Aug 06 Olympian Poggio a former pack horse

Aug. 06, 2008, 9:32 a.m. (ET)

The horse Amy Tryon will ride in Beijing wasn't groomed for the Olympics with medals and blue ribbons and aristocratic trappings.

Poggio II was strictly low rent, a pack horse discovered in a want ad.

``Yeah, it's a unique story,'' Tryon said, laughing over the phone from outside Manchester, England.

The 16-year-old bay gelding and Tryon are representing the United States in their second straight Olympic equestrian competition.

Tryon, a recently retired 38-year-old firefighter from Duvall, Wash., and Poggio are entered in eventing - three days of dressage, show jumping and cross-country.

They have been competing in England during weeks of tuneups before their Olympic test begins Saturday in Hong Kong. A severe tropical storm has hit the area. More rain and wind are forecast, although the competition is not expected to be affected.

Poggio, for all his pedestrian path to the Olympics, has grace and precision to spare, the only horse to qualify for every U.S. national team over the last six years.

He won an individual bronze medal at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Germany and helped the U.S. equestrian team to a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics and gold at the 2002 World Equestrian Games in Spain.

This horse has come a long, long way. A decade ago, he was lugging camping gear and other equipment up and down the Cascade Mountains. A classified ad in the newspaper brought Poggio and Tryon together.

``Poggio's definitely had some humble beginnings, to say the least,'' said Joanie Morris, spokeswoman for the U.S. Equestrian Federation. ``I'd have to say he's the only pack horse to be in the Olympics. He's an anomaly, for sure. Not too many Olympic horses are found in the want ads.''

Tryon first began riding horses in competitions at age 8. She was a firefighter at the Eastside Fire and Rescue in suburban Seattle in 1997 when she saw an ad for a horse in the paper. It mentioned the horse was sired by Polynesian Sire, which she knew to be a particularly strong jumping horse.

Based on bloodlines alone, she and a friend bought Poggio for $2,500. A week later Tryon traded with her friend - Poggio for a horse Tryon had on her farm.

It was not love at first sight.

``He was in pretty sad shape,'' Tryon said. ``His feet needed attention. He had been living in a paddock with a bunch of horses and was a bit chewed up. And his feet were not put on his body very straight. He had long hair that needed cut. He certainly wasn't a show horse.''

Poggio had a short and failed career in thoroughbred racing before becoming a pack horse. Tryon's challenge: Make Poggio a master of dressage - the disciplined display of natural movements often called ``horse ballet'' - plus show jumping and cross-country racing.

Throughout exhaustive retraining, Poggio showed his inherent jumping ability. Within one year, he was the first horse Tryon rode in a world-class eventing competition. Three years later, they were world champions. Now they are back in the Olympics.

``He has very much stepped out of his skill level,'' Tryon said.

Tryon, who co-owns Poggio with Mike Hart, sees this as the horse's finale after a decade of transformation.

``I'm planning this to be his last big international competition. He certainly doesn't owe me anything,'' she said. ``What I want for him is to step away from competition when he is still healthy and happy.''

The giggles and enthusiasm in Tryon's voice show she's happy. She, too, has come a long, unconventional way.

At first, she wanted no part of a sport she thought was for the rich. Her mother was a school teacher in a Seattle suburb. For her first eventing competition, Tryon rode a borrowed pony.

Her mother helped her graduate in two years from Issaquah High School so Tryon could move at age 16 to the East Coast, more of an equestrian region than the Northwest. Five years later Tryon was back home in a career in firefighting that began in 1993 as a 21-year-old volunteer. She was hired full time two years later.

Tryon said she chose firefighting because she could work consecutive 24-hour shifts and then have three days to compete in equestrian.

``The riding is all great, but you have to learn how to make a living,'' she said. ``It's a constant struggle financially to be in this sport.''

She retired as a firefighter two years ago so she could compete and devote herself to training horses. Her husband, Greg, is a battalion chief with Eastside Fire and Rescue. He's to join Tryon in Hong Kong, a trip that comes with his bosses' blessings.

``I keep telling him he can't get fired,'' she said, laughing. ``He's the only one making money.''

Even at the highest levels of equestrian, funding is scarce. The U.S. Olympic Committee gives some money to the national equestrian federation, but the federation has seven sports to fund. This year, Tryon received $5,500. That was to cover training expenses, food and boarding for herself and Poggio, plus rental cars, lodging and meals for the trips to England, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Tryon raised additional money to help defray those costs. She conducted training clinics for young riders around Seattle. She worked horse shows. She made cold calls to friends and strangers. Her mother produced a newsletter for fundraising.

On the eve of the Olympics, Tryon's still seeking contributions. But she has had trials beyond money.

Last summer, she was suspended from competition for two months by the international equestrian federation and fined about $2,500 after she finished a cross-country event in Kentucky on a horse injured from a stumble just before the last jump of a run.

But a federation tribunal cleared Tryon of career-threatening charges that she intentionally finished the ride knowing the horse was seriously injured. Le Samurai was euthanized because of a leg injury.

Horse enthusiasts from around the world criticized Tryon for not being more decisive and for not pulling up Le Samurai before the final fence.

She says she is not vindicated by earning a place on the five-member U.S. eventing team a year later.

``I had a tragic accident and unfortunately lost a horse that was dear to me,'' she said. ``It's a mistake that I made. He stumbled, which happens a lot in my sport. My reaction was not as quick as it could have been.

``I don't think it's ever something you can put behind you. But it's something you can learn from.''

Now the Olympics beckon, for a second time. Just like Poggio II.

``This is certainly much more than I expected Poggio and I to achieve,'' she said. ``I guess I never dared to dream I'd be able do it on this scale.''

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