While flipping through the Seattle Times's classified advertisements six years ago, equestrian Amy Tryon and a friend came upon a listing for a former mountain packhorse with a thoroughbred pedigree.
The friend snapped up the horse for just $2,500, thinking she would resell him for a profit. But just a week later the two women had worked out a deal: Tryon would take the horse from the classifieds and the friend would get one from Tryon's stable.
"For me, financially, it's reality," Tryon said. "I come from a very modest background. It's just never been reality to be able to buy expensive horses. All of the horses I ride come from the racetrack outside of Seattle or kind of in the back woods. Most of them cost under $3,000."
Six years later, it appears Tryon made a good trade. The former packhorse, Poggio II, could be headed to Athens for the 2004 Olympics.
"Horses to me are like people," Tryon said. "You meet them and you either bond with them right away and click with their personality [or not]. You can't put your finger on why that is."
Tryon has made the short list for the Olympics eventing squad with two horses, Poggio II and My Beau. Eventing consists of three disciplines, similar to a triathlon. Horses compete in dressage, cross-country and show jumping, demonstrating the range of their skills.
In the final selection outing Tuesday in New Jersey, Tryon and Poggio II came in third out of the 15 horses on the short list, but the selectors will take past performance and yesterday and today's veterinary examinations into account. The short list will be cut to five Athens-bound horse-and-rider combinations and up to five alternates on Friday.
"I train [the horses] and if they want to be event horses, then that's fantastic," she said. "And if they don't, we sell them and they end up doing some other career, whatever they're good at. I've had a lot of horses I've bought that way. I don't have an option of any other way."
Tryon grew up outside of Seattle, living an idyllic childhood, full of 4-H, Pony Club, shows and fairs. Her mother had always wanted a pony, so she provided her two tiny daughters with an opportunity she never experienced. Their first little Shetland pony led to jumping instruction in the backyard, coming together to form the makings of a world-class equestrian.
But the most important part of Tryon's journey to the top level in eventing was finding the right horse.
Poggio II started competing in his 6-year-old year, winning a string of events before attracting the attention of the national team and Mark Phillips, current coach of the U.S. squad. In the past five years, Tryon has been through both success and injury with Poggio II, including a fourth-place individual finish in the 1999 Pam Am Games and a hind-leg ailment that kept him out of the competition for the 2000 Olympics.
"I would classify him as a horse that has an incredible natural jump to him," Tryon said. "He's a very good jumper, but he's not necessarily built to do this sport. He's a little bit lower in front than he is behind, so it's difficult with his balance. He doesn't have a very good natural movement.
"But what makes him so good is the ability to be trained and his desire to do what you want him to do. He has a fantastic work ethic."
Poggio II is 11, a time when eventing horses have just begun to reach their peak performance level. He has excelled in the show jumping phase of eventing, but has lagged behind My Beau, Tryon's other short-list horse, in dressage and cross-country. Tryon said she hopes to be able to compete with Poggio II for up to five more years, that with additional experience and seasoning he could close the gap.
Phillips targeted Poggio II's trot and "rideability" as two of his weaknesses, characteristics that Tryon has attempted to improve in the past and will continue to work on in the future.
"My horses are as different as chalk and cheese," Tryon said. "I mean, they are just polar opposites but they both have the desire to want to do the job. The difficult part is adapting my style to theirs, not the other way around. I, as the rider, need to learn to go in the way that the horse wants to be ridden, not force the horse to go in the style that makes me comfortable. . . . These horses are my passion. I just adore every day that I spend with them."
Tryon has been able to maintain her appreciation for her horses because she has never been able to spend all of her time training for competitions. She has worked as a firefighter outside of Seattle for the past 11 years, spending three 24-hour shifts on duty with four days off each week. Working only 10 days per month has allowed her the flexibility to continue with her athletic pursuits.
After her request for a leave of absence from her job was denied two weeks ago because of the additional costs, which come out of public funds, two co-workers organized 35 shift trades to cover Tryon's hours while she was away for training.
Despite all the work that she has devoted to get to the cusp of Olympic competition, a spot is still not guaranteed. Phillips wouldn't handicap the 15-horse field, but said that Tryon and Poggio II certainly have a chance to end up in Athens.
"What the selections will take into account is the well-being of the horses and how they perform there, together with their current veterinary soundness and fitness and also their past records," Phillips said. "There's no friends, no favorites. It's a very thorough process."
But, either way, Tryon will be content with her future. She knows that Poggio II has just reached the beginnings of what he is capable of, calling him both a "freak" and "special."
"I think if he was a human being," Tryon said, "he'd probably be a world-class athlete, too. He can do anything."