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Tuesday, July 29, 2008 - Page updated at 02:10 PM

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Olympian Poggio a former pack horse

The horse Amy Tryon will ride at the Olympics in the graceful, precise sport of equestrian isn't Best in Show.

AP Sports Writer

SEATTLE —

The horse Amy Tryon will ride at the Olympics in the graceful, precise sport of equestrian isn't Best in Show.

More like Best in Tow.

Poggio II was a pack horse.

The 16-year-old bay gelding and Tryon are representing the United States in their second consecutive Summer Games next month. A decade ago, while most of his competitors were being groomed for blue ribbons or thoroughbred racing, Poggio was lugging camping gear and other equipment up and down the Cascade Range east of Seattle.

"Yeah, it's a unique story," Tryon said, laughing through her phone last week from outside Manchester, England.

She and Poggio have been competing in England during weeks of Olympic tuneups before equestrian events begin Aug. 9 in Hong Kong. They compete in eventing, a three-day test combining dressage, show jumping and cross-country.

Tryon, a 38-year-old recently retired firefighter from Duvall, Wash., didn't find Poggio in a stall. She didn't witness the veiled potential of a horse that has since 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.

She found the only horse to qualify for every U.S. national team over the last six years in the classified ads of a newspaper.

"Poggio's definitely had some humble beginnings, to say the least," said Joanie Morris, communications manager for the United States 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 the suburbs of Seattle, in 1997 when she saw an ad for a horse for sale 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.

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"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.

She was initially didn't want to pursue the sport because she saw it as being for the rich. Her parents were separated. Her mother was a school teacher in the Seattle suburb of Issaquah. 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 train horses full-time. Her husband, Greg, is a battalion chief with Eastside Fire and Rescue. He's on vacation now to join Tryon in England and, starting next week, Hong Kong. Yes, he comes with his bosses' blessings.

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

Even at the highest levels, 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.

She has had trials beyond money.

Last summer, she was suspended from competition for two months by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (the international governing body for Olympic equestrian sports) 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 an FEI tribunal cleared Tryon of career-threatening charges 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 aware, for not pulling up Le Samurai before the final fence to save him.

She says earning a place on the five-member U.S. eventing team a year later does not liberate her from the incident.

"It's not vindication at all. 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."

Through that tragedy - and through retiring from firefighting, which she called the toughest decision of her life because of the people there - Tryon has overcome the past to reach the Olympics. Twice.

Just like Poggio II.

"Oh, yeah," Tryon said. "This is certainly much more than I expected Poggio and I to achieve.

"I guess I never dared to dream I'd be able do it on this scale."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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