Throwback Thursday: Keen Makes A Comeback

Apr 9, 2014 - 4:27 PM

This article ran in the June 1, 1984 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse—30 years ago—and describes the legendary Keen’s recovery from what was thought to be a career-ending injury. 

Several weeks ago, Hilda Gurney and Keen performed the Grand Prix Special and received a score of 64.5 percent. The huge red horse, coat gleaming, was spectacular. Half-passes were fluid, changes were straight, his nervous energy threatened only the piaffe-passage transitions, but he maintained the cool necessary to finish the test.

His rider’s grin almost outdid the sun when they halted for the final salute. As they left the ring, tears filled the eyes of some spectators. It had been a long road back.

Four years ago, Keen and Gurney were getting ready for the Olympics. Politics had not yet interrupted the Games, and athletes everywhere were in earnest training. Keen and Gurney had announced their arrival internationally when they helped the U.S. to win the team bronze at the 1976 Olympics.

Gurney, at that time a Woodland Hills, Calif., schoolteacher, had done all the riding and training on Keen, an American Thoroughbred. 17.2 hands of sensitive, hot athlete whose potential was, at first, invisible to all but her.

“I had seen the international horses,” Gurney said. “And I knew it was necessary to find something with a lot of scope, huge, ground-covering gaits—and good feet.”

Gurney bought the 2-year-old, who was too slow for the track, in 1969.

In 1975, they won the individual silver medal at the Pan Am Games at Mexico City. A year later, they led the American team to the Olympic bronze medal by finishing fourth in the Grand Prix at Bromont. After winning the individual gold at the 1979 Pan Am Games in Puerto Rico, an Olympic medal in 1980 seemed possible.

Then a tragic injury cut short all plans and dreams. Nerve tissue running through the spinal column was damaged by unknown trauma. Inflammation of the vertebrae caused Keen to suffer disabling paralysis. Medical opinion was fairly unanimous: recovery was unlikely, permanent damage or death was possible, and future competition was certainly out of the question.

Gurney had been planning to move to her own place in Moorpark, Calif., named “Keenridge” after her good friend. Now it was debatable if he would live to see his new home.

The Road To Recovery

Months passed while Keen convalesced. He got well enough to move to Keenridge, and months turned into years as he adjusted to life in the pasture without workouts, shows, throngs of admirers or applause.

The first year, people stopped by and gave him carrots from time to time, but by the second year, they just nodded at him as they went to watch Gurney work other horses.

During the third year, 1982, Gurney began to work with Chrysos, the gray Westphalian stallion owned by her partner in Keenridge, Dr. Mary Contakos, a pathologist interested in dressage.

Keen faded even more into the pasture tapestry. The fourth year, Gurney and Chrysos started to cement their partnership and the pair was selected to compete in the Pan Am Games, where they won the team gold and individual silver.

“Chrysos left for the East Coast, on his way to Gladstone for the final training session before the Games. I had time on my hands,” Gurney recalled. “Keen was chasing mares around his pasture… and he looked sound to me. I decided to take him out and longe him. He still looked sound. I had the vet out to check him and she said he looked perfect.”

Still holding her breath, Gurney had one of the working students saddle him and walk him around. Then she decided to have hardworking Keenridge stable manager Jill Munro ride Keen until she returned from the Games. Munro, who had trained her own horse to Intermediaire, reported that Keen was still sound and had tried to buck her off several times.

Making a face, Munro said, “Just posting to his trot is hard. He has so much impulsion, his back literally throws you into the air. I can’t imagine sitting his extension.”

Gurney grinned ruefully and said, “I started riding him that September [1983], and was there. I could feel it. So I put him back into work—very slowly—and entered him in a show when I felt like he was ready.”

After a four-year lay-up, Keen returned to compete at Intermediaire II and received a score in the mid 60s. Gurney knew he still had a long way to go—engagement for Grand Prix is not a mater of a few months’ development—but his heart, intelligence and athletic ability were all intact.

The years of consistent schooling and careful conditioning made it possible for Keen, now 17, to come back quickly and easily.

Gurney believed she was able to be of more help to Keen this time around. “I’m a better rider than I was four years ago,” she said. “I knew that all the little things others saw as problems just required some time. Keen and I had already worked through them once before.

Gerd Politz, a German trainer, gave several winter clinics at Griffith Park Equestrian Center, where Gurney is the dressage instructor. “Gerd helped me with my seat, he helped me to get better engagement, to keep the horse soft up front,” Gurney reflected. “At a certain point, it isn’t that you don’t know what’s going on, it’s just a help to have the feedback right then and there, a confirmation of what you’re feeling, so you know you’re right to try and correct it.”

Each day now, a little more of the puzzle falls into place. Going down a long side, Keen’s passage suddenly remains truly engaged, brilliant, even and rhythmic—both horse and rider seem to know that the partnership has turned another corner.

In the summer of 1984, Keen—at age 18—represented the United States at his second Olympic Games on he and Gurney’s home turf in Los Angeles. The U.S. team placed sixth, with Keen 14th individually. The next year, they won the U.S. National Grand Prix Championships. After that, Gurney turned Keen over to her student Kathleen Raine, who showed him in the Young Rider classes. Keen died suddenly in August 1989 at age 23. 

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