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January 9, 2012

Boyd Martin: Horse And Bone-Breaking Expert

The Chronicle's 2011 Overall Horseman of the Year Boyd Martin goofed off with wife Silva during a photo shoot for The Chronicle Connection last spring. Photo by Amy K. Dragoo.

Given his success in European CCIs in recent years, it's easy to forget that at 32, Boyd Martin has spent the majority of his life riding in far less prestigious settings. In fact, it's experiences like breaking horses in Northern Japan and breaking bones in the Australian Outback that made Martin the horseman he is today—the Chronicle's 2011 Overall Horseman of the Year.

Before moving to the United States in 2007, Martin trained at Heath Ryan’s facility in his native New South Wales for the better part of eight years, though he occasionally took jobs elsewhere to make ends meet. When he was 22, a friend helped him secure a two-month stint at a northern Japanese breeding farm by billing Martin as an “expert” in breaking horses.

“I hadn’t really done any breaking in at all, but they didn’t speak any English, so I managed to con them into thinking I knew what I was doing,” Martin said with a laugh. “I read a book about it on the plane. Breaking in a horse is really nothing more than common sense.”

At the end of his two months, Martin had started 35 young horses under saddle, and local horsemen were coming to watch “the Australian expert” in action. But the smooth sailing got rougher once he returned home. For the next two years, Martin eked out a living by buying and reselling off-the-track Thoroughbreds and taking any horse he was offered in for training—including the infamous Donazetti.

“He was mad as a hatter,” Martin said. “A rearer, a bucker, just a very mentally unstable Prix St. Georges dressage horse. And I got paid $15 a ride on him.”

At that price, Martin was understandably reluctant when the owner signed him up for an FEI event that required a drive of several hours into the Outback, especially since he had to skip a horse trial to compete there. He was even more upset when, as soon as he arrived, a deluge started, and organizers decided to cancel the show. 

“I begged them not to,” he said. “I said, 'If people don't want to ride, that's fine, but you can't just tell everyone they can't! I came all this way! I skipped an event for this!' And somehow I convinced them. So I got Donazetti all ready, and as soon as I put my leg over the saddle, I felt his back tighten and him start to bolt and buck at the same time. I slipped down underneath him, and my leg snapped backwards, and there I was, lying in the mud with nine fractures in my knee.

“Of course, there were no doctors working in Quirindi that weekend, which meant no painkillers for about two hours until an ambulance finally showed up,” he continued. “So after another hour’s ride further away from home, they get me to this hospital and put me in a room with a prisoner who’s handcuffed to his bed and being guarded by two policemen with rifles. All night I was in excruciating pain, but that poor bloke, every time he moved it was, ‘ching ching, ching ching’ with his handcuffs. He was actually a nice guy, though. I got to talking to him and gave him my dessert.”

When his doctors recommended surgery at another hospital, still further away from home, a very skeptical Martin called a friend to come get him and staged a getaway. It was a few weeks after the accident when Martin, hobbling around a local dressage show on his crutches and peeking out from under his overgrown, raggedy locks, met his future wife, Silva.

“He had a cast on his leg from his ankle to his hip, and he was looking a little bit homeless, actually,” recalled Silva, laughing. “He held his hand out and said, ‘Boyd Martin, Australia.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, who is this guy?’ ”

Boyd first spotted Neville Bardos just days later, and shortly after he and Silva started dating, he somehow convinced her—a professional dressage rider who at the time spoke little English—to compete Neville in his first horse trial, at novice.

“I still remember looking out across the field and just seeing this little chestnut horse running flat-out. Come to find out, it was mine. He bolted at the start, and she fell off at the first jump,” Boyd said. “She got back on and finished, though she had, like, 500 time penalties.”

Most girls would have been immune to their beau's power of persuasion after an experience like that, but Silva kept coming back for more. A few years later, Boyd managed to convince her to marry him as well—after hiking up Ayers Rock and proposing with a plastic ring—conceding that if he'd picked out a real one, she probably wouldn't have liked it, and if she said no, he could just push her off a cliff. And she was just as game about the opportunity to move to the States five years ago.

This story is a supplement to our 2011 Overall Horseman of the Year profile in our Jan. 30 American Horses In Sport issue. If you enjoyed this it and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing.

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