Amazing Grace: From “walking skeleton” to trail’s highest award

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: Ready to head out onto the trail in the early morning. In the southeast and mid-south states, management often times out riders at the crack of dawn. 
Ready to head out onto the trail in the early morning. In the southeast and mid-south states, management often times out riders at the crack of dawn. © Becky Pearman Photography

Care, patience and time have transformed a neglected and emaciated two-year-old filly into a national award winner.

Despite the worst start in life, By the Grace of God, a chestnut mare owned and ridden by Victoria Whitehead of Tuskegee, Alabama, was named the 2018 winner of the North American Trail Ride Conference’s President’s Cup, at the organization’s national convention in Reno, Nevada, last week.

Grace’s remarkable turnaround started in 2012, when Whitehead found her as “a walking skeleton” in a pasture with no feed. She was covered in rain rot.

Grace was taken home by Victoria Whitehead in February, 2012.
Grace was taken home by Victoria Whitehead in February, 2012.

“She was so emaciated that when I went to catch her, she didn’t even bother walking away,” said Whitehead. She named the two-year-old “By the Grace of God” because of her faith in God.

The pair spent the next three years working on trust, including lots of groundwork, and rebuilding Grace’s health. At just six weeks under saddle, Whitehead decided to enter a NATRC competitive ride. It was to be Grace’s first competition, and her rider’s second. Whitehead describes the event in a single word — “disaster”. Regardless, she took it as a sign to persevere with Grace and NATRC competition.

Owner Victoria Whitehead says Grace was a "walking skeleton" when she found her.
Owner Victoria Whitehead says Grace was a “walking skeleton” when she found her.

“Because spirits are easily broken on the ground and it is the act of getting up that gives us strength, I realized NATRC was exactly what both this filly and I needed,” Whitehead said.

Another three years and many NATRC competitive rides later, Whitehead’s goal for 2018 was simply to earn a national championship. They achieved that goal in April, with much of the ride year left to go. By mid-year, they found themselves at the top of the national NATRC standings.

“I have never been one of those hard-core competitors, riding for points and glory. My competition has always been within myself. Do my best, have fun while I’m doing it and the rest will work itself out,” she said.

Friends and fellow competitors encouraged her. Whitehead said her reaction was: “Okay, I will continue to ride Grace the rest of the year and do what we can do. Why not raise the bar and shoot for the moon? We might just land among the stars!”

Another day on the trail for Grace and Victoria. 
Another day on the trail for Grace and Victoria. © Becky Pearman Photography

After more than 10,000 miles of trailering to different states and regions to compete in 16 NATRC rides, they did land in the stars. Together, Whitehead and Grace earned her region’s heavyweight top award, top national honors in NATRC for overall heavyweight horse, overall heavyweight horsemanship, the overall combined horse and horsemanship award, a national championship and the high point grade horse award.

Capping off the incredible year came in the form of the 2018 President’s Cup, NATRC’s highest recognition for horse and rider.

Grace on arrival at Victoria Whitehead's property. "She has been through a lot in her life but even in her darkest hours she has always been honest. She definitely deserves anything I can give her."
Grace on arrival at Victoria Whitehead’s property. “She has been through a lot in her life but even in her darkest hours she has always been honest. She definitely deserves anything I can give her.”

“I do not accept this award just for Grace and me. I accept it for my whole family — my family at home, Zeb and Zayne, my NATRC family, and my barn family,” said Whitehead as she accepted the President’s Cup in Reno.

“For without all of you, the challenges and the high level of competition, Grace and I could not have achieved this.”

Grace is such part of the family now that Whitehead’s two-year-old rides along with mum in a “buddy seat”.

“She has been through a lot in her life but even in her darkest hours she has always been honest. She definitely deserves anything I can give her.”

Grace is a beloved member of the Whitehead family.
Grace is a beloved member of the Whitehead family.

One thought on “Amazing Grace: From “walking skeleton” to trail’s highest award

  • March 15, 2019 at 5:09 am
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    These are the kind of stories that inspire us, and give us hope for both humanity and the horse industry. Kudos to Victoria Whitehead for saving this filly, so badly neglected at a young age. Her care and commitment is probably the only reason this mare survived. Victoria followed a considerate and conscientious path towards her competitive goals, notably over many years. And the real rewards reach far beyond winning the Championship. This is a story of faith and hope, caring and dedication, and also of forgiveness which ‘Grace’ exhibited. Before the intervention by Victoria, this mare seems to have had no kindness in her early years. My experience with hardshipped horses has shown me that they never forget a bad experience, and they will be ever grateful to those who help them. This story represents the true achievement, when a combination of family and friends and the bond established between a horse and rider, can make all the difference in the world. As All Around Trainer, NRHA Million+ dollar winner, and Clinician, Craig Johnson (of Iowa) wisely said: To win in the eyes of the horse IS everything. Congratulations for a victory well earned. Audrey Wood, AQHA

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