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Horse Care

The Dual Recovery of Sunday, the May 2020 Horse Illustrated Cover Model, and Owner Kaia Kroll

Horse Illustrated’s May 2020 cover model was a beautiful Appaloosa mare named Minnesota Nice, or Sunday as she’s called around the barn. The photo was taken back in 2007 when Sunday and her owner, Kaia Kroll, were both young, healthy, and full of life.



Sunday came into Kroll’s life as a three-year-old, and she enjoyed showing her in the Appaloosa circuit in 13 and under classes. She came to Kroll trained in western pleasure and had just placed second in the 2005 two-year-old western pleasure non-pro class at the Iowa Appaloosa Association’s Select Stallion Auction and Futurity, finishing the event with the title “MAHA Super Horse.”

Kaia Kroll and Minnesota Nice in the early days. Photo by Shelley Paulson

But in 2014, Kroll was in a horrific head-on car accident. She fractured around 25 bones in her body, shattering her pelvis, and breaking both ankles, her nose, and her back in three places, as well as sustaining many soft tissue injuries. She was was wheelchair-bound for several months and was in excruciating pain. The other driver, who crossed into her lane, did not survive the crash.

Kroll knew she would have years of recovery ahead of her and would be unable to ride and care for Sunday, so she decided to donate her to a therapeutic riding program.

“I hated seeing such a nice horse who I loved and enjoyed go to waste and thought she could instead get brushed, do some light riding, and be loved on by other kids in a therapy program,” Kroll says. But then the program determined she was not a good fit and offered to send her to a lady down the street that took many of her retired horses.

Kaia Kroll was wheelchair-bound after her auto accident. Photo Courtesy Kaia Kroll

After 13 surgeries, physical therapy, alternative treatments, and hard work, Kroll not only regained her strength, but she competed in the 2018 Mr. and Ms. Natural Minnesota show and was crowned the 2018 Physique and Bodybuilding in novice and open IPE [International Pro Elite] and was also Ms. Natural Minnesota 2018. Her comeback from nearly dying in the accident to winning a bodybuilding title in just 3 1/2 years is nearly miraculous.

Last fall, Kroll made a trip to visit Sunday and check on her, as the woman caring for her said she was going to put her down, because she was becoming too thin. What she found was a horse in terrible shape.

“When we stepped inside, my mother and I stopped dead in our tracks,” she says. “I had never seen anything like it, much less my own horse. She was thin as a rail, had rain rot all over her body, her feet were frayed and stubby, her beautiful tail that we worked so hard to grow was falling out, she was covered in filth, and her eyes were half-closed as she stood there dazed. My mother and I held each other and cried.”

Kaia Kroll in the 2018 Mr. and Ms. Natural Minnesota show. Photo Courtesy Kaia Kroll.

Kaia Kroll and her mother asked for a moment alone to consider their options, but they weren’t sure Sunday would survive the trailer ride back to the barn where Kroll had previously boarded her.

“But then moments from my own journey began to flash through my head,” she says. “They didn’t leave me on the side of the road to die or put me down. Therefore, I decided Sunday deserves a fighting chance, too. We tried to make arrangements to get Sunday trailered home the next morning”

Sunday’s rehabilitation has included a lot of love, along with various supplements and corrective shoeing. “We slowly re-fed Sunday, as we didn’t want to shock her system,” explains Kroll. “We have finally gotten to a point where we felt that she was getting slightly heavy again and we can feel comfortable cutting her feed back to a normal amount. Yay for little victories!”

Sunday is 17 now and is retired from riding due to joint and chronic pain issues.

“I can relate!” Kroll says.

Sunday had a long journey to recovery, but Kaia Kroll has been with her the whole way. Photo Courtesy Kaia Kroll

While her main goal is to keep Sunday happy and healthy, Kroll would love to get Sunday involved with a local therapeutic program where she could help others who face physical or emotional struggles.

“With Sunday’s sweet disposition and her patience, I think she would be a wonderful therapy horse.”

She hopes to continue working toward a degree in the medical field so she can help others the way she’s been helped. “Through my journey, I learned that great things come from adversity and that we can use our experiences to help others.”

Shelley Paulson

Shelley Paulson is an equestrian photographer and filmmaker based in Minnesota. She shares an inspiring look at some of her favorite images and the stories behind them in her new book, Horses, Portraits & Stories, available on Amazon.

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