On January 14, 2016, Catherine Tyree realized every horse person’s worst nightmare.
While competing in a 1.45-meter class at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida—she had jumped a clear round and was walking before starting the jump-off—her best horse, Free Style VH Polderhof, suffered a heart attack and collapsed in the ring.
Caught in the fall, Tyree’s foot was fractured in five places. Her heart, in many more.
The Illinois-based show jumper was out of the saddle for three months recovering from surgery. When she returned to competition, it was with a vengeance. Tyree has climbed 243 spots up the world rankings (from 402 to 159) since that ill-fated day.
We caught up with the 23-year-old rising star to talk about overcoming setbacks and realizing your strengths.
I can remember the day it happened, being in the hospital I convinced myself that it wasn’t nearly as bad as what it felt like and that I’d be back in the ring in two months. But upon realizing I was going to need surgery, I knew I’d be out of the saddle for a while.
At first, I was of course devastated at the loss that I’d just incurred and I was upset that I wasn’t going to be able to ride. But I was also very grateful that my injuries weren’t as bad as they could have been.
I have a great support team. My family has been with me throughout my entire time in the sport. Knowing that they’re so supportive and were there when I needed them was really helpful.
And Missy [Clark] and John [Brennan] are like my second parents. I’ve been riding with them for five years now. They were so supportive throughout it all—they would spend a lot of time with me. Seeing my horses also really helped, being able just to come and still see them five, six days a week.
Sitting on the sidelines for three months definitely was hard. If anything, it showed me just how much I truly care about this sport and how much I love it. When I was able to start walking again, three days later I was on a horse. I didn’t want to waste any time because I already felt like I’d lost a lot of valuable time in the saddle. So when I was able to start riding again, I wanted to take advantage of that. I really just kept pushing.
Again, my support team through it all was great and my horses were fantastic and felt really good throughout the whole process of coming back.
Over the past few of years, I’ve started moving up, jumping bigger classes. They just keep reminding me every time I walk in the ring that there is nothing my horse and I can’t do and we are as well prepared as we can be—just go in and trust everything that we’ve done back at home.
[Competition] is really just a reflection of the hard work we put in everyday back at the barn. So, I try to keep that in my mind and just have fun and not put too much pressure on myself.
I have a really soft feel, which can be a really good thing and a really bad thing. For a lot my horses, I’ve found that they quite enjoy it. If anything, there might be a little bit of an adjustment period. But I try and really let them go in the way they want to. I don’t want to force them into anything. And when they jump, I want to give them a really soft feel. I don’t want to overpressure them at times. I think that’s probably one of my best strengths.
I was the kid who spent more time with my ponies growing up than with kids my own age.
GenerationNext is the monthly series by Equo that features future superstars in horse sport. If you want to nominate a rider, send a note on the Contact Us page!