Jan Byyny is retiring her four-star partner Inmidair after the 19-year-old New Zealand Thoroughbred gelding aggravated an old tendon injury at Sporting Days Farm Horse Trials last month.
Inmidair, who was imported to the U.S. as an unraced 7-year-old (Wallenda X Jasmine June, by Pompeii Court), had been steadily making a comeback from an injury sustained in 2014, when he and Jan were listed as alternates for the U.S. World Equestrian Games team.
His fans were delighted to see him return to international competition for the first time in three years in the Nations Cup at Great Meadow CICO3* last year. Inmidair, better known as “JR,” looked like he hadn’t missed a beat, finishing seventh in an elite field at Great Meadow with only cross country time added to his dressage score.
Jan discovered after Great Meadow that he had hyperextended a tendon in his right front leg, but the injury healed so quickly that she thought perhaps she could give it one more shot in 2018.
“I knew it was probably more of a pipe dream, but that’s how I function. If you don’t have dreams and you don’t think you can do it, then why are you doing it? I began to think that if he was able to stay sound, the 2018 WEG might be possible,” Jan said.
“We went to Wellington this winter to get going and polish his dressage and show jumping. His first event of the 2018 season was a canter around Sporting Days in the Intermediate/Preliminary, which he won by 11 points, but he re-injured the tendon in his right front.”
Jan subsequently decided to retire JR from the upper levels, though she is remaining open to the idea that he might still be able to compete at the lower levels with a young rider or amateur once the tendon heals.
“I will let him tell me what he wants to do,” Jan said. “He’s always been a horse who loves a job, and I can tell you he just loves the sport. Maybe he doesn’t need to be ridden every day, but he loves the attention and having a job. Honestly, why would he do it if he didn’t love it?”
Starting a partnership
It is the end of an era for Jan and JR, whom she met 10 years ago. Angela Lloyd competed the horse to the CCI1* level in New Zealand, finishing second in the Taupo CCI1* in May 2006. Nicole Shinton imported him to the U.S. soon after.
JR competed several times with Nicole, as well as fellow Canadian Kyle Carter, at Novice and Training levels over the 2007 winter season in Ocala. When Nicole decided to transition away from eventing to competing in pure dressage, JR went to Will Coleman to be sold.
“I liked him and decided to vet him,” Jan said. “Christiana Ober took back X-rays and called me and said, ‘You can’t buy this horse — he’s got the worst back I’ve ever seen!’ But I really liked him and figured I could manage that, so I offered less than the asking price, and they took my offer.”
Jan and JR competed in their first competition together in the Preliminary at Plantation Field Horse Trials in Unionville, Pennsylvania in 2008, which he won.
The following spring in 2009, she aimed him for the CCI2* at Jersey Fresh International Horse Trials in Allentown, New Jersey. On the way to Jersey Fresh, she stopped at Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm in Pennsylvania for lessons.
“JR was super spooky, and Phillip wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. But he was amazing in the two-star and finished fifth,” Jan said. “He had made a really weird noise the last two minutes of cross country, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. It turns out he had flipped his soft palate, and that required him to get his strap muscle cut.”
With his soft palate issue behind him, JR went on to compete in his first Advanced at Maui Jim Horse Trials in Wayne, Illinois, that summer in 2009, where he finished fifth with only cross country time penalties added to his dressage score. Jan planned to aim for Millbrook Horse Trials next, but things went awry on her way to New York.
“I stopped at Phillip’s again for lessons. I had Syd Kent, JR and Why Not with me. A man was working outside the ring and started his chainsaw, and Why Not spooked, bolted, slipped and fell on me, breaking my foot in nine places, which kept me from competing for a while.”
Jan decided to have Phillip compete JR while her broken foot healed, and he took the horse to Richland Park for his second Advanced.
“There was a massive corner on course, and I remember Phillip asking me — because he didn’t know the horse all that well — how he should ride it. I told him to go straight! After that, Phillip told me JR was one of the best cross country horses he’d ever ridden.”
Phillip and JR went on to win the inaugural running of the CIC3* at Plantation Field International in the autumn of 2009 on their dressage score of 46.2.
A life-changing injury
Jan returned to competing over the winter of 2010, but her entire world changed at Pine Top Advanced, where a fall in the Preliminary division dissected her carotid artery, resulting in a minor stroke that caused damage to the language area of her brain. She also suffered a severe broken arm.
JR once again went to Phillip to compete while Jan faced intense physical therapy. Phillip and JR were fifth in The Fork CIC3*, won the Advanced at Fair Hill and placed second in the CCI3* at Jersey Fresh in 2010. JR also made the journey out to Montana with Phillip to compete in the CIC3* at Rebecca Farm, where they finished fifth.
Determined to return to riding and ultimately competing despite her injuries, Jan made her comeback in 2011 with JR. They had top 10 finishes in the CIC3* at both Richland Park and Plantation Field before they went on to the CCI3* at Fair Hill International.
While Jan and JR led going into show jumping, things did not go to plan during their round. “We had a big miss at the second jump and took the whole jump down aside from the bottom plank,” Jan said. “I don’t think he ever really saw the jump because it was on a bend going away from the in-gate.”
Adding a second pole down later on course saw Jan and JR finish third at Fair Hill, still a very strong result that landed them on the long list for the U.S. Olympic team for the 2012 London Olympics.
The following month in November, JR broke his coffin bone while turned out in his field, requiring six months off to heal.
Despite a delayed start to their spring season in 2012, Jan was determined to give it her all in the lead up to London. She went to Bromont to contest the CIC3* and make her bid for the Olympic team with JR, but a drive-by on cross country at the chevron coming off the bank cost them 20 jumping penalties and ended their chances of going to London.
An unlikely comeback
The following season in 2013 marked a milestone for JR, as Jan was aiming for his first CCI4* at Kentucky. She arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park ready to put in a competitive performance in the horse’s debut at the level, but in her first ride she realized something was wrong.
“When I started to ride him, he sounded like he was roaring. Dr. Susan Johns told me to ride my dressage test and see how he was. After, she scoped him and discovered that the whole left side of his throat was paralyzed. JR had been given a shot of Gentocin before we left, and the needle nicked the nerve that sits right behind the vein that controls the larynx.”
Jan withdrew JR before cross country at Kentucky, wondering if the paralysis in his throat would ever allow him to compete at the highest level of the sport again.
As he had so many times before, JR battled back from injury, proving that a horse with a heart as big as his can overcome unthinkable obstacles.
Just four months after his throat paralysis, Jan and JR returned to the Fair Hill International CCI3* and once again found themselves in the lead after cross country. She could afford one rail down in show jumping to still win, which she did. JR was crowned the 2013 USEF National CCI3* Champion.
It was an incredibly emotional win for Jan and all those who had willed her on to recover from her injury at Pine Top three years earlier. There wasn’t a dry eye in the press conference at Fair Hill on that breezy autumn day in Elkton, Maryland.
While Jan’s boyfriend, Tom, was at Fair Hill to see her win — and march her on a two-mile walk before show jumping to get her head right — her parents, Dick and Jo, unfortunately were not.
“My parents have been through so much with me. They are like parents should be — they are my biggest supporters, which goes for my brother, too. He had qualified for the Kona Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, and they were in Hawaii with him during Fair Hill,” Jan said.
“For me to come back to that level of riding after my stroke, when I didn’t even know if I could keep riding, and not have them there to see me win was gutting. It still breaks my heart that they didn’t get to see me win.”
Defying the odds again
JR came out the following spring of 2014 in top form, set a 40.5 dressage record in the CIC3* at Carolina International — which stood until Kim Severson and Cooley Cross Border set a new record this year — and finished fifth.
A seventh-place finish at Kentucky CCI4* — with her parents there to cheer them on in person — saw Jan and JR named alternates for the 2014 U.S. World Equestrian Games team.
“Because JR was listed as an alternate, I was given a grant to do either Blenheim or Burghley. On our last gallop before the mandatory outing for the team, he injured his deep digital flexor tendon in two places in his foot, and just like that, we were out,” Jan said.
“He was on stall rest for nearly nine months, but the injury wasn’t healing. Dr. Johns worried if I turned him out he would rip the tendon and I’d have to put him down. I knew I owed it to him to make him sound enough to be in a pasture.”
Jan and her vets, Dr. Kent Allen and Dr. Susan Johns, conferred with Colorado State University veterinarians Dr. Kurt Selberg and Dr. Katie Seabaugh. They devised a plan to send JR to Colorado State, where Jan’s father received a discount on his surgery and subsequent care because he was part of the university’s faculty.
Dr. Laurie Goodrich operated on JR and oversaw his rehabilitation. “When they did the MRI after the surgery, they said his progress was ‘impressive.’ That sums up that horse. Everything he does is impressive,” Jan said. “Dr. Goodrich said to me, ‘I’m not your vet in Virginia, but I’m going to tell you — this horse is going to come back to the top level.’”
One year later in 2015, JR returned to Jan’s Surefire Farm in Purcellville, Virginia, ready to be ridden and begin the lengthy process of strengthening his tendon.
“He still couldn’t be turned out, but I kept going with the flat riding and slowly started jumping, just adding one thing at a time,” Jan said. “They gave me a rehabilitation plan that started with trot rails, then progressed to cavaletti to make sure he could handle the impact on the foot before I was finally able to turn him out.”
JR rehabbed through the entire 2016 season, and in 2017 Jan quietly brought him out Pine Top, running a Preliminary and Intermediate before moving him back to up Advanced at Fair Hill’s spring horse trials.
He went on to compete in the Nations Cup CICO3* at Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia in 2017 and finished seventh in what would ultimately be the final international competition of his career.
“He was third after dressage at Great Meadow, spooky and nappy in show jumping — not one jump the same — but jumped clean, and was amazing cross-country, finishing with just time.”
‘My horse of a lifetime’
JR’s swan song performance in the Nations Cup at Great Meadow was on his own terms, much like the rest of his career has been. Jan said she wouldn’t have had it any other way. JR finished in the top 10 in 13 of the 18 competitions he completed at three-star level.
“The horse is a freak — my cheeky monkey. If you watch him trot around he just looks like a little, average bay pony. But then all of a sudden he loosens up and grows into 17-hand dressage horse with amazing extensions. In show jumping he’s so spooky but jumps clean almost every time. And cross country, the only mistakes on this horse’s career were mine, not his. He’s amazing through and through,” Jan said.
“I’ve had some really fun horses, and all of them are really special to me, but JR is my horse of a lifetime — the little engine that could. I’m so thankful he has been and is in my life. He doesn’t know he’s hurt, and he still has his sense of humor and confidence — he think he rules the world.”
While JR gave her some truly memorable wins in her career, Jan said the greatest gift he gave her was uniting her family and friends during the most difficult period of her life.
“When I got hurt, my parents put my horses in their names in case I couldn’t actually take care of them, so he became my family’s horse, too. And here I am, eight years after I was hurt, and he’s still in my life, as well as my family’s life. One of the best things about him is that he brought everyone together, through thick and thin,” Jan said.
“We never know what’s going to happen in our lives, but I’m so thankful for everything he has done for me. It was JR who gave me my life back.”
Thank you to Susan Merle-Smith for contributing notes for this article.