July 27, 2007 -- Finally, after nearly three months of silence, Amy Tryon is able to speak out about the circumstances surrounding the lethal injury to her mount, Le Samurai, at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in April. At last, she's providing a response to the multitude of critical voices who spoke out in connection with the death of this special horse.
Amy explained yesterday what actually occurred on course as she headed to the last cross-country fence after her mount, known as Sparky, took what turned out to be a deadly stumble, and she misjudged the circumstances.
The critics couldn't understand why she didn't pull up immediately when her horse tripped. How could she keep going and cross the finish line, they asked, contending his situation was worsened by her failure to stop.
"The nature of Sparky's injury, which was confirmed by the vets who examined him, is that it occurred in one step," Amy told me. "He severed his suspensory apparatus below his fetlock. It occurred because his toe hit a high spot, and his heel hit a low spot. It was a fatal step."
"I think individuals feel it had exacerbated the problem to continue and jump the last fence, that that was what caused a worsening of his condition. That's just not the case," she said.
Although there was hope in some quarters for several days that veterinarians could repair Sparky's injury sufficiently for him to have a happy retirement, they were unable to do so, and he was put down four days after the event.
Dr. Kent Allen, a treating veterinarian at Rolex who testified last month before the FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) tribunal investigating the situation, noted that Sparky's injury was extremely rare in eventing, and "event riders simply are not experienced with the situation when a horse breaks down in this manner." He noted that a bobble usually means a horse is losing a shoe or has struck itself, which tends to resolve shortly thereafter. Amy initially thought Sparky's mishap resulted from a shoe or a boot coming loose.
"While I am incredibly remorseful of the decision I made on course at the time, and it was clearly the wrong thing to do, I don't have 20-20 vision when it's happening at the time. It was never my intent to cause harm to him," Amy said about what happened to Sparky, and the FEI tribunal agreed nothing on Amy's part was willful.
"This was an accident, and I take full responsibility for that accident, but it was an accident," she said.
While her detractors have had the opportunity to watch, over and over, a heart-breaking video of the last half-minute or so of her ride at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Amy's perspective from Sparky's back at the end of the Rolex route lacked the luxury of instant replay. All she knew was what she felt, and she wasn't sure what it meant. At the conclusion of 11 strenuous minutes of running and jumping, she was unable to process the data correctly and determine that Sparky should be halted immediately.
Aside from everything else, there would be no point in pushing a mount she knew to be injured, even though she led the standings after dressage. Who knows better than the multi-medal veteran of world championship and Olympic teams that a lame horse couldn't be presented to the ground jury the morning after cross-country, or compete in the event's stadium jumping finale that afternoon?
"Our horses' care is paramount to what we do," she observed.
"I think there were some individuals who stated the reason I continued was because I was leading," Amy said, noting that was not the case at all.
She explained, "There was no incentive for me to finish cross-country on an unsound horse, whether I'm leading or in last place. The point of our sport is to have a horse that is sound to show jump the next day."
Until now, Amy couldn't talk about what she felt during those 30 seconds at the end of the course because the FEI tribunal was weighing her case. But with the tribunal's decision last week to suspend her for two months, she was free to give her side of the story. The tribunal penalized her because the result of her decision to keep going meets the organization's definition of abuse, even if there was no intent to mistreat the animal.
Discussing what happened on that fateful day at the Rolex 4-star, Amy said, "The first step he took didn't register in my consciousness as far as he just had a catastrophic injury. I had lost my reins, and I was in the process of getting my reins back. He stumbled and I didn't know if the stumble was because I lost my reins.
"There's 110 things going through your head at that point on the course. In your mind, you work little scenarios that can occur, as far as your horse feeling tired or his shoulder drifting left or ... he likes the crowds or he doesn't like the crowds. But having a horse take a step like that is so far from your consciousness. When the accident happened, it wasn't something that even occurred to me that could happen to me. I know that sounds terribly naive at this point."
Recounting the end of the ride, she said, "I can't put it into seconds, because it happened to me so quickly. It took me several seconds to even understand that something was abnormal. The only thing I can liken it to is a car accident...when you ask 40 people what happened and 30 have participated in the car accident and not one person can tell you the exact same thing. It's just the way the body handles stress," said Amy, who saw and experienced plenty of that in her previous career as a firefighter.
"You're not necessarily able to process information in a timely fashion," she explained, and that's something everyone can relate to, even if they're never ridden a high-level cross-country course, because who hasn't had an accident or a near-miss in the car?
Finishing the course, Amy said, "wasn't really a decision. I was attempting to understand what was happening underneath me. I was straight to the (final) fence and the fence was in my path... to me, he felt like he got marginally better in the last few strides before the fence. When he landed, and I felt he wasn't better, I started to pull him up."
Amy's critics have pounded her for crossing the finish line on a lame horse.
Actually, she said, "I was not aware of where the finish line was. It never occurred to me. I was under the assumption I pulled up before the finish line. To me, when he landed off the fence and still felt irregular in his gallop stride, that was when I made the decision to pull him up. That was when I felt like, 'There's something going on here I don't understand. I need to pull up as safely as possible in a straight line without doing any more damage if possible.'"
Amy never saw most of the bitter words directed at her on Internet bulletin boards because she doesn't spend a lot of time online.
"That's not something I can control. They're certainly entitled to their opinion," she said. "While it's been difficult for my family and people who support me to read about those things, I think they also understand the truth and that I haven't been able to speak about certain issues because of the impending tribunal. I've tried to go on and just not worry about the things we can't control."
Those who have rallied around Amy include Sparky's owner, Rebecca Broussard.
"I never considered not supporting her," Rebecca said. "I saw what happened. It was an accident, and there was nothing she could have done to change it. I completely support her, and I'm actively looking for another horse for her right now."
While some might decide to hang up their boots after an experience like the one Amy has been through, she noted, "It never entered my mind to quit. Besides, it wouldn't be fair to the horses I have now and people who support me now."
Friends such as Karen O'Connor, who have had horses die as a result of accidents in competition, offered advice. Amy said they told her, "It's going to be rough and you need to work through this. You will work through this because you love horses, you love what you do, and you're going to get through it."
But certainly, the accident has the potential to affect her riding.
"When I went to Jersey Fresh in May after this, it was very much in the forefront of my mind, because when you have an accident outside your control, you start to question everything you do and examine every part of what you do and see if there's anything you can do to make it better or to change it," Amy said.
"While I hope I can take something away from this to make me a better rider and to, if God forbid this happens to me again, react quicker, I hope it doesn't upset the way I ride or the confidence I feel in my horses."
She'll always have special memories of Le Samurai.
"Sparky is the first horse I have taken on that was somebody else's advanced horse," she noted. "I didn't necessarily feel that I had the ability to get on somebody else's horse and make it better. Sparky did a lot for my confidence in that he was a bit of a difficult horse, but it gave me confidence in my program and my relationship with my horses that he was able to trust me and I was able to trust him. He was just a very special horse to me."
Sparky was buried by the lake at the Kentucky Horse Park. Amy plans to visit him there.
Award-winning equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer has covered seven Olympic Games, all five World Equestrian Games and numerous other major international equestrian events.
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