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‘The end goal is to ride again’ – aspiring teenage jockey aims to win after life-changing accident with prosthetic leg | Subjects: Bryce Bourdieu, New Mexico, Sunland Park

Bryce Bourdieu in the hospital: “You can be positive and get through it, or you can be negative and make the whole situation more difficult.” Photo provided by Julie Farr

New Mexico resident Bryce Bourdieu is determined to get back on horseback – despite having his left leg amputated below the knee after being crushed by a filly in a horrific incident at the starting gate. Jon Lees reports

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Like many teenagers, Bryce Bourdieu grew up in a racing family and dreams of one day driving a G1 winner.

Success is in the genes. His father Martin was one of the stars of racing in New Mexico and was able to straddle both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse codes with great success. His mother, Julie Farr, is a familiar face on the state’s racetracks as a horse race announcer and paddock hostess.

In the saddle: Bryce Bourdieu really wants to get back on the horse.  Photo courtesy of Julie FarrWhen 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 time to embark on a path that he hoped would eventually lead to similar goals.

But while training a quarter horse on a farm in Elgin, Texas, Bryce suffered life-changing injuries in a horrific accident so severe that his left leg had to be amputated below the knee.

Determined

The horse, a three-year-old who reared backwards during start training, shattered Bryce – but not his dreams, which he remains determined to pursue, even if it means riding with a prosthetic leg.

“The end goal is to get back driving,” says Bryce, who is now back home in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. “I dreamed about it. I had a dream that I would compete in the Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity and I dreamed that I had won it with a prosthetic. There has never been anything I have given 100% for that I have not achieved.”

Bryce went to Elgin in June to work as a groom while learning to ride. He also worked afternoons as an auxiliary starter, but two months later his life changed.

“I think he was on a three-year-old Quarter Horse filly that hadn’t raced and two of them went to the starting gates as a set,” explains his mother. “When he almost got up in the gate, the filly reared up and rolled over on him.

The x-ray shows the extent of the surgery needed to stabilize Bryce Bourdieu's spine.  Supplied by Julie Farr“Bryce was wearing body armor and a helmet, but he fractured his L4, ruptured his L5 vertebra so it completely disintegrated, and then also fractured the S2 at the bottom of the sacrum.

“I had to go immediately”

“I used to work at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, which is an 11-hour drive away,” she continues. “I was called to say there had been an accident and an ambulance was called. I left work at 3 p.m. because things were getting more serious at the moment.

“The doctors talked about stabilizing the spine, that they have to go through the stomach and back, and that he has to undergo two surgeries. I knew I had to go there immediately. A friend of ours sent a private plane to pick me up so I could be in the hospital room in Austin when he came out of the first surgery. He was surprised to see me so early.”

The second operation, which was supposed to take five hours, took eleven hours 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 attempt to save the leg. This included 14 surgeries, 12 on the leg and two on the back.

“Every time they went in, there was more damage and more infection,” she adds. “But they couldn’t save the leg below the knee. The lower leg died and had to be amputated below the knee.”

“It’s going to be a long process”Long road to recovery: Bryce Bourdieu faces a long rehab.  photo supplied

Bryce spent seven weeks in the hospital and then another three at Central Texas Rehabilitation Hospital. His mother was by his bedside practically the entire time until he returned home in October.

“Right now he’s in a wheelchair,” says Farr. “He will start outpatient therapy next. The right leg is deficient from the spinal injury, but he’s not paralyzed. It’s going to be a long process.

“He needs to strengthen both legs and have one more operation before he is fit for the prosthesis. They amputated on September 8th and didn’t close it until September 15th because there was also 200ml of infection and dead tissue. You had to be very creative. Knock on wood, he’s healthy so far.”

Farr says her son amazed her with his steadfastness. “What amazes me as his mother is his attitude,” she says. “Not once did he have a ‘why me?’ Moment. He has an incredible spirit. He has handled this with incredible maturity.

“The doctors think it’s a miracle. You have never seen such damage and not paralyzed the person.”

Bryce’s spirit was encouraged by the response from the equine community. He’s had calls from the likes of Mike Smith, Gary Stevens and Richard Migliore, as well as many of rodeo’s biggest stars.

Former UAE champion trainer Ernst Oertel, who continues to ride and train despite having his left leg knee amputated in 2014, has been a regular caller. “Ernst was very encouraging,” says Farr.

There are also medical bills to process, only a fraction of which are covered by insurance, hence the start of a fundraiser by the Sam Thompson Memorial Foundation, established after the death of the well-known New Mexico jockey in 2008.

“Money is always what you need, but the prayers, dedication and mentoring have been incredible,” says Farr. “So Bryce Bourdieu with his mother Julie Farr: many have called to speak and spend time with Bryce. It’s a humbling experience.

“Our insurance doesn’t cover the cost of a prosthesis and it costs about $75,000. We have to go to Austin for the final surgery. It’s a long road, lots of outpatient therapies, some covered, some not.”

“I chose to stay positive”

It will take time, but Bryce believes he is making progress. He says he’s never felt down about his predicament.

“There are two ways to do that,” he says. “You can be positive and get through it, or you can be negative and make the whole situation harder. I’ve decided to stay positive. The only thing I had to complain about was the hospital food!”

He adds: “I think I’m doing everything right. Every time I go to therapy, I see progression.”

Bryce’s love of horses continues to burn. He refuses to let his disability wipe them out.

“He can’t wait to get back on a horse,” says his mother. “Bryce keeps telling me, ‘Mom, I’m going to be the first jockey in America to wear a prosthetic and win a Class 1 race.'”

• Visit Bryce Bourdieu’s fundraising page on the Sam Thompson Memorial Foundation website

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