The US event rider talks to Pippa Roome about sporty families, changing nationality and why failure spurs him on to be better
How many families can boast parents who were both Winter Olympians, a son who is an Olympian and a daughter who is an ultra-marathon runner?
Such is the heritage of Boyd Martin, 40, who competed for the US at London 2012 and Rio 2016.
Boyd’s mother, Toy Dorgan-Martin, was a speed skater from Illinois, while his Australian father, Ross, became a competitive skier after working on a farm for “a guy who trained him to cross-country ski a bit”. The pair met at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics.
“And then Mum followed him home to Australia, much to the shock of her parents,” explains Boyd. “We were encouraged in every sport you can imagine growing up. My older sister, Brook, rode at the top level and now she’s become a competitive ultra-marathon runner, going round the world running for 50 hours straight – it’s madness.”
Boyd and Brook were raised on two-and-a-half acres on the outskirts of Sydney.
“Pony Club was just down the road, and everyone had a couple of horses in the back yard,” remembers Boyd. “When I finished high school, I became a working pupil for the legendary Heath Ryan and met people like Kevin McNab, Chris Burton and Jock Paget.
“There were a couple of hundred horses – for breaking in, dressage, jumping, sales and racehorses. It was a great education.”
Boyd was based with Heath, who has ridden at championship level in both dressage and eventing, for around eight years.
“I did this working pupil programme and then started on my own, but I didn’t have quite enough horses or income to make it work, so I was a telemarketer at night.
“I sold beach holidays – you get used to people hanging up on you! I picked grapes for a winery, and sold school books, too, as my dad had a business doing that.”
In 2003, Boyd won Adelaide four-star (now five-star) on True Blue Toozac. Three years later, he boarded a cargo plane with a horse called Ying Yang Yo to compete at the Kentucky Three-Day Event.
“I’d done everything in Australia and New Zealand and was eager to see what else was available in the world,” he explains.
Boyd stabled with that other prominent Australian-turned-American, Phillip Dutton, and a visit turned into a lifetime. “As soon as I got here, I looked around and thought, ‘This is the promised land.’ I knew as soon as I went to the first event here that I’d stay forever,” he says.
After Kentucky, he spent six months in Australia “basically selling everything”, married his girlfriend, Silva – a German dressage rider who now also competes for the US – and then moved to the US. Boyd worked for Phillip and then he and Silva rented the top barn of Phillip’s property. Devastatingly, soon afterwards in the summer of 2011, the barn burnt down and six horses died.
Boyd and Phillip went against the fire chief’s advice to enter the burning barn and rescue Neville Bardos, the ex-racehorse who had been Boyd’s first championship horse when he finished 10th individually at the 2010 World Equestrian Games (WEG).
“The fire was horrible,” says Boyd. “We’d just broken out and started working for ourselves, and everything had just started to click into gear. To have the whole barn burn down, so many horses die and be injured after their owners had placed them with us – it was just disastrous.
“There was $4m (£3.8m) worth of damage, there were lawsuits. We had no insurance because we were new to the country, so there were two years where it was a real nightmare, but we kept on battling away and came through it all right.”
Boyd has always had both Australian and US passports, but taking the decision in 2008 to ride under the Stars and Stripes banner was heart-wrenching.
“Growing up watching legends like Wayne Roycroft and Matt Ryan, I always dreamed of representing Australia,” he says.
“Each day Heath would be teaching us, yelling that one day we’d ride for Australia.
“Then I moved to America and understood that I was going to live the rest of my life on the other side of the world and would make a living and profit from American owners and the American eventing system.
“It was a hard decision, personally. You have all these emotions – what are your family and friends going to think? Are the other Americans going to accept you?
“I remember going back and forth, talking to Phillip – who’d already made the change – in the indoor school one day. He pulled up and said, ‘Boyd, you think everyone cares what you’re doing, no one gives a crap.’ It was true. I changed nationality, it was a great decision and all my friends couldn’t care less.”
Boyd rang Heath and national coach Wayne Roycroft to tell them his decision and both were “very supportive and pretty heartbroken”.
He summarises: “But it’s hard asking Americans to sponsor horses to compete for another country. We’ve benefited a lot from this great country and so it only makes sense.
“I’m proud to be American. I also feel Australia made me and built me into who I am. Deep down, I still think of that as where I got started and how I became good.”
There’s no doubt Boyd is good, but he wants to be better.
“I really do enjoy the big events, they spur me on,” he says. “I still believe I’m a long way off my potential. I think 50% of it is good horses, but the boys in Europe, the Chris Burtons and Tim Prices, are unbelievable riders. They operate on a higher level than me.”
We’re leaning on the rails watching dressage at the Mars Eventing Showcase at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, Boyd slightly on edge as he has to dash off soon to warm up: “What time’s my test again? I always repeat questions when I’m nervous.”
This was in February, with the Florida sun beating down and the Olympic year spread before us like a field of opportunity. Coronavirus was but a distant shadow.
“Everyone’s got Olympic fever – talking about which is your Olympic horse and are you going to make the team,” says Boyd. “Obviously I’d like to, but it’s pointless even discussing it yet. And it’s not just going to the Olympics – I’ve been there and done that – it’s more trying to mix it with the best guys there.”
Boyd had a major operation last autumn after breaking his pelvis and tearing his abductor muscles off his hips in a fall. Nevertheless, he kicked off his 2020 season strongly with preparation competitions and early runs with his three top horses, Long Island T, On Cue and Tsetserleg TSF.
Boyd’s leading trio were originally targeted at Badminton and Kentucky. When we catch up about new plans due to the coronavirus shutdown, he says he will now aim them at two four-star short events in May and June which are being put on specifically for the purposes of selection for the US Olympic team. He adds that his top ride, last year’s Kentucky runner-up and Pan American Games individual gold medallist Tsetserleg, is in “sizzling form”.
“When ‘Thomas’ first came to me, I didn’t think anything of him,” says Boyd. “He was a bit small and fluffy. His owner, Christine Turner, had him with some other riders and he’d done all right, but he didn’t blow you away.
“Round the barn, he’s a laid-back character, but at the competition he lifts up a gear. He’s got that magical blend of calmness and extravagance.”
Tsetserleg’s bonza 2019 followed the disappointment of a stop at the 2018 WEG.
“Failing at WEG really stung,” admits Boyd. “I prided myself on always going clear for the country at championships, and I just didn’t pull it off.”
The turnaround in Tsetserleg’s 2019 performances was partly about the horse becoming more experienced, but Boyd also turned to his old friend Phillip Dutton for help, explaining: “Phillip cross-country schooled him and just tweaked the way I rode him,so I didn’t pull back and add strides when I was unsure about a fence. Phillip had him forward and open, and the horse responded well.”
Boyd rents a yard in Aiken, South Carolina, for the winter, and spends summers at his farm in Unionville, Pennsylvania. This winter, Silva has stayed in Pennsylvania with the couple’s sons, four-year-old Nox and one-year-old Leo, as Nox is now in school.
The couple run separate yards in terms of stables and staff, but “see each other in the dressage arena”, where grand prix rider Silva trains Boyd and rides some of his horses.
A challenge for us
US eventing has been in the doldrums recently at World and Olympic Games. Does Boyd think the tide can turn?
“Horses are a bit of a challenge for us – pretty much every purpose-bred event horse comes from England, Ireland, Germany or France, so as an American it’s hard to make sure you’re getting the top horses,” says Boyd.
“It’s bloody terrifying being an American rider jetting into Europe to buy a horse – meeting up with some dodgy horse dealer who is trying to dump some second-rate horse that has already been tried 30 times by the best riders in England.
“We’ve got to keep working hard at being better, because sometimes it’s a bit too easy to win in America. It’s important not to think you’re a champion if you’re winning classes with a mediocre horse or a lesser performance against weak fields.”
Like Phillip, Boyd does not believe in sending Americans to compete in Europe until they are winning at home.
“If you can’t win here, you’re going to get slaughtered in Europe,” he says. “And the travelling is expensive. But once you’re good, then it’s important to go over and have a look at how good everyone else is and get a reality check.”
There is no doubt that Boyd’s burning ambition will prevent him from becoming too complacent. But he also appreciates the joys of life with horses and his adopted country.
“America’s a great country if you’ve got a passion or a dream – this country really gets behind you,” he says. “We’re very blessed to do something that we truly love every day. It’s hard work and there are moments that aren’t so glamorous, but it sure beats being a bricklayer or a plumber.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 26 March 2020