The Comeback Mount

Neville Bardos &
All the Wild Horses

Perhaps that’s the kind of news about horses we’ve been longing to hear for quite some time now. For, as only those galloping on the same track know, these have been particularly stablefull of bad news times for equines of all strides.
From corruption and drug overuse at race tracks, to being rounded up and shot in the Middle West and abandoned to starvation in Ireland, horses have been getting it pretty rough lately.
Then, along comes Neville Bardos, an Australian thoroughbred, who’s been twice at the final line but managed to come back and win prizes and hearts in both sides of the pond.
To be sure, this is as much a story about the horse as it is about Boyd Martin, who bought the 7-year old for only $800, off a truck heading to the glue factory in Australia, in 2006.
The son of a U.S. Olympic speed skater and an Australian Olympic skier, Martin instead became known for his “drunken visits to tattoo parlors and horse auctions, from which he always returned with an unintended purchase,” according to a trade publication.
Not this time, though, or what a turnaround. In five years, the horse nobody wanted, and the rider who couldn’t run straight have written one of those stories full of arcs of redemption and second-chances so dear to Hollywood. Except that in this case, it’s all true.
Martin had had solid performances on different mounts at many prestigious events, such as the Rolex Kentucky and the 7th Pau CCI, in France. But none better than when riding Neville Bardos.
With the chesnut gelding, Martin came in fourth place at the Rolex, and, his crowning achievement, 10th place at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Ky.), the top U.S. placement in the competition.

Their performance at the Fair Hill Cross Country, a U.S. Equestrian Federation championship event, was one for the books. That’s the same type of gruesome competition that doomed beloved Superman actor Christopher Reeve in Virginia in 1995.
For Martin, though, his reputation fully restored as the 2010 Eventing Horseman of the Year, the next step was to prepare for the 4th Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials, in September, and next year’s Olympics Games, both in England. But something else was in store for him and his mount.
At 12:30 a.m. on May 31, a fire killed six horses and destroyed Martin’s barn at Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pa. The last to be rescued, Neville Bardos was among four survivors and went straight to the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the University of Pennsylvania, for a long and painful recovery.

Despite a terrible burning of his esophagus and wind pipe from smoke inhalation, that old Aussie and Martin came in seventh in the Burghley‘s dressage test, a cross country course many consider one of the hardest of the circuit.
Whether this reject from Australian glue factories and his partner, the formerly underachiever heir to two world-class athletes, still have in them to make a mark at the London games, remains to be seen. (Horses have a way of sneaking into the national conscience few other animals do. For more on that, see Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Cigar and so many others).
But what they’ve already accomplished, however impossible to quantify, has been almost enough to chase the bad news out of recent headlines about horses, whether in competition, post competition, in the wild or simply out of luck.
So far, their story even managed to makes us forget the heartbreaking about Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky winner whose injury at the Preakness caused a nationwide wave of support and grief, until he was euthanized in January 2007.
The Greek mythology tells us that Pegasus, the winged white horse of mythical legend, was instructed by Zeus to bring lightning and thunder from Olympus. Horses have since inspired poets and generals alike for their strength and seemingly unbound drive to freedom.
A recent discovery in the Arabian Peninsula indicates that these majestic animals were first domesticated about 9,000 years ago, earlier than previously thought, by a still unknown civilization.
The al-Maqari, as it’s been named, built many statues of animals, including a three foot-tall bust of a horse, which is the first such monument dating back to that time.
All these centuries later, most news about equines has been far from reassuring. An unexpected consequence of the successful campaign to ban slaughterhouses for horses in the U.S., for example, has dominated headlines of lately.
Horse meat processing plants began to operate across the border, in Mexico and Canada, to meet demand from Europe and Asia. That’s the final destination now to about 140,000 horses a year, some picked up after being abandoned, some just sold cheaply to professional buyers.
These squalid but still graceful animals, that once used to roam free through Nebraska, Montana, the Dakotas, Missouri and other states, now sometimes die of exhaustion and starvation during the unforgiven trek toward foreign slaughterhouses.

Compound that with initiatives that seek to round up and shoot wild Mustangs all across the West, one can safely say that the U.S. has become, in the span of a generation, a terrible place to be a horse. But it’s not the only one, of course.
In The Saddest Ride, we told you about the fate of abandoned horses in Ireland, whose owners can no longer afford their upkeep and set them free to roam the countryside. It’s not hard to imagine what happens next, as many organizations in defense of their welfare have discovered.
Many drop dead in extremely cruel circumstances, their carcasses serving for nothing but dangerous bonfires set up by communities of that other kind of homeless, down and out humans.
Thus, we have become a less than safe company for these ancient allies, who helped us conquer new worlds, build cities, sow the earth, and be inspired by their spirit and speed.
Luckily, some 400 of them have been protected by geography and a conservationist project, the Sable Island Mobile Project. A brainchild of photographer Roberto Dutesco, the project aims at creating itinerant museums set in natural places, to shelter these magnificent animals.
The island, located some 200km of Nova Scotia, is also known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, for the almost 500 shipwrecks it caused since the early seventeenth century, and its natural isolation has been a bliss to its feral population.
As Dutesco’s iconic pictures and films capture the serenity and otherworldly beauty of the horses of Sable Island, there can’t be a better way of ending this post.
At the end of the day, we do owe these animals our deepest sense of appreciation, if not on the account of their graceful existence, then for everything they have contributed to enrich our history on this planet.

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