While other riders spent the final week before the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** squeezing in a last gallop or jump school, Lynn Symansky was only allowed to walk No It Tissant. “Fergus” had sustained a minor injury, a hematoma on the outside of his tendon sheath, just 10 days before the start of the competition, and Symansky figured that this would be one more year she didn’t get to run.
Symansky, 24, of Vienna, Va., had hoped to ride at Rolex Kentucky for the past three years, but bad luck always seemed to get in the way of her first four-star outing. Little problems kept Fergus at home, like last year when he inflamed a suspensory ligament the week before the event.
And this year appeared to start the same way. Symansky attempted to ward off injury by swimming Fergus to keep him fit. Unfor-tunately, upon leaving the pool in Ocala, Fla., in February, he spooked at the hotwalkers and flipped over backward.
“He got up, walked away and had no immediate signs, but he was out for three weeks,” said Symansky. “I was riding him off and on, but he wasn’t right. He was bucking non-stop.”
Then, in March he colicked so badly that he almost required surgery and spent two days at the Ocala Equine Clinic.
During that long, frustrating spring, Symansky was only able to run Fergus in two events—she took him intermediate at the March Pine Top Horse Trials (Ga.) and then placed 10th in the advanced division at The Fork (N.C.).
“After The Fork we drew blood, and it looked like he’d had a mild tie-up that we didn’t know about,” said Symansky.
Throughout all the trauma, she consulted with Christiana Ober, DVM, and Kent Allen, DVM, of Virginia Equine Imaging in Middleburg, Va. The veterinarians continued to say that she might have a chance of
competing, but the final injury so close to the competition left her feeling like it was unlikely.
“He was not being his own best friend all spring, banging himself around a bit,” said Allen. “Essentially, we were going day by day.”
So it was with great trepidation that Symansky headed to VEI just two days before the initial horse inspection at Kentucky. “When I saw [Fergus] the Friday before I was quite concerned,” said Allen. “But when I saw him on Monday he was much improved.”
“He said we were OK to go do a gallop. We went up the mountain, and then he said to get on the trailer and go,” said Symansky. “I was the one with ulcers. I needed GastroGard!”
Partnership Pulls Them Through
Coach David O’Connor wouldn’t encourage most riders to go to Rolex Kentucky with such a spotty preparation, but Symansky and Fergus (Admiral’s Flag—Yes It Tis) are different. Paired for the past 10 years, they have a strong bond and stronger abilities going in their favor.
“I wasn’t worried from a safety point of view,” said O’Connor, who has trained Symansky for the last two years. “[Fergus] is such a good jumper, and he really knows his job. Lynn’s got good instincts, and she’s a good rider. They’ve been together for such a long time. You figure if you gave her half a chance to get there, she was going to be good.”
Symansky acquired the Charles Town (W.Va.) racetrack reject from Julie Gomena when she was 14, and he was 5. Although he had competed to the preliminary level, it was obvious that he was no schoolmaster.
“He’s always been a bit of head case, very difficult on the flat,” admitted Symansky. “He’s a dominant horse, a goofy, excitable horse. He’s been high maintenance. At my first event he colicked after the dressage. He’s a lovely horse on the flat when he’s not at a competition, but when he gets there the nerves get to him. The moment he steps off the trailer it’s explosive diarrhea everywhere.”
Symansky’s early trainers weren’t always sure she was a good match with Fergus, but she persevered. She completed her first advanced when she turned 18 and finished in 21st place at her first three-star in 2002. She was even named to the U.S. Equestrian Federation Winter Training List and was an alternate for the 2003 Pan American Games.
Along the way she also earned her Pony Club A-rating with Fergus. “I really believe in [Pony Club],” said Symansky. “I’ve been in the Difficult Run Pony Club since I was 4 years old. It was very funny to do the A on my four-star horse.
“We had to do a grid, and there were 10 other horses. He started shaking and running around. They had to bring me in by myself because my horse completely lost it. He’s very special,” she added with a laugh.
Her ability to take all of Fergus’ idiosyncrasies in stride is a major reason why they get along despite his mental difficulties in the dressage and tendencies to self-destruct.
“You have to let the horse be the horse. I think that’s why he’s gotten as far as he has,” said Symansky simply.
Slow But Safe
And her deep knowledge of Fergus was all that kept her from panicking when she realized, against all expectations, that she was headed to Rolex Kentucky after all.
“I really didn’t know I was going. I didn’t pack the trailer. I didn’t hire anyone to do the barn. My groom was my mom, and we shared a hotel room. My dad stayed back and took care of the horses with my brother,” said Symansky.
She knew her horse could jump all the fences in Kentucky, but she was concerned about his fitness and soundness.
“He’s a cross-country animal,” she said. “His heaven would be a huge field with cross-country fences. But it was scary going into Rolex with a horse that was unfit and underprepared compared to the other horses. I would have been comfortable going into a three-star. But I’ve never run him around a four-star and didn’t know what he’d feel like 10 minutes into it.”
O’Connor stressed that making the time was not a priority at their first four-star. “We talked about going slowly, which she did and did a great job of it,” he said.
“I had a lot of horse at the end, but I wouldn’t have pushed him any faster,” said Symansky. “He was the only horse that got sounder as the week went on. He was 10 times sounder on Sunday.”
She finished in 19th place on a score of 99.8. She added no jumping penalties to her dressage score throughout the week.
“It went by in a second for me,” said Symansky of the competition. “The anticipation never happened because I didn’t think I was going. I feel like I missed out a little bit. It hit me at the competitors’ briefing when someone stood up and said, ‘Enjoy every second.’ I finally started enjoying it after the first jog. Then I was able to breathe.”
A Burgeoning Business
Although Symansky graduated from Washington & Lee University (Va.) with a business degree, she’s determined to focus on the horses for now.
“The last year of school I got the fever,” she said. “I moved back home, and now I run a barn and a barn
next door that I feed and clean every day. I have three of my own and two sales horses. I do a lot of teaching in the area.
“I don’t have endless funds, so I do all the work myself. Eventually, I hope to have sponsors, but I know I need to put the blood, sweat and tears in at the beginning.”
Completing her first four-star was definitely one more step toward establishing herself as a professional horseman. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming of since I started,” said Symansky. “I was so fortunate. The camaraderie is amazing. You feel like you’re playing with the big guys.”
O’Connor agreed that a good trip around Rolex gives a rider a tremendous amount of confidence. “It always helps you with bringing your next horse along because you’ve felt what the top of the game is,” he said.
And Symansky believes that learning to ride at that level on a complicated horse has only been an asset to her education. “I love helping the kids through it when they have a horse like Fergus,” she said.
“He takes care of you on cross-country, but at the same time it’s been nice to have a horse that’s difficult because I can help out so many other people with problem horses. If I’d had a pushbutton horse, I wouldn’t have so much experience.”
Symansky thought Fergus, now 15, might be telling her it was time to retire with all his spring misfortunes, but since Rolex Kentucky she’s not so sure.
“He’s hard on his body. He pulled a rabbit out of his hat this time, but now he looks amazing.” she said. “If I had the money I’d take him to Burghley [CCI**** (England)]. If that doesn’t happen, he’s going to hang out and see what he feels like doing. If this horse doesn’t do another horse trial in the rest of his life, that would be fine. If he holds up to do Rolex next year, that would be amazing. My goal is to keep him sound and do it again next year. If that doesn’t happen, I can’t complain. I got to go.”