Nearly three years ago, Ty Burke was pondering his next steps in life. A U.S. Army veteran, Burke had purchased an aerospace engineering company and built it up with his team until he felt comfortable stepping back from day-to-day operations.
After watching a lot of YouTube videos and doing some thinking, Burke came up with a short list of goals he could pursue at a high level in middle age.
“At the time I was 40 years old,” he said. “The Queen of England was in the news a lot, and it was like, wow, the Queen of England rides horses every day, and she’s 90. Then I saw a YouTube video [of eventing] titled ‘Triathlon For The Insane.’ I do Ironman Triathlons to keep myself reasonably fit. I was like, ‘OK, it’s horses.’ ”
Burke had some childhood experience with horses, and he saw eventing as a chance to return to those roots and do “something that will engage my mind and body, and I’ll be able to seriously pursue for many years,” he said.
Burke Googled again, this time for “the best eventer in the United States.” Boyd Martin’s name popped up, so he watched some of Martin’s competition videos, checked out his website and called the Olympian.
“I did not think he was going to pick up at all, but he did,” Burke remembered. “I said, ‘Hey, my name is Ty Burke, and you don’t know me from Adam, but I wonder if I could share what my goals might be.’ We had a 45-minute chat.”
Burke was living in Connecticut with his family at the time, and 10 days later Martin invited him to his Windurra USA in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, for a lesson.
Burke had started to take some riding lessons with a local trainer a few weeks before he’d called Martin. Martin selected one of his retired advanced horses for Burke to ride, and they had a lesson in dumping rain, sleet and snow.
“We were going over some really exciting jump courses, and it was like I was in a Spartan Warrior training session,” Burke said. “It was really awesome, and I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
“I’ll never forget the day Ty called me,” Martin said. “It was out of the blue, and right from the get-go I thought, this is one interesting character. He wanted to take on a new challenge in life, and it’s been really awesome watching someone that’s driven and passionate and obsessed with getting really good at the sport and can devote their life to it. It’s been really fun watching his rate of improvement in a short period of time.”
Fast forward less than two years, and Burke is all in. He has three competition horses and moved his family to Pennsylvania so he can train full-time with Lillian Heard, who he met through Martin. He’s also got big goals.
“A lot of people laugh at it, but my ultimate goal is to win a gold medal in the Olympics in the sport of eventing,” he said. “I really believe in setting a really high bar and very lofty goals, because that creates the high-level plan of action that I get to live every day. Every day I train like Rocky Balboa at this sport. I’m not doing this part time. I’m all in, training-wise, horse-wise. Whatever you’re doing in life, and whatever vocation you’re in, I think it’s healthy for everyone to set the highest goal that is possible and then work toward the barriers that stand between you and that goal. And work really hard every day at it.
“In the end, it’s created a life that I’m so privileged to live,” he continued. “I have such good job satisfaction and engagement, and I really love what I’m doing.”
Heard said she had some reservations when Burke first told her his goals, especially since her program is for more established riders. But Burke was convincing .
“Interestingly, even though he is an amateur and has really only been riding for a year and a half, he’s so driven and so focused and so desperate to get better,” Heard said. “He almost has a professional’s mentality in an amateur’s skillset, and he actually fit in really well with my group. He was not really looking to just enjoy riding and have a holiday. He was and is looking to be progressive with his riding. He’ll do whatever it takes; he doesn’t mind the hard work and will be at the barn at all hours of every day.”
Burke grew up in Vermont and rode casually from 8 to 16. He didn’t compete a lot, but he remembers getting a taste of cross-country while attending a dressage show at Green Mountain Horse Association (Vermont).
“I had this Thoroughbred, and I almost missed my ride time because I was in my dressage saddle and jumping over some cross-country jumps when I was supposed to be warming up. I was curious about it then,” he said with a laugh.
He joined the U.S. Army National Guard at 17 and went to Norwich University (Vermont). He studied business and communications and graduated a year early so he could join the Army as the Iraq War was looming.
Burke served five years before going back to the Army National Guard. In all, he’s served more than 20 years working as a tank commander and in the mountain infantry within the cavalry unit (a modern day version of the cavalry, which uses tanks instead of horses).
Burke deployed to Iraq in 2003 with the 1st Armored Division and spent nine months in Baghdad. Over the years he’s also been stationed in Senegal and Germany.
“It started out as sort of a boring deployment, and then it became very busy very quickly,” he said of his Iraq deployment. “By April 2004 it became daily fighting in an urban environment with tanks. We weren’t exactly prepared for the mission, but we quickly learned and changed the way we were doing things to try to adapt to what was happening on the ground. It was a real difficult slog for a couple of months.”
In 2010, Burke went to Afghanistan for 12 months with the National Guard’s mountain infantry for a surge, which went poorly.
“I was in a Humvee in Iraq 2004 and got hit with an [improvised explosive device],” he said. “That was a significant experience. In 2010 in Afghanistan, I was in a beehut—a little plywood shack—that was hit with a 127mm artillery rocket. We got a new roof out of the deal, but, 127mm artillery rocket, and I was directly in the kill zone. It’s really a miracle that I’m even here. But I made it.”
Although Burke suffered some physical injuries during his service— he has hearing loss in one ear and incurred a traumatic brain injury—it was the mental toll of war that affected him the most. He’s a service disabled combat veteran, so he’s able to have a service dog.
“This is my second one,” he said of Einstein, his German Shepherd. “My first one really helped me reintegrate into society. I basically never travel outside of a known bubble where I’ve previously been with other people. In eventing, you see the same people. So it’s very comfortable, and I don’t have the same kind of issues with being in strange crowds. I’m very comfortable at events.”
While equine therapy is available to veterans, Burke never considered it. He enjoys hiking and high-adrenaline activities like mountain climbing. One of his goals is to hike the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. He’s attempted Denali but was thwarted by a days-long storm and had to turn around.
“I’m a very high performance goal- and achievement-oriented person,” he said. “The idea of just going on a trail ride and petting horses doesn’t appeal to me like eventing does. This is high performance equine therapy where I can self-actualize and achieve great things in addition to the benefit of spending time with the animals. I really have a deep connection with the animals.”
By 2011, Burke was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, and looking for a civilian job. He started working for an aerospace engineering company that was “in dire straits,” and he was able to purchase it in 2012.
Burke and his team of engineers got the company back on track and invented a new way to manufacture jet engine components that upped the quality and reduced the scrap produced, he said. While Burke isn’t an engineer, he grew up working in a factory during the summers and enjoyed making junk parts, so the business appealed to him.
He now checks in a few times a month for meetings.
Once Burke decided to go all in on eventing, he knew he’d need horses and equipment. He bought a truck and trailer first, then met Heard, who helped him find HHS Iris (Cit Cat—Adalto Lady), an Irish Sport Horse mare who’d competed to the two-star level with Skyler Decker, in early 2021.
“Lillian is a master instructor,” he said. “I did a lot of instructing in the Army, and I very quickly recognized the traits of a master instructor. I was like, well I’m going to hitch my wagon to this. I sat down with Lillian, and I had sketched up a 10-year strategic plan to get myself all the way up to the top levels of eventing. I think she probably thought it was absurd—how is this 40-year-old guy who hasn’t ridden a horse in over 25 years going to become an international five-star eventer? I think after the first six months or so she realized I was serious.”
Burke soon realized to reach his goals, he’d need more than one horse.
“[Heard] understands the mission, and she lays out the plan,” Burke said. “The more times I’d get out there and jump, and the more repetitions I’d have, the quicker I learned and progressed. We didn’t want to go too hard, but it became obvious that I had more capacity to learn.”
Once Ireland opened up from COVID-19 restrictions, Burke and Heard went to Cooley Farm and bought Cooley Time, a 9-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding (Lancelot—Kec Cassie) with experience through the two-star level.
“The thing that makes him unique for an inexperienced rider is that he’s really strong and fit, and he has zero fear,” Heard said. “You take a beginner who’s the strongest person you’ve ever taught, and there’s nothing that could happen that could scare them. Those are almost the two biggest issues that people learning to ride have. They know what they need to do, but they physically can’t do it yet, or they know what they need to do and can physically do it, but they’re afraid. Those two bumps in the road that everyone else is dealing with, those don’t exist for him, so he progresses at a phenomenal rate. I have to be the one to say, ‘No, Ty, you’re not jumping that big.’ He will go anywhere if I’d let him, but I have to keep him contained!”
Burke realized he needed to be closer to the action, so he and his wife, Dez Burke, and their children, Tyler Jr., 14, and Justin, 10, moved to Unionville, Pennsylvania.
While Dez is more into gardening than horses, Tyler Jr. and Justin have taken up riding, and Tyler is leasing a horse now. “There was a fourth spot on my trailer we were talking about, so I guess we just filled that!” said Ty with a laugh. “Tyler Jr. is absolutely fearless. He’s a bit of a nut, kind of like me. He’s just naturally a good rider I think. He’s taken to it like a fish to water.”
Ty competed in his first starter trial at Plantation Field (Pennsylvania) in June 2021. He spent the rest of the year getting experience at novice and beginner novice on both horses, and by the end of the year he realized he had the capacity to handle three horses, so they found Carmella, a 10-year-old Wurttemburg mare (Catwalk—Caramel) through Ryan Wood.
She was just like HHS Iris, a sassy chestnut mare. “She’s the most magnificent mover,” he said. “She’s naturally very fancy on the flat. I tried this horse, and I’m like, I’ve never ridden a horse with so many fancy buttons but so easy to ride at the same time and so well-produced.”
HHS Iris broke her leg in a January pasture accident and was euthanized. Ty started to lease a horse from a client of Emily Hamel’s this winter and purchased the 16-year-old Welsh Cob-Thoroughbred gelding, Arthur, soon after.
In addition to competing, Ty’s also used the minds at Burke Aerospace to develop a new kind of stud for eventing.
“I love to spoil my horses, and I want the best for them,” he said. “I’m from a manufacturing background, and I see these rusty studs, and I’m like, ‘We’re not going to put those on my mare.’ Really? I’m like, ‘Why don’t we use a metal that doesn’t rust? We can do much better than this.’ ”
Burke Horse Studs are made of titanium so they’re less than 50% the weight of normal studs, don’t rust, and they’re more durable. Martin and Heard gave their input on the design, and now the studs are available at tack shops and online. Burke is working to develop heftier studs for five-star horses and continues to evolve the company.
Ty is hoping to move up to training level this year. He’s earned two novice wins this year with Carmella and several top-10 placings on his other two mounts.
“To me, he’s just a natural sportsman,” said Martin. “You can see Ty would be good at any sport he takes up. He’s got great balance, good reflexes and is ultra-competitive. I think he’s got a long road ahead of him. He’s competing against people who’ve been doing this since they were little kids, but I wouldn’t doubt Ty for one moment. I think the sky’s the limit with Ty and Lillian’s partnership.”
Meanwhile, Burke is relishing the challenge of his new sport.
“It really has been a joy. I’ve found happiness in this,” he said. “When I was working basically seven days a week building the business, I wasn’t necessarily a happy person; I didn’t really have joy in my life. I knew what I was doing, and I was engaged in that, but even the tough stuff, as an older person getting thrown off a horse on a regular basis, it doesn’t bother me in the least bit. It really has been so much fun. It’s so enjoyable; it’s so rewarding. At the end of the day, I come home, take my boots off, and I don’t have to wonder, did I make today count or not? It’s just such a rewarding experience. It’s such a rewarding and engaging life. I’m thrilled every single day to go to the barn.”
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