Two rounds in, and everything was going as planned. It was January 2016 at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida. Weinberg senior Catherine Tyree sat atop her horse Free Style, guiding her around the ring between jumping events, when suddenly, Free Style collapsed.
When the horse fell, Tyree was pinned beneath hundreds of pounds of muscle, hair and show accessories. She would later find out that Free Style’s collapse was triggered by a fatal aneurysm. On top of losing her competition partner and beloved companion, the impact crushed Tyree’s entire left foot. Instead of spending Winter Quarter of her junior year training full-time in Wellington, Tyree spent the rest of the quarter undergoing reconstructive surgery, three months on crutches and three weeks in a walking boot.
“The four months that I went without riding were pretty miserable – I missed it a lot,” she says. “When I finally started walking, three days later I started riding again. It was hard at first; it was definitely painful, but I just tried to stay positive and keep a strong mentality.”
For Tyree, who has ridden since age five and become one of the best young riders in the country, the injury was a huge blow – the equivalent of Bryant McIntosh or Justin Jackson being sidelined for the year. But Tyree, who’s performed in Europe and accrued hundreds of thousands of dollars in winnings, is better at her sport than either McIntosh or Jackson are at theirs.
After rising through the ranks with Free Style, Tyree had to adapt to Enjoy Louis, another one of the four horses her family currently owns. They trained through the spring and worked on building a strong bond. Six days a week, Tyree rides her horses for 45 minutes at a time, focusing on fundamentals of riding and competing like slowing down, going forward, turning around and maintaining a straight path.
“A lot of riding has to do with the communication between the horse and rider, so I make sure that’s what I’m asking of them and that I’m very clear,” Tyree says. “A lot of the day-to-day is just working on that communication.”
Tyree also had her own physical training to catch up on after being out of commission for so long. People often think the horse does all the work, but equestrians need superior core strength to stay balanced while their horses trot and canter. Arm and leg strength is paramount for jumping, the event Tyree competes in. The rider must hold the reins steadily to signal the horse, the legs must push up off the saddle at just the right moment to keep the rider from flying off, and the rider’s heels must clench the horse’s belly almost continuously to give signals. Tyree had to work extra hard to strengthen her left side to maintain balance while riding.
It all came together in September. Just months after literally getting back in the saddle, she and Enjoy Louis finished second in the HITS Saugerties most prestigious $1 million 5 Star Grand Prix, one of the highest class competitions in the country, walking away with $200,000 in prize money. The victory shocked Tyree because it came so quickly after her surgery.
“Words can’t even explain how it feels to be back in the ring … Especially with my king ️❤️️,” Tyree wrote on Instagram after the event alongside an image of her and Enjoy Louis suspended mid-arc.
Tyree has competed in other events with cash prizes. The money she wins first gets applied toward the costs of traveling to and attending the competition; any excess funds go back to her parents.
After the HITS competition, Tyree faced a dilemma premier student-athletes before her have faced. She has a riding résumé polished enough to be a professional equestrian, but hasn’t yet decided if that’s the route she wants to take. Last year Tyree, an economics major, worked at Goldman Sachs through the Chicago Field Studies program, as she might want to pursue a career in finance. But this winter, she went back to Wellington to focus on conditioning and training for the spring and summer competition season. Tyree was able to take online classes and stay on pace to graduate in June; after last winter’s accident, she didn’t want to risk giving up the opportunity to ride just yet.
“I’m at a place with my riding where I’m able to do a lot more things,” Tyree says. “I compete against the world’s best riders and people who have gone to the Olympics. I’ve stepped into that highest level and I want to focus on that right now.”