By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Pam Jensen
Andrew Diemer has learned to seek the silver lining in every challenge he has faced. Through the highs of international polocrosse and eventing championships to the lows of open-heart surgeries and a lower-leg amputation, Andrew has found a humbling lesson within each experience. As he builds his future as an educator and equestrian, he hopes to share his passions and inspire others.
Andrew was born into a military family in Weingarten, Germany. As a toddler, Andrew moved to Kansas following his father’s transfer to Fort Leavenworth. It was there he would develop his love for horses. “It was a tradition amongst officers stationed there to try foxhunting at least once. My mother, who’d ridden as a child and had basic riding fundamentals, participated first. It didn’t take long for my father to join in on the fun. He soon learned the basics and took to it,” Andrew said.
Though he had to move five times before third grade, Andrew, now 30, is grateful for his experiences following his father to different parts of the country. Despite the frequent relocations, Andrew’s love for horses was never left behind. In Massachusetts, he was led along on foxhunts by his mother, and in Florida, Andrew earned his first set of junior hunt colors.
In 1998, Andrew’s family settled down for good in Raeford, North Carolina. “Whether by luck or fate, the property we rented would soon see the construction of the Carolina Horse Park less than three miles down the road,” he said. “My parents bought the property next door and built our farm on it. From then on we stayed put — even if it meant my dad was separated from the family for lengthy periods of time. These periods were very tough on me and my mother, especially after 9/11 when there were whole years my father would be deployed.”
Soon after moving to North Carolina, Andrew joined the Moore County Pony Club. Andrew looks back fondly at his time in Pony Club, though at the time he wasn’t always thrilled to participate. “I was the only boy for a long time and — thanks to the hormones not yet flowing — being surrounded by ‘icky girls’ didn’t help. That and the horse management! I was a good rider and I took good care of my horse, but my tack and clothes on the other hand? Let’s just say I clashed with horse management!” Andrew laughed.
“Looking back, Pony Club taught me so much about general horse care and provided access to multiple different sports,” he said. Two sports in particular — polocrosse and eventing —would become Andrew’s lifelong passion and take him across the world to compete.
Success at Home and Abroad
Andrew’s passion for polocrosse became a family affair. “Its similarity to other ball-orientated, non-equine sports drew my father’s interest to polocrosse. Here was a way to combine the ‘father-son catch session’ with our shared love of horses,” Andrew said.
“My parents and I were among those who created the Carolina Polocrosse Club, as well as put on the first Pony Club polocrosse rallies in North Carolina at our farm. Polocrosse eventually drew a handful of other boys into Pony Club and it became one of the few Pony Club sports that had roughly equal numbers of girls to boys,” he said. “As I got older, I began to take a far more positive view on the ratio of women to men in English riding, but through my pre-teens, the friendships and camaraderie developed with my polocrosse teammates really helped me stay riding when other boys lost interest.”
In 2004, Andrew had the opportunity to represent the United States in his first international polocrosse tournament. A year later, at age 15, he traveled to New South Wales, Australia, for his first competition on foreign soil. “The trip to Australia remains my favorite tour abroad!” Andrew said. “The team was split up and we stayed with volunteer Australian families. I’d grown up on a small horse farm and thought I knew what farm work was. Oh boy, was I in for a much-needed wake-up call!” The Australian farm work was a stark contrast to what Andrew had known back home.
In addition to Australia, Andrew played for the United States in England, South Africa and Zambia. While it wasn’t abroad, his all-time favorite tour was in Washington, D.C. “We played on the National Mall with the Washington Monument looming over us, and I was the one to lead Team USA onto the field, carrying the flag for the anthems,” Andrew said.
Along with polocrosse, Andrew represented the United States and Area VIII in eventing at the North American Youth Championships at the Colorado Horse Park in 2008. “My personal coach, Holly Help Hudspeth, was the team coach that year. I rode my gelding Cold Harbor to finish ninth individually and help secure team silver. He continues to be one of the most personable horses I’ve ever ridden, and we had a great bond. He is fat and happily retired now,” Andrew laughed.
A Life-Changing Illness
Andrew was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, a heart defect in which the aorta has two flaps instead of the normal three. Apart from every-other-year trips to the cardiologist, this condition never affected Andrew — until 2014.
“I began to experience an ever-increasing amount of joint pain that was initially believed to be Lyme disease,” Andrew said. Though medication helped to mask the pain, Andrew knew something still wasn’t right. “Rheumatoid arthritis was decided upon as the true culprit. Unfortunately for me, this wasn’t the case.”
Instead, Andrew had been suffering from endocarditis, a bacterial infection on his heart valves. After waking up with a 105° fever and blue finger nails, Andrew was rushed to the emergency room and underwent four heart surgeries within two weeks. Shortly after the back-to-back surgeries, Andrew experienced a blood clot in his lower leg.
“There was a small, but not insignificant, chance that the surgeon could get away with saving most of my foot,” Andrew explained. “Unfortunately, there was simply not enough live tissue to give me a stable platform and the whole foot had to go. That realization really crushed me for a while.”
Throughout his rehabilitation, Andrew received overwhelming support from the horse community. “I received calls from folks like Boyd Martin and Mike Plumb, to local eventers and polocrosse players I had known and ridden with most of my life. I received hundreds of messages of support and prayers. The whole experience was very humbling, to be on the receiving end of that much support from both folks I knew since I was 6 as well as those I’d only competed with at shows.”
Between the support of the community and his own willful determination, Andrew was released from rehab a month early. “I knew my mare, Stella, was waiting for me outside of rehab and I was determined to prove that I could ride again,” he said. “I knew I’d continue to ride — but playing polocrosse, a contact, high-speed sport? Or eventing, jumping a several-hundred-pound animal over ditches and solid logs, up and down banks?”
Andrew was on the back of a horse the day he was released. Andrew’s prosthetic leg, now fitted with a bendable ankle joint, helps him to stay balanced in the saddle. “All I really had to do was get a leather worker to widen up my boot a bit to accommodate,” Andrew said. Three months after his first ride back, he found himself riding Stella on the winning team at the 2016 American Polocrosse Association Nationals, where he won the Best Player Award.
“At the beginning of the previous year, I was on my deathbed — kept alive with tubes and wires. A year and a half later, I’d proven to myself that I could still play. While my skills were noticeably less, my years of experience still allowed me to hold my own on the field, and that was the best feeling in the world,” Andrew said.
Eventing and Education
Today, Andrew and Stella are still a team as he’s now retraining her to event. The spirited Australian Stock Horse mare has made an excellent transition to the sport under Andrew’s guidance. “Having to walk, trot and canter steadily around a ring with our head down is quite the switch up from the galloping, spins and sliding stops of polocrosse!” Andrew said. “Dressage aside, she loves jumping and is one of the boldest cross-country horses I’ve ever ridden.”
Currently, the pair competes at Training Level, and that’s where Andrew would like to stay. “The jumps are just big enough to challenge us, but not so big that I’d give my mother and girlfriend a heart attack,” he laughed. “Stella is fast and agile, and her athleticism has served her well. We have a strong bond.”
Alongside eventing, Andrew is dedicated to his interest in history and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in 2019. As an avid history buff, Andrew has visited over 150 battlefields, parks and historic sites. His ultimate goal is to someday work for a National or State Park Service, or perhaps the American Battlefield Trust. In the meantime, Andrew is currently pursuing a master’s degree in education with a concentration in history.
“I’ll likely pursue a teaching job to help pad out my resume, as well as gain experience in the world of teaching. My love of history was sparked by some amazing teachers and I hope to be able to spark the same interest for any student I can,” Andrew said.
Andrew’s passion for teaching and inspiring others has served him in the horse world as a riding instructor at the Southern Pines Riding School, owned by Whitney Weston. “It’s a perfect job thanks to a combination of getting to work with horses and a flexible schedule, with a boss who is very understanding about my schoolwork,” he said.
“There’s also a lot of satisfaction in being able to help kickstart a child or adult’s interest in
riding. Perhaps what I’m most proud of is that my presence seems to have helped spark the interest of a large number of male riders,” Andrew said. “While I’m no less proud of my many wonderful female students, I cannot help but be extra proud when teaching a group lesson with four boys who are all excelling.”
The future is filled with opportunity for Andrew, and he’s enjoying building his life with his middle-school sweetheart, Christina. After losing touch in high school, the two recognized each other at a local diner in 2019. Andrew fell in love with Christina for many reasons, but her love for animals was especially endearing. The two recently moved in together with their menagerie of snakes, chinchillas, a bearded dragon and a cat.
As he looks ahead at the possibilities — with his family, his career and eventing with Stella — Andrew remembers to stay humble and appreciate each day at a time. “If could go back and give myself advice, I would tell myself to take life a little slower and not be in such a hurry — and to get your dadgum heart valve checked!”
For more information, visit www.southernpinesridingacademy.com
Photos by www.pamjensenphotography.com