On May 31, Boyd Martin had one goal in mind for Neville Bardos: survival.
His Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games partner had been trapped in the devastating fire that ravaged Martin’s barn and killed six horses. Neville was the last one out, saved when Martin and Phillip Dutton went back into the flames against the firemen’s orders.
Now, just two months later, Martin has a much different goal for Neville: the Land Rover Burghley CCI**** in England.
“I said to myself that night, ‘If this horse can survive and live out his days in my back yard, that’s all I want.’ He’s surprised everybody, including me,” said Martin.
“The night of the fire, it was about 5 a.m. by the time we got him to New Bolton, and the vets said that his blood results were shocking,” he recalled. “There was so little oxygen in his blood; there’s no question he sucked in a lot of smoke.”
But the veterinary team couldn’t make out why Neville’s symptoms didn’t match the trauma he’d been through. When they scoped him, his throat was “burnt to a crisp,” according to Martin, but the gelding was still eating hay and happily cribbing on his water bucket.
“Initially they said he was just lucky to be alive,” Martin said. “A couple of days later, they said, ‘He should live, but we don’t think he’ll compete again.’ And then a couple of days after that, they said, ‘He’s healing so quickly that he might compete again next year.’ ”
Neville was released from New Bolton on June 7, and he spent two weeks getting daily treatment in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. Subsequent scopes of his throat showed even more impressive healing. So with the nod from the veterinarians, Martin started riding him again.
“He felt happy,” he said. “I never thought past the current day. I’d ride him one day, and if he felt good, I’d do a bit more the next day. I’m watching him like a hawk; he’s a good friend of mine, and I want to do right by him.”
As Neville gained strength, Martin was dealt another blow when his father, Ross, died on July 4 after a cycling accident in Australia. Then 18 days later, his wife Silva’s father, Christoph Stigler, passed away in Germany. The two men were active athletes and good friends, and losing them hit the couple especially hard.
Boyd now plans to dedicate his Burghley performance to his dad, who’d watched Neville progress from a young horse in Australia to the top U.S. finisher at the WEG. He’d long been planning to travel to England to watch him compete this fall.
“I figured I might as well have a crack at [Burghley]. It’s a long shot, but Neville just kept passing all the tests and ticking all the boxes,” he said. “We’ve had a very short time to get the horse fit—eight weeks to get ready for the world’s toughest four-star. But I know the horse, and he’s a tough, resilient horse and a good galloper, and I feel he wants to do it.”
Back In His Element
At the Millbrook Horse Trials in Millbrook, N.Y., Aug. 6-7, Neville won the dressage in advanced, division 1, on a score of 27.8, then loped around the cross-country, picking up 11.6 time penalties. Even with a rail down in show jumping, the pair still finished fourth.
“He was in his element at Millbrook,” Boyd said. “I only ran him at about three-quarter capacity, and he still had plenty left in the tank at the end. The horse thrives on excitement, and he loves the thrill of cross-country. His ears prick up as soon as you start hunting down to a big fence and loosen the reins.”
Boyd and Neville will travel together to England 10 days before Burghley, Sept. 1-4, and stay at Julian Stiller’s Headley Stud. “I feel like if I can just take myself out of my frantic routine of distractions for a time and start thinking about what’s involved in a good performance at Burghley, then I can really get focused on it. If I’m going to go over there, I want to give it all I’ve got,” he said.
But if Neville gives any signs of not being up to the journey or the competition, Boyd will scratch him in a split-second. “If I get to 8 minutes around cross-country at Burghley and he feels at all stressed, I’ll pull him up,” he said.
Boyd had nine rides at Millbrook—three of which were for owners who had lost horses in the fire. After Bonnie Stedt lost Cagney Herself, she purchased Quinn Himself for Boyd, who was third in a novice division. Anne Hennessey, who lost Summer Breeze, bought New Cadet, who was ninth in a novice division.
Boyd describes the support of his owners as “overwhelming.”
“When you train horses for other people, it’s a huge responsibility,” he said. “They trust you with their care. The upkeep and training of their horses is my utmost responsibility. When disaster strikes and so many innocent animals are destroyed, you would expect that human nature would be to shy away from giving me another chance. But each and every one of the owners have gotten back into a horse and given me the responsibility to try again. Hopefully we can rebuild and get back to the stage of the horses we lost that night.”
Owner Faye Woolf lost the advanced horse Call Me Ollie in the fire, and she came up with a very special way to fill the void he left in Boyd’s barn. Just days after the fire, she sent an old friend, Ying Yang Yo, back to Boyd.
“We came here in 2006 on a cargo plane from Australia; he was a young man, and so was I,” said Boyd. “And we bombed around our first Rolex Kentucky four-star together.”
They were 11th there in 2006, but by 2008, Boyd was having trouble keeping Ying Yang Yo sound at the four-star level, and their Rolex Kentucky trip ended with a fall at the Head of the Lake. Boyd decided it was time for the horse to slow down, so he gave him to Woolf’s daughter, Eliza. She competed “Thomas” at the novice and training levels in 2009 and ’10.
“Faye wanted to support Silva and my loss of income by placing a horse in training, and she said while Eliza’s busy at school to do a bit of work on Ying Yang. He felt so good that I asked her if I could take him to a few events,” Boyd said. “Three years of just living the good life and going slow with Eliza has made him sound and healthy and seems to have kind of given him new legs.”
Finding His Peace
Thomas jumped around a preliminary level event with Boyd in July, then made his first advanced start in three years at Millbrook, finishing sixth.
“He hasn’t changed one bit,” Boyd said. “It’s good to be reunited with an old friend, and it was a great feeling sitting on top of that great Australian Thoroughbred gallop.
“The horse is Eliza’s, so she and Faye are in charge of his destiny. I’m quite happy for him to go back to the junior training division next week,” he continued. “But if those guys want to give him another crack at a three-star or a four-star, I’d be all for it as long as the horse was happy and healthy doing it.”
Since bad things are said to come in threes, Boyd and all his supporters hope even more fervently that the upswing he’s experiencing after the fire and his father and father-in-law’s passings will continue.
“It’s been hard,” he said. “I think I’ve immersed myself in the horses—that’s where I’ve found my peace. I still had a lot of other positives, like the surviving horses and new horses. I really enjoy working with them every day.
“And the amount of support we’ve had from every avenue has kept us going,” Boyd continued. “There’s no way we could have survived the onslaught of what we went through alone. Everyone put out their helping hands and got us going again. When the farrier volunteers to shoe your horses for free for a month and people send you whatever they can or the local pony club raises $500 in a raffle, it inspires you to get on with it.
“Without that sort of message sent to us, I’d probably be sitting on my couch immersed in a bottle of scotch, staring at the roof,” he said. “But instead, we’ve pushed on, and we’ve got a wonderful group of owners and people around us.”
This article is an excerpt from our Millbrook Horse Trials coverage in the Aug. 22 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’d like to read more like it, consider subscribing.