The Heart of a Barn Rat: Riding with a Pacemaker

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Photo © HLA Photography

BY ALLIE CARLSON

Barn rats—we all know and love them. They are the young women and men who happily spend hours grooming, tacking, feeding and mucking for a little extra time in the saddle.

While working as an instructor at Hidden Brook Stables, I was lucky enough to be the trainer that got to teach and work with all the new, beginner riders. Grace, a devoted barn rat, was one of my first students. Her kindness and willingness to work hard instantly caught my attention, but what I learned next really amazed me.

From the day she was born, Grace has battled to overcome a rare congenital heart defect, Complete Congenital Heart Block. At just 4 months old, she had her first pacemaker placed. Since then, Grace has had several more. While most would tell you riding with a pacemaker is extremely risky, Grace and her family were up to the challenge. They believed the benefits would outweigh the risks. And they have, with Grace’s doctors commenting on her improved cardiovascular health and core strength. Even her teachers noted that her self-confidence had improved since she started riding.

Grace’s cousin, Erin Sweeney, suggested horses for Grace, specifically at Hidden Brook with trainer, Holly Rebello. From the time Grace started trotting around on the lunge line, picking up the posting rhythm almost instantly, she became a fixture at the barn. None of the other sports she had tried previously really stuck. Riding was where Grace finally found her passion. “I found my place and my people. I felt like I belonged,” she said.

Photo © HLA Photography

Grace’s mother, Tracey Neumuth was thrilled. “As a parent, you want your kids involved with a safe, healthy activity with supportive people. I feel safe when Grace is at the barn. I don’t have to worry. Adults and older teens look out for her, and are great role models.” Tracey observes the young equestrians learn how to support each other, inside the ring and out. “Not every sport is a good social and emotional fit for every kid, but barn girls have passion. Even at 5am, they are happy and smiling as they get ready for a show.”

Like it has been for many of us horse lovers, the barn has shaped Grace. She loves summer camp, where she strives to set a good example for younger riders in hopes of being a great role model. The different horses teach her skills in patience and perseverance, especially her current favorite pony, Doodle Bug. 

Her heart condition did not stop the hard work from following Grace to local horse shows. Her first year out, she qualified for the Connecticut Horse Show Association Medal Finals in the Walk Trot Equitation and Pleasure Classics. She proudly brought home a 10th in the Pleasure Classic with the horse that she took her very first lesson on, Tucker. When her summer show season ended, Grace joined Hidden Brook Stables’ Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) team.

Even when a fall resulted in a broken arm, Grace didn’t let a cast stop her from being part of the team. She told the doctor she still planned on being at the barn’s schooling show the very next day, and there she was running ribbons, cheering on friends and helping in any way she could. It earned her the Sportsmanship award—a prize that might even be more important to a true barn rat than a blue ribbon.

Photo © HLA Photography

In the fall of 2019, Grace seemed unstoppable. She had just been voted captain of her IEA team, but soon she’d have bigger hurdles to overcome than perfecting her equitation.

Over the winter, Grace’s doctors discovered that the leads to her pacemaker were causing damage and constricting her heart. She underwent surgery to remove the damaged leads, but during the procedure her right coronary artery was injured. Fighting through the tenuous complications, Grace, her family and the incredible team of doctors from Boston Children’s and Brigham and Women’s in Boston have worked hard to improve her heart function through increased exercise, medication and diet.

Today, Grace is thrilled to be back in the saddle, even if she’s currently restricted to flatwork only. She’s had to modify her short-term riding goals to work on increasing stamina, but that hasn’t robbed her joy of the sport. Even if she can’t show, Grace intends to attend IEA practices and shows to help her teammates. She dreams of one day having a horse of her own.

When asked who her riding role models are, Grace names her cousin, Erin, who helped her get started; her trainer, Holly Rebello; Forest Franzoi, founder of Herd of Zebras; and myself. I was humbled to be included. Everyone who has met Grace has learned so much about courage and strength from her. She handles every challenge thrown at her with the true heart and strength of a barn rat, and the grace of someone wise beyond her years.

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