in the large green hunter division at Pony Finals this year. Grace began riding “Uppity,” now 9, when the pony was 3, and began competing in the WPCSA pleasure divisions shortly after.
“She’d win every pleasure class she walked into,” Grace said. “It was a real confidence boost, having a pony that didn’t spook at anything and doesn’t do anything bad.”
Katie agreed. “She’s unflappable. She’s truly a refreshing pony.”
Last autumn, Grace’s cousin, Lucy Harlow, approached her about trying to qualify for Pony Finals, saying it would be fun to go together.
Litteken, Grace’s grandmother and Uppity’s owner, encouraged her to go with her cousin. In December, shortly after Grace’s surgery, she and her hunter trainer, Tiffany Lee, began working to help them qualify. They didn’t qualify their first time out in the large greens, which strengthened Grace’s resolve about making it to Pony Finals.
“When I didn’t qualify the first weekend, I was like, ‘Well, I have to now.’ And then I was determined to go,” Grace said.
They qualified the next time they showed, at the Christmas Horse Show (Texas) in December, while her cousin Harlow qualified in the medium regular pony division in May, so the entire family now is headed to Pony Finals, Aug. 9-14 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
Grace’s goal for Finals is to have fun.
“We’ve always understood that the goal for Pony Finals is to enjoy the experience, have a good time, and not fall off if possible,” Katie said. “As long as she’s happy with how she rode, everyone’s happy.”
Grace plans to continue her work with Rollingwoods Farm and compete in WPCSA shows for the remainder of her junior years and beyond. She sits on the WPCSA Youth Advisory Council and succeeded in starting, in conjunction with her friend Alex Clark, a junior sportsmanship award to honor their fellow junior competitors through a nomination process and blind selection by WPCSA leaders.
“These are my people, my friends. They’re all a blast to be with. I just want to keep it fun and happy,” she said.