Boyd Martin saved the life of Neville Bardos, an $850 purchase destines for the killers, a second time when he and True Prospect Farm owner and eventing legend Phillip Dutton risked their lives by running into the blazing barn to drag him to safety. Neville, short listed for the Beijing Olympics and the highest placed American horse at last year's WEG.
Photo credits: AK Dragoo Photography LLC
A barn fire. It’s every horse owner’s worst nightmare – the tragedy you hear about but think would never happen to you, because the reality of such a calamity is too terrible, too painful to even imagine.
But as eventing superstar Boyd Martin pulled up to his barn from his home offsite in the wee morning hours of May 31, his worst nightmare was all too vivid and real. The barn he had rented from Phillip Dutton at True Prospect Farm in West Grove, PA was consumed by fire, a scene he described as “very shocking” to witness.
Firefighters, adorned with masks and oxygen tanks, stood around watching the barn go up in flames, not seeming to realize the gravity of the situation. There were still horses inside; Martin’s whole life was inside. But how do you explain that to someone who’s never galloped a horse across a field on a perfect summer morning or felt that split second of human flight when horse and rider leap across a fence?
Martin didn’t have time to clarify the urgency of the situation with the firefighters. He knew seven horses, including his international event horse Neville Bardos, were still trapped in the blazing barn. He took matters into his own hands.
“My livelihood was stuck in that barn,” Martin said a week after the fire. “I tried to get a tank and mask from one of the firefighters, but the fire chief wouldn’t let me, so we came to blows. I raced into the barn and got to Neville, although I didn’t know it was him at the time. He was gurgling and coughing and splattering.”
Dutton, Martin’s longtime supporter and eventing legend, helped him drag Neville to safety. The two men ran back into the barn in an attempt to rescue more horses, but it was too late. The others had already suffocated, succumbing to the thick black smoke billowing from the barn.
Six horses lost their lives in the fire that night: Faye Woolf’s Call Me Ollie, Henley House Stables’ Charla, Lillian Heard’s Ariel, Kimberly Golden’s Phantom Pursuit, Bonnie Stedt’s Cagney Herself and Anne Hennessey’s Summer Breeze W. The five surviving horses were taken to New Bolton Center in Kennett Square.
“The whole week (following the fire) was depressing,” Martin said. “Every minute of every day you’re thinking about the fire and the horses you lost and the people who are affected. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to wake up in the morning.”
Lillian Heard, Martin’s working student, was sleeping in the apartment above the barn at the time the fire, which investigators believe was accidental and possible started by a hay steamer, began to rip through the barn. She smelled smoke around 12:30 a.m. and sounded the alarm.
"Getting Neville out of the fire was the best thing I've ever done. It might have been the stupidest thing I've ever done, but it was a wonderful feeling rescuing him," Martin said. "If Neville never did another thing in his life I would still be happy."
Photo credits: AK Dragoo Photography LLC
While Heard and Martin’s other working students, Ryan Wood and Caitlin Silliman, were able to save four horses from the blaze, Heard lost her own mare, Ariel, in the fire. Heard, Silliman and Wood lost all their possessions, as the apartment above the barn where they lived was declared a total loss, and were treated for burn wounds.
A crushing feeling of defeat followed Martin into the weekend of the Waredaca Horse Trials in Maryland, where his eventing team pulled together what little emotional and physical energy they had left to compete. Martin, whose horses are stabled in a number of locations, described his first competition following the fire as “awkward.”
“So many people didn’t know what to do, whether to hug me or talk to me about it or pretend like it never happened,” Martin said. “It was a such a horrific week, but my real enjoyment in life is jumping and competing horses, so it was good to get back to that and start to move on.”
Little did he know that his team and supporters were conspiring that weekend to help him take a huge step toward emotional recovery.
The Turning Point
Just days before the fire, Martin had tried a promising four-year-old Irish Sporthorse at Phyllis Dawson’s Windchase farm in Virginia. Martin loved the horse, a gelding named Starbourne by Windchase’s stallion Brandenberg’s Windstar, and told Dawson he would work on putting together a syndicate to purchase the horse.
Dawson understands the horrible nature of a barn fire all too well, having watched her own barn burn to the ground in 2008, albeit without any loss of equine life. Upon hearing the news of the fire at True Prospect Farm, Dawson was “horrified.”
“When we had our barn fire, we were able to get all the horses out,” Dawson said. “But it was so close to being deadly that it was very vivid in our minds what could have happened. It’s every horse owner’s worst nightmare.”
Dawson knew another rider was interested in purchasing Starbourne, but she had already given the first refusal to Martin, who was preoccupied with the aftermath of the fire.
Remembering the Horses that Died in the Fire
Call me Ollie was an 11-year-old Holsteiner/Thoroughbred gelding owned by Faye Woolf. Olympic eventer Becky Holder found the gelding five years ago in a Minnesota field as a wooly, untrained 6-year-old. Holder campaigned him from novice all the way through the CCI** level. He came to Boyd Martin just two months ago, debuting with his new partner at Jersey Fresh a few weeks before the fire. Martin had big plans for Ollie, who was described as lovable and personable by all who knew him.
Summer Breeze was an 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood/Australian Thoroughbred mare owned by Anne Hennessey, a half-sister to Martin’s beloved Schatzi W. She was sired by leading eventing stallion Staccatto and imported from Australia in November 2009. Summer Breeze won a division of open training at the Southern Pines Horse Trials II in March with Martin aboard.
Cagney Herself, a 9-year-old Irish Sporthorse mare, was the tallest horse in the barn at 17.3 hands and by far the only one that Martin’s long legs didn’t dwarf. Owned by longtime Martin supporter Bonnie Stedt, the mare was in training at True Prospect Farm at the time of her death. She had just won a division of open training at Fair Hill in April with working student Caitlin Silliman.
Charla was an 8-year-old Holsteiner / Thoroughbred mare owned by Henley House Farms. She had recently completed the CIC** at Fair Hill in April. Martin described her as a horse with incredible natural ability in both dressage and jumping, an ideal candidate for eventing.
Ariel, owned by working student Lillian Heard, was a 5-year-old Dutch Warmblood from Canada just beginning her eventing career. A beautiful dapple grey mare with a striking presence, she was supposed to compete at her first one-star in Bromont the week following the fire.
Phantom Pursuit, or “Finn,” as he was affectionately called, was owned by Abbie Golden and previously competed with Martin, completing the advanced level at Rebecca Farms last year. He was currently competing at preliminary level with Golden at the time of his death.
But Bonnie Stedt, a longtime supporter and part owner of Neville, stepped in to save the day. Stedt had just lost her horse Cagney Herself in the fire, but she told Dawson she wanted to use the insurance money from the loss to buy Starbourne as a surprise for Martin.
“After the fire, I decided that’s how I could most help him,” Stedt said. “Rarely have I met two people who demonstrate such honesty, compassion and kindness to horses as Boyd and Silva,” Stedt said. “I am thrilled to be a part of supporting them in any way I can.”
When Martin noticed Starbourne on Dawson’s trailer at Waredaca, he walked up to give him a pat, still totally oblivious to the fact that he already owned the horse. Dawson handed him the lead rope and announced, “This is a present from Bonnie.”
“I was in total disbelief,” Martin said. “I knew he wasn’t supposed to be competing that weekend. But it also made sense because I had told Bonnie I really liked him. I burst into tears, basically. It was quite a moving experience, because Bonnie’s horse died, but she’s still willing to put her hand in her pocket and help me get back on my feet. It was great motivation.”
Picking Up the Pieces
That gift horse, now renamed Quinn Himself, became a turning point for Martin, who knew he owed it to himself, the surviving horses and the rest of his team to pick up the pieces. Now his sights are set on rehabilitating the horses, who were all injured in the fire, especially Neville, who has severe burns in his throat from smoke inhalation.
“There are not many cases of burned throats,” Martin said. “It’s not like with a bowed tendon or a broken leg where they can tell you how many months it will take to heal. With this, the vets at New Bolton have nothing to compare to, so no one really knows.”
Martin plans to take Neville’s recovery day by day, working with vets to ultrasound and scope Neville’s throat to check the healing progress of the burns and x-raying his chest to check for soot and smoke in his lungs. Already, Martin and the vets at New Bolton have been stunned at Neville’s rate of recovery.
“He has a true fighting spirit,” Martin said. “When the going gets tough on the cross country course he has the ability to dig deep when he’s tired. He’s showing the same sort of determination now in his recovery.”
Martin and Neville originally had their sights set on competing at Burghley in England in September, but the chances of the horse recovering quickly enough to make the trip are slim. Martin hopes Neville might be well enough to compete in France by mid-October, but admits he will be thrilled if the horse simply makes a full recovery.
“Getting Neville out was the best thing I’ve ever done. It also might have been the stupidest thing, but it was a wonderful feeling rescuing him,” Martin said. “If Neville never did another thing in his life, I would still be happy. The main thing is to have him here with us. But something inside me tells me he still has more to give and we will see him competing on an international level again.”
Support from ‘Family’
The eventing community and the whole of the horse world have watched with bated breath as each of the five surviving horses were released from New Bolton within two weeks of the fire. The outpouring of donations and support from people all around the world has both shocked and encouraged Martin.
“That’s what I love about America and horse people,” Martin said. “They understand what it’s like to lose a special friend. I lost six in one night, and without the emotional support from the eventing community, our recovery would take so much longer.”
Martin received countless phone calls and emails and more than 150 text messages in the days following the fire. Eventing great Jimmy Wofford called him the morning of the fire, letting Martin know he was welcome to take any of his equipment. Show jumping legend Katie Prudent sent Martin a horse to train in his program as a way to encourage him. Eventing superstar Bruce Davidson visited with Martin the week of the fire to give him a pep talk.
“It was quite moving and humbling to have people go out of their way to reach out to you,” Martin said. “For Bruce to make an effort to talk to me was very inspiring.”
Stedt, who fell off her horse and broke her shoulder a week after the fire, also visited regularly with Martin in the days and weeks following the fire. She said that although she knows he is “completely devastated,” she also knows Martin will refuse to let himself be defined by this tragedy.
“The fact that he ran back into the burning barn to save Neville is a testament to true horsemanship,” Stedt said. “Once you have a horrible day like that, the good days seem great and the bad days don’t seem quite so terrible.”
They say time heals all wounds. Martin and the rest of his team will never forget the horrible tragedy that claimed the lives of six horses, but, eventually, the emotional and physical scars will heal.
“In time, I’ll get back on my feet,” Martin said. “I’ve lost the wind in my sails for now, but it won’t be like that forever.”
How to Donate
As Martin and his team cope with the fire aftermath, he faces the loss of more than $100,000 in equipment and a third of his business. All donations will go to the medical bills for the five surviving horses first and then to helping Martin rebuild.
To donate to the fire relief funds, visit www.boydandsilvamartin.blogspot.com to access the PayPal links. Donations can also be accepted by mail to The American Horse Trials Foundation, 221 Grove Cove Road, Centreville, MD 21617. Please note “Boyd Martin” on checks.