Neville Bardos is a horse that needs no introduction. Born in Australia in 1999 at the famous Woodlands Stud in Scone, New South Wales, Neville was sired by the New Zealand Thoroughbred Mahaya and out of an Australian Thoroughbred mare, Zambia. Although bred to race, Neville was a bit of a dud on the track. He raced nine times as a 3-year-old under the name Hurtle at the Kembla Grange racetrack and was thereafter retired from track racing and offered for sale.
Meanwhile, in 2002, Boyd Martin was just getting his own equestrian business off the ground. “It was when I was just starting out my business in Australia,” Martin recalled, “and my business model was buying cheap off-the-track Thoroughbreds that were too slow for racing and putting a bit of work into them, building them up a bit, taking them to a show, and then selling them on for a profit.”
Martin had a broken leg at the time, and so he had the chance to watch his friend Gordon Bishop ride Neville around a bit. “I liked the look of him,” Martin said. When Bishop said he didn’t want him, Martin piped up that he’d take him. “He was $900 and we negotiated him down to $850. A good deal! But after a couple of days, I thought it might not have been a good deal because he ended up being a wind sucker and he was hot and fiery. I nearly tried to get my money back, because he was not the horse I’d witnessed when I first saw him.”
It’s lucky Martin didn’t sell him back, but he didn’t know that yet. “He was half-mad, to be honest,” Martin said candidly about the early years retraining Neville from the track. “I remember the first time we took him off the property, it was to a schooling jumper show and he got off the trailer and got loose and bolted through the jumping ring with his boots and his blanket on and his halter and lead rope. We couldn’t catch him for about 20 minutes.”
Martin admits that he didn’t like Neville much at the start – “he was too much hot horse,” he said – but because he was so hot, it was a difficult prospect to sell him on. “I was kind of stuck with him. But horses are a funny thing – because we couldn’t sell him, we just kind of kept going with him.”
And then, just about when Martin had Neville going at the Preliminary level, something happened that changed Martin and Neville’s trajectory. “The jumps got big enough where it would back him off a bit,” he said. “As time went on, he began to settle down.”
In 2006, Martin took him in his first long format CCI2* (now CCI3*-L) in Melbourne, complete with roads and tracks and steeplechase. After the endurance phases and onto the 9-minute cross-country course, Martin said that he could feel how tough, athletic, and resilient Neville was. He “roared around” to win the event. “It was the first time I realized that I had a really, really good horse. He’d been a real headache leading up to that, but then all of a sudden, I realized I was on a good thing.”
In 2007, Martin made the move to the United States with his wife, Silva, and a couple of his most promising horses, including Ying-Yang-Yo and Neville, and began working for fellow Australian Phillip Dutton. At the time, Neville had just completed his first CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) in Australia, and Martin thought it would be handy to have an Advanced horse in the barn.
While the larger fences certainly kept Neville entertained, it didn’t take away from his fiery personality, and Martin recalled some hiccups as they found their feet in the States. But things did eventually begin to smooth out, and that fall Neville and Martin were fourth in the CCI3* (now CCI4*-L) at Fair Hill International.
In 2008, at the age of 8 (his actual birthdate is in August), Neville ran his first CCI4* (now CCI5*-L) at the Kentucky Three-Day Event, finishing ninth in his first attempt at the level. “In hindsight, it was a mistake,” Martin said. “I feel like even though he had the talent and ability to go around Kentucky, it was a bit too early in his career and I think I paid for it later – he would have had a longer career if I could have been more patient.”
After Kentucky, Neville didn’t compete again until the following fall, when he ran a single Preliminary level event before stepping back up to Advanced at Morven Park, finishing in fifth. Just two weeks later, in the CCI3* (now CCI4*-L) at Fair Hill International, Neville and Martin took home the win, and the USEF National CCI3* Championship title. By that time, Martin had claimed his U.S. citizenship and was competing for the United States with his eyes on making the team for the FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010.
Neville improved on his first performance at the Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2010, this time finishing in fourth place. That result landed Neville and Martin a spot on the U.S. team for the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, where they finished 10th individually on their dressage score as the highest-placed American rider. At just 11 years old, Neville was showing he had what it takes to compete against the world’s top horses.
The following spring, Neville was on stall rest for a shoulder strain after finishing second in the CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) at Red Hills International. At 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 31, the barn Martin was renting at True Prospect Farm was destroyed by fire. Neville was one of the five horses who survived the blaze, the last horse pulled from the burning barn by Dutton, dragged by his cribbing collar.
“He had smoke inhalation and burns and was in intensive care at the New Bolton Center for a bit,” Martin said. When Neville came home, at first they weren’t sure what he might be capable of, given the extent of the damage to his lungs. But Neville proved to Martin just how tough and resilient he was. Martin started him back in light work, just to see what he might be able to do, and from there they took things one step at a time. “Each day he looked better and better.”
“I always wanted to ride at Burghley,” Martin mused. But with only three months between the fire and Burghley’s start date, getting Neville ready would be nothing short of a miracle. “He’s such a tough, eternally fit horse and a natural athlete. It was a tough decision because if it didn’t work out you’d be the cruelest person in the world, but I knew Neville could easily do that event, even if to me it was the hardest event in the world.”
So, three months after the fire, Neville and Martin flew to England to compete in the Burghley Horse Trials. They were one of just 10 combinations to finish inside the time that year and finished seventh overall.
Neville finished strong at Burghley, and so the tentative plan became to shoot for a place on the U.S. Team for the 2012 Olympics Games. With that in mind, Martin took it easy with Neville, saving his legs for the Games. “In hindsight, that was a mistake on my part,” Martin said. “There were a number of big events including Kentucky and Badminton where he was fit and raring to go and I was just saving him and waiting, and then we flew to England and he was just a bit rusty by then.”
Martin took a tumble off of Neville in their final selection event at Barbury Castle, and it took nearly 30 minutes to catch him. Unfortunately, Neville came up lame after that, and that put an end to their Olympic plans.
Martin described that time as “the beginning of the end” for Neville’s upper-level career. “All the miles on the clock started catching up to him. Looking back on his career, he raced really hard as a 2-year-old and early 3-year-old on the ground in Australia and then was brought up to run his first CCI4* [now CCI5*-L] as an 8-year-old. I was ambitious and hungry and at that time in my life was so competitive, and that was a mistake. He’d done a bunch of four- and five- stars and he’d worked hard and his heart still wanted to go but his body didn’t want to do it anymore.”
At the end of 2012, Neville was diagnosed with arthritis in his neck. He ran an Intermediate in the spring of 2013 with Martin but was then diagnosed with a suspensory strain. Neville didn’t reappear at an event until two years later, in the spring of 2015, this time with a new rider – Mike Pendleton.
Pendleton had been working for Martin since January of 2013 and began working with Neville when he was put back into work in November of 2014. The following spring saw them out competing, first at the Novice level and then at the Training level. Boyd ran him in a couple of Preliminary level events later in the spring, but again, Neville’s heart might have wanted to do the job, but his body just wasn’t up to the task anymore.
So, Martin put together a new system for Neville – he would go out into the field for a few months at a time and then periodically come back in to be ridden by one of Martin’s working students. “Over the years I’ve had kids that worked for me who didn’t have a horse and we’d pull him out of the paddock, put some shoes on him, work him for six months, and then throw him back in the paddock.”
One of those lucky students was Joe Bowersox. “It was incredible for me to be able to ride him for a little bit,” he said. “I was in between horses at the time and Boyd said, ‘I have this chestnut horse you can ride if you want,’ – at the time, I didn’t know he was talking about Neville. One day he was up in the barn and I thought, ‘Okay, cool!’”
Bowersox never competed with Neville, but they did a fair amount of schooling at Windurra. “It was more of a learning experience to just get to know him – I was only 16 when I was riding him and it was a chance to get some miles.”
Other than teaching Bowersox to be ready for anything – he described Neville as still “a bit of a nutcase!” – Neville taught him how to deal with a “big personality. He knew how to do everything, and even though he hasn’t done the upper levels in a while he still remembered it all. He was the ultimate teacher.”
Shelby Fromm began working for Martin in the late summer of 2019 as an assistant groom. She had just graduated from Montana State University and she’d always wanted to work for an eventer, so when she found out that Martin was hiring she applied and was invited to come work at Windurra. “I did not have a horse at the time and I really just wanted to focus on learning the ins and outs of a top level eventing facility, so I had no expectations of riding other than occasionally helping out with trot sets, hacking, etc.,” Fromm said. “When conversing with Boyd before making the move to Windurra, I explained to him that I did not have a horse, and he mentioned an old horse he had in the field who was a ‘good ole boy,’ one who could teach me a lot.”
That horse turned out to be Neville. “I had no idea who Neville was – none of his back story with the fire, none of his triumphs and tribulations,” Fromm admitted. “I hopped on Google and looked him up and was blown away by his story. The more I learned about him, whether through inspiring tales or through my own experiences working with him, the more I realized just how incredible and unique he is. I don’t think I’ve ever known a horse with more heart, or grit.”
“Just as I hadn’t expected to ride every day – let alone a retired champion such as Neville – I certainly didn’t expect to have the opportunity to compete. After slowly bringing Neville back into work, Boyd started making passing comments here and there about taking him to a show. Of course, I thought the prospect of competing Neville was pretty exciting. Who wouldn’t? But I don’t think I ever truly expected it to become a reality.”
In January 2020, Neville took Shelby to her first ever USEA recognized event at Stable View. She described cross-country as a “wild ride! I don’t think I was fully prepared for how excited Neville would be to be back in the game. I came off course and Boyd said, ‘It looked you like you were going Preliminary speed out there. Were you trying to slow down?’ And I said, ‘Yes I was trying to slow down, the whole time!’ I think Neville would have run forever if he’d had the choice.”
Fromm managed to slow Neville down at their next two events, both at Novice level, even finishing in third place at the Pine Top Spring Horse Trials right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Fromm ended up moving home to Montana during the pandemic, but still thinks about Neville all the time. “It’s been nearly a year now since I last sat atop Neville, and although it’s been a while I still think about him every day,” she said. “He’s not the kind of horse one is likely to forget! I miss him very much, and I’m so incredibly grateful for the opportunities I was provided with Neville. He is truly the horse of a lifetime, and I will never forget my time with him.”
Right now, Neville is out in a field at Windurra in Pennsylvania, but Martin said it might be time for his kids to try taking Neville for a spin. “They’re 5 and 6 years old now, and they’ve got this tiny little pony,” Martin said. “They’re starting to ride a bit better now, so maybe they’ll take him over. It’ll be a good education for them!”
At 22 years old, Neville still isn’t ready to spend his retirement out in the field. “He’s not the sort of horse that does well just completely chucked out,” Martin observed. “He loves to be in work and be the center of attention, and he’s still got a bit of juice left in those legs.”
The USEA Horse Heroes series celebrates equine athletes who have contributed to the sport again and again, competing with multiple riders at the upper levels of the sport. Do you know of a horse hero who deserves recognition? Email your tips to [email protected].
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Attention USEA members! Registration for the 2022 USEA Annual Meeting & Convention is now open! The convention will be held in person on December 7-11, 2022 at the Hyatt Regency Savannah Hotel in Savannah, Georgia.