King was in contention for a medal until the final round, when she incurred penalties and her hopes of adding to team silver secured earlier in the day were ended.
She was competing in her sixth Olympics but was surely completely unprepared for the moment when her horse, Imperial Cavalier, spotted a decorative statue of a lion on the course in Greenwich Park.
"I am disappointed with my fences down in the individual competition," said King.
"There is a big bronze lion in the centre of the arena and he got scared and was a bit whizzy. But then he settled and jumped beautifully.
"There was a chance of overtaking the Germans but they have put in a great performance and deserve it."
Britain were delighted to take the silver medal after a tense battle with New Zealand.