New Mexico-based Bryce Bourdieu is determined to get back on horseback – despite his left leg having been amputated below the knee after being crushed by a filly in a horrific starting-gate incident. Jon Lee reports
U.S: Bryce Bourdieu is like many teenagers brought up in a racing family with dreams of one day riding a G1 winner.
Success is in the genes. His father Martin was one of the stars of racing in New Mexico, able to straddle both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse codes with prolific success. His mother Julie Farr is a familiar face around the state’s racetracks as a horse racing broadcaster and Paddock hostess.
By the time Martin Retired from the Saddle in 2020, the Argentine-born jockey had ridden 1,597 Thoroughbred winners and 751 Quarter Horse winners. Earlier this year his 19-year-old son decided it was his time to embark on a path he hoped would eventually lead to similar destinations.
But while exercising a Quarter Horse at a farm in Elgin, Texas, Bryce suffered life-changing injuries in a horrific accident so serious that he had to have his left leg amputated below the knee.
The horse, a three-year-old who reared over backwards during starting-gate practice, crushed Bryce – but not his dreams, which he remains fiercely determined to realize even if it means riding with a prosthetic leg.
“The end goal is to ride again,” says Bryce, now back home in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. “I’ve had dreams about it. I had a dream that I was riding in the Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity and I dreamed that I won it with a prosthetic on. There has never been something that I gave 100% to that I didn’t accomplish.”
Bryce went to Elgin in June to work as a groom and learn to ride at the same time. He was also working the afternoons as an Assistant starter, but two months later his life changed.
“I believe he was on an unraced three-year-old Quarter Horse filly and there were two of them going up as a set to the starting gates,” explains his mother. “As he got almost up in the gate, the filly reared and flipped over on top of him.
“Bryce was wearing a body protector and helmet but fractured his L4, burst fractured his L5 vertebra so it completely disintegrated, and then also fractured the S2 down in the sacrum.
‘I needed to get there straight away’
“I was working at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico which is an 11-hour drive away,” she goes on. “I got a call to tell me there had been an accident and that an ambulance had been called. I clocked out from work at 3pm because it was getting more serious by the moment.
“The Doctors were talking about spine stabilization, having to go in through the stomach and back, and him having to have two surgeries. I knew I needed to get there right away. A friend of Ours sent a private plane to pick me up so I was able to be in the hospital room in Austin as he came out of the first surgery. He was surprised to see me so soon.”
The second surgery, supposed to take five hours, lasted 11 and was followed by an emergency fasciotomy. “Bryce developed compartment syndrome in his left leg,” says Farr. “I knew that wasn’t good.”
Surgeons began a monumental effort to save the leg. This involved 14 operations, 12 on the leg and two in his back.
“Every time they went in, there was more damage and more infection,” she adds. “But they weren’t able to save the leg below the knee. The lower leg died and he had to have it amputated below the knee.”
‘It’s going to be a long process’
Bryce spent seven weeks in hospital and then another three at the Central Texas Rehabilitation Hospital. His mother was at his bedside virtually throughout until he returned home in October.
“Right now he is in a wheelchair,” says Farr. “They will next start outpatient therapy. The right leg has deficits because of the spinal injury but he is not paralyzed. It’s going to be a long process.
“He has to strengthen both legs and have one more surgery before he is fit for the prosthesis. They amputated on September 8 and didn’t close it until September 15 because there was 200ml of infection and dead tissue too. They had to be very creative. Knock on wood, he is healthy so far.”
Farr says her son has amazed her with his fortitude. “The thing that astonishes me as his mother is his attitude,” she says. “Not once has he had a ‘why me?’ sec. He has an Incredible spirit. He’s handled this with incredible maturity.
“The Doctors feel it’s a miracle. They’ve never seen such damage done and not have the person be paralyzed.”
Bryce’s spirit has been emboldened by the response of the horse community. He has had phone calls from the likes of Mike Smith, Gary Stevens and Richard Migliore, as well as many of the biggest stars from the rodeo scene.
Former UAE Champion trainer Ernst Oertel, who continues to ride and train despite having his left leg amputated at the knee in 2014, has been a regular caller. “Ernst has been very encouraging,” says Farr.
There are medical bills to work through too, only a fraction of which are covered by insurance, hence the launch of a fundraising campaign through the Sam Thompson Memorial Foundation, set up following the death of the well-known New Mexico jockey in 2008.
“Money is always something you need, but the prayers, the outreach, the mentoring have been incredible,” says Farr. “So many have called to talk to Bryce and spend time with him. It’s a humbling experience.
“Our insurance doesn’t cover the cost of a prosthesis and they cost about $75,000. We have to go to Austin for the final surgery. It’s a long road, a lot of outpatient therapy, some is covered and some is not.”
‘I chose to stay positive’
It will take time, but Bryce believes he is making progress. He says he has never been down about his predicament.
“There are two ways you can go about it,” he says. “You can be positive and get through it or you can be negative and make the whole situation harder. I chose to stay positive. The only thing I’ve had to complain about was the hospital food!”
He adds: “I think I’m doing all right. Every time I go to therapy I see a progression.”
Bryce’s love of the horse continues to burn fiercely. He refuses to allow it to be extinguished by his disability.
“They can’t wait to get on a horse again,” says his mother. “Bryce keeps telling me, ‘Mom, I’m going to be the first jockey in America to wear a prosthesis and win a Grade 1 race.’”
• Visit Bryce Bourdieu’s fundraising page at the Sam Thompson Memorial Foundation website
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