Ringside Chat With: Boyd Martin

Sep 30, 2020 - 2:35 PM

It’s been a slightly less busy show season for one of eventing’s busiest top riders—not only did the pandemic lead to a slew of cancellations, but Boyd Martin is also recovering from some injuries and taking things just a little bit slower. As he’s easing back into the full swing of competition, he’s not riding quite as many horses at each event but still enjoying lots of success.

Martin won the Stable View Oktoberfest CCI3*-S (South Carolina) on Sept. 26 on Fernhill Prezley, a 10-year-old Irish Sport Horse-Oldenburg gelding (Aldatus Z—Killerisk Diamond, Glidawn Diamond) owned by Nancy Hathaway and started by Heidi White, and he also placed fourth on Penhill Celtic, an 8-year-old Irish Sport Horse (Je T’aime Flamenco—Norway Maid, Coevers Diamond Boy) owned by Lauren Burnell and started on the West Coast by Rebecca Braitling.

In addition to trying to plot out a competition schedule via a calendar that’s been turned on its head, like everyone else, Martin is also trying to navigate the currents of social change that swelled into tsunamis this summer, even in the eventing world.

As a member of the board of directors for the Plantation Field International, Martin found himself in the middle of the dispute over the event’s name and its perceived racial insensitivity, and then the fallout and cancellation of the event’s lease by the property owner, Cuyler Walker. Some of Martin’s subsequent social media posts about the way the disagreement was handled also drew a lot of attention.

We caught up with Martin to find out about his top finishes at Stable View, what it’s like to have two young sons around the barn and at competitions, and how it feels to be in the middle of a social media firestorm.

You had two horses in the top five of the CCI3*-S at Stable View. Tell me about them and how the weekend went for you.

It’s great to be competing again. I’ve had a string of surgeries this year and finally, after months of recovery, my body’s feeling spot on. I’ve got two up-and-coming three-star horses that went to Stable View, Fernhill Prezley and Penhill Celtic. They’re both very, very exciting, newer horses for me, and they both performed great at Stable View. And I have to say, it was an awesome event—the course design, the facility and the footing were as good as I’ve ridden on anywhere this year. It was great to be back!

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Boyd Martin rode Fernhill Prezley to win the Stable View Oktoberfest CCI3*-S. Mark Jump Photography Photo

Where are you headed next with these two horses?

I think I’ll try to get them around the Hagyard (Kentucky) long-format three-star in a couple of weeks.

Did you consider going to the Pau CCI5*-L (France)?

Yeah, my plan was to take Tsetserleg to Pau, but we basically got a message from our team manager just saying that it’s too dicey planning on getting the horses there, you know. We’ve got to travel through too many countries and riders and grooms and whatnot to Pau. It takes so much training and preparation to get to an event like that, and basically they said the chances are we won’t be able to go at the last minute.

So what other CCIs are on your calendar for the fall?

I’m taking Long Island T and Luke 140 to Galway (California) and then taking On Cue, Tsetserleg and Blackfoot Mystery to Tryon (North Carolina). Looking forward to it, mate, it should be good!

How have all the cancellations impacted your training this year? Has it changed your approach, with so many of the marquee events being off the calendar?

I think if anything we’ve been able to focus on the horses’ training at home a lot more, and it’s fascinating how much each horse has been improving, just with the pure goal of schooling and training without preparing for show after show after show. In a way, I think a lot of our horses are better off for it. Obviously we all do this sport because we love competition and love to go to these marquee events, but this year the plague threw a spanner in the works, and we had to just roll along with the punches!

But it must be great to be back out there again?

It is. It’s great, it’s obviously what we love to do, and I just love competition.

You mentioned that you’ve had some injuries of your own to contend with. How are you feeling now?

I feel brand new. I mean, I’ve had hip surgery and groin surgery again this year, and I’ve been taking a lot more time to recover, and I’ve been working really hard with physiotherapy and stretching and massage and every other thing under the sun you can think of. And to be honest, I’m feeling as good as ever. I’m probably not competing as many horses at each show at the moment; I’m just trying not to let my body fatigue. And in a weird kind of way, the horses are performing maybe a little bit better because I’m slightly more dialed in and focused with a smaller group of horses at the competition.

Your two boys, Nox, 5, and Leo, 2, were with you at Stable View. What’s it like juggling your role as a dad along with coaching and competing?

It’s exhausting! My life is frantic how it is, and you throw two high energy young boys into the mix… It’s awesome, but both Nox and Leo are bursting with energy from 5:30 in the morning to late at night. They’re going a million miles an hour, just like me. So it’s cool, it’s awesome, and we’re very lucky that we live on a farm, and they have a million things to keep them occupied.

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Boyd and Silva Martin’s sons, Nox and Leo, go to Boyd’s events whenever they can. Amy Dragoo Photo

Are they showing any interest in horses and riding?

You know, I think they are around horses so much—both [my wife Silva Martin] and I are completely enthralled in horse sports—there’s no way they can’t be engaged as well. I think they’re either going to really love it and get right into it, or they’re going to be so sick of it they’re going to take up another sport that has nothing to do with horses. So we’ll just wait and see how it all pans out, and I’ll be happy with whatever direction they take.

Earlier this week, you posted on social media that you didn’t want to be interviewed for or have your photos appear on Eventing Nation, because you felt it would be hypocritical to self-promote your performance after your disagreement over how the website approached the controversy over the Plantation Field International name. 

In my opinion, I think Eventing Nation contributed to the termination of the lease of the Plantation Field International. Obviously this is an event I’m passionate about—I’ve served on the board for years and watched the event develop thanks to massive amounts of fundraising and years of improvements to the property. A week after the termination of the lease, they were asking for comments and quotes for their story [on Stable View]. I think that it would have been bad form on my part to contribute to an article after I felt like they were hugely detrimental to an event I’d been involved with, and given how many people lost opportunities related to that event.

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Boyd Martin at the 2020 Plantation Field International. Amber Heintzberger Photo

You’ve got a unique perspective because you’re on the board of directors for PFI, and you ride at the event. And you’ve also had the owners of the property, the Walker family, as owners for some of your horses.

Over the years the Walker family has been very generous and owned some horses outright and owned shares in some of my championship horses, like Trading Aces and Shamwari, that represented the country. I think they’ve contributed a whole heap to our sport. Not only did Plantation run a number of important events throughout the year, they contribute a hell of a lot to charities and fundraising.

We definitely do have a big issue in America with losing privately owned venues around the country. The properties that are owned by private people, like the Walker family, are becoming few and far between. There’s not that much incentive for these generous people to allow their 300-acre property to turn into a sporting venue. Everyone comes and trashes their parking field; they complain that the facility is lacking in amenities; they tear up the grass; they don’t say thank you, and then they come back and do it again the next year. 

Here in America, we’ve had lots of great events fizzle out—events like Richland Park (Michigan), the Foxhall Cup (Georgia), and The Fork Horse Trials at Norwood (North Carolina), and these are all events that, in my opinion, the landowners just got sick and tired of being unappreciated, unthanked and tired of pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into events that are unrewarding for them.

As I see these generous landowners getting burnt out, eventually the sport is turning more and more to horse centers that are owned by the state, like the Virginia Horse Center and the Kentucky Horse Park. 

The discussions over the name encompass a lot of sensitive subjects that are difficult for people to talk about, and your Facebook posts brought some pretty strong reactions.

I think the misconception is—my stance and comments are very much more against the way Eventing Nation handled this issue than about the name of the event. I’m absolutely open to the discussion [about changing the name], and I’m always keen to make the sport better. The problem I have is the way Eventing Nation went about it. 

I mean, I’ve got no issue at all with the discussion; it’s more the way it was handled. And I think it’s been handled, in hindsight, poorly by everyone. Poorly by Eventing Nation, poorly by the [U.S. Equestrian Federation] and [U.S. Eventing Association], and I think probably the Plantation board handled it the wrong way as well. I’m sure there’s a way to address this issue and keep this great event going.

I spoke with the owner of Eventing Nation [Monday], and we disagree on a few things, but we also agree on a lot. We agree that our sport has suffered greatly on account of poor communication, that diversity and inclusion are important to the sport, and that we are both in agreement that we need to move forward. I don’t want this to be the destruction of Eventing Nation; I think they’ve been a good website that has promoted our sport, and I’ve enjoyed reading their articles over the years. I just think that certain writers on the website have definitely gone about this in an insensitive way.

A lot of us, including at the Chronicle, got a bit jolted out of complacency with all of the events regarding issues of race going on this year. So I wonder if you could talk a bit about how you’ve thought about diversity in eventing—if it had been on your radar before this summer, or how the events of this summer changed your thinking on it at all?

To be honest, my main focus is on the horses, because to make it to the top in this sport you really have to give it all of your time and energy, so I hadn’t paid much attention to current issues. And because I grew up in Australia, some of the nuances of American history were just not that apparent to me. So this has really been an eye-opening experience and a bit of a rude awakening. With all this discussion I’m now more aware of the lack of diversity in equestrian sports, and it’s absolutely an issue that needs to be addressed. I’m looking forward to contributing to an increase of diversity in horse sports in America.

While I had a sort of general idea of what was going on in the world, thanks to the hundreds of comments and messages I’ve received, I’m now extremely aware that the lack of diversity in equestrian sports is an issue that needs to be addressed. I’ve received a lot of flack for my ignorance, and I hope that the people who have criticized me can be a little bit patient as I still have a few things to learn.

How do you look at and approach your role as a leading athlete and a very successful and public face in this sport, as far as speaking out about issues in the eventing world?

Personally, I don’t think politics should play a part in any sport. I think sports, like the Olympic Games, are an event where we all put our differences aside and we forget about it, and countries and races and religions who’ve been at war can put their differences aside and compete in a competition. That’s the thing we’ve all got to remember: Everyone gets wound up, but sports are really a game.

That said, I do realize that there are valid concerns about the name of Plantation Field, and that a lack of diversity in equestrian sports is an issue that we are all going to have to confront. If there can be a positive in this situation, I would like to see this spur a productive discussion instead of attacking each other.

This has really opened my eyes to the power of social media and made me realize that as a public figure, I have a responsibility to consider my words carefully. And as far as taking a stance and making a comment, I think I’ll think very carefully about doing that next time. It’s one thing having the balls to speak your mind, but to be quite honest, the amount of blowback and headaches and accusations and negative feedback to my owners and sponsors has been horrendous, and I think I’ve learned my lesson and I’m just going to keep my big trap shut from now on!

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