Posted by Catherine Austen ● 01 April 2020
EquiRatings Hall of Fame: #2 Bruce Davidson Snr.
When I telephone Bruce Davidson, I get a snapshot of his character immediately. I have never spoken to him before, and possibly I ramble a little on the transatlantic call, nervously, explaining who I am, what EquiRatings is and what the Hall of Fame is. Will he do this interview, and record a podcast with Nicole Brown and me?
“Uh huh. Yes.”
It takes about seven more seconds to fix a date to record.
“No, I’m hunting that day. The following evening at 7.30pm.”
That’s it. No messing about. Straight and to the point.
He’s not at all rude – when we record the podcast, answers all our questions politely, with charm and in full. It’s just that when you’re 70 years old, you’ve got 14 horses in the barn to ride, you’ve got a cabinet overflowing with medals and your list headed “first rider to…” goes on for half a page, you know you’ve got absolutely nothing to prove to anybody.
The only rider to win back-to-back World Championships. The first American rider to win Badminton. The record number of wins – six- at the Kentucky Three-Day Event (and he’s the reason it even exists). Fourteen times USEA Rider of the Year. It’s a hell of a CV.
“I always wanted to ride,” says Bruce. “My mother was horsey and you have to remember that her family grew up before the automobile, so they would always have had horses to some extent. But I, as a child, was most taken with them. We lived in the country on a farm [in Westport, Massachusetts], and my family supported me, my grandparents helped me out – so yes, I had a pony and started riding when I was very small.”
He joined the Pony Club, and started a lifelong enjoyment of foxhunting. As a teenager he was buying a young horse a year, schooling it over the summer and selling it in the autumn, and it was at school in Maryland that he discovered Eventing.
“I went away to boarding school between the ages of 13 and 17, and we had inter-school competitions,”he explains. “But I just wanted to ride – it didn’t matter what kind of riding it was, I just wanted to learn how to be the best rider I could.”
He studied veterinary medicine at Iowa State University for two years, but, aged 21, he dropped out to ride full-time. It was the legendary Hungarian showjumping coach Bert de Nemethy who first really spotted Bruce’s talent, just before Jack le Goff came on board as coach of the US eventing team in 1971. The following year, 1972, Bruce made his team debut at the Munich Olympic Games and was part of his country’s silver medal-winning team.
“That first Olympics was just an eye-opener to how much more I could do given the time of a long life,” Bruce says. “I never went out to achieve recognition; I just wanted to learn how to ride.”
His experiences in Munich fired his determination to reach higher, achieve more, ride better. And to that end, he came to Britain in February 1974 with his new wife Carol – they had been married for just a month – and a horse apiece to aim for that year’s World Championships, to be held at Burghley.
“In the UK at that point they had one-, two-, three-, and four-stars, with Badminton and Burghley being the four-stars. But in America, if we had one three-star a year it was wonderful. Sometimes it was in the spring; sometimes it was in the autumn. Usually, it was in relation to getting the equestrian team ready to compete at whatever was about to happen, whether that was the Worlds, the Olympics, or the Pan-American Games. So the calendar here was nowhere near what it was in England,”he says.
“I’d had some success here and wanted to jump in the deep end. When I got married in 1974, we spent our first year in England – both to get away from my in-laws and to get my wife away from her in-laws! It meant we could both have a year to ourselves. So we took our horses, and we did Badminton and then I went ahead and did Burghley.
“I had a base there, and for over 15 years I went for half a year. I went back to England for a long time; I made many wonderful connections and friends, and it was always a great experience. It was one of the great building experiences of my life. Because I’d been very successful here in the US I wanted to up the score and go where the competition was harder, and that’s why I travelled there. If my horses were going to do all that work and try that hard, I wanted people to understand how neat they were.”
Bruce brought Irish Cap and Carol brought Paddy over to the UK, and based themselves with Lord and Lady Hugh Russell at Wylye in Wiltshire, where Bruce set a demanding schedule of work for horses and humans alike that made Badminton their spring goal. There, sadly, Carol and Paddy were eliminated across country, but 10-year-old Irish Cap went superbly and finished third.
Irish Cap, unsurprisingly, came from Ireland and stood 17.2hh.
“He was named after Cappy Smith, who was my mother-in-law’s cousin,” remembers Bruce. “The way he came over was that Cappy had actually bought quite a nice jumper from a farmer in Cork, and the farmer said, ‘You have to take this other horse with it.’ That was Irish Cap. He was four or five and had literally never been touched, no halter or anything. It took two days to get him and when he did get here, he was difficult to sell because he was scared of people and he was a great big horse. My grandmother bought him for me, and I spent a lot of time getting him trained and tamed. He was a marvellous, marvellous horse, and he changed my life, didn’t he?”
Bruce began many friendships that year in England that would last him a lifetime. Ginny Elliott – the first member of the EquiRatings Hall of Fame – is six years younger than Bruce, and clearly remembers being in awe of him when she went to do cross-country training with Lady Hugh Russell at Wylye.
“But he was so kind, and so helpful to me – I’ll never forget it,” she says.
And Lucinda Green was so impressed by Irish Cap’s Badminton performance that she asked Bruce to draw up an interval training programme for Be Fair, her 1973 Badminton winner – something almost unheard of in Britain at that time.
Bruce says: “The English friends I made – and still have – were a great help and a great support, telling us where to compete and so on. It was wonderful, and again, the whole reason I wanted to be there was to broaden my knowledge of horses, sport, and everything else.”
In September, Bruce and Irish Cap aced it at Burghley. The cross-country was the toughest he had ever seen, but after cross-country only Mark Philips and Columbus – the Badminton winners that spring – lay ahead of them. But Columbus had slipped a tendon off his hock, and Irish Cap went into the final showjumping phase in the lead. Crashing straight through a practice fence was hardly the ideal warm-up, but it did the job as once in the ring, the pair were faultless and America won individual – and team – gold.
“He did everything all weekend long exactly as he was asked, and he executed everything as good as he possibly could,” says Bruce.
They returned home as heroes.
“What I learned and what I saw, particularly at Burghley, was nothing like anything we’d been exposed to here [in the US],” says Bruce. “That was my dream – to put as much effort as I could into making the sport that important here, as well.”
And that World Championship title did just that. In those days, the next country to host the championships was that of the winner of the individual gold medal so, for the first time, in 1978 a major three-day event was held in Lexington, Kentucky and the Kentucky Horse Park was founded. No wonder there is a life-size bronze statue of the man behind the grandstands of the main arena.
Irish Cap gave Bruce a team gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, but by the time those 1978 World Championships came along, there was a new face in the barn. A big, raw grey with a large head, he was called Might Tango.
Highly talented but temperamental and tricky, Might Tango started 1978 as a seven-year-old Preliminary level horse with hardly any eventing experience. He ended it as World Champion.
“It was a lot for a seven-year-old – but it’s like knowing when a horse is ready to run a race, and time isn’t going to make it better,” says Bruce. “He was game, he was sound, he was brave, he was athletic, and he was unconventional – and that was going to remain his style. I knew him well and we got along, and so it worked out.”
In fact, although he hadn’t really competed, Bruce had spent the past two years working hard on the horse at home, finding the key to the former racehorse. He was fit and hard, and once he started eventing at the beginning of 1978, the horse soaked it up like a sponge.
Irish Cap went lame, and so the new kid on the block made it on to the US team for Lexington. Might Tango and Bruce lay in 11th place after dressage, with the home side just one point ahead of Germany in the team rankings. A brilliant cross-country performance round a track that decimated most of the field – including America’s dressage leaders, Mike Plumb and Laurenson – gave them the lead.
However, it wasn’t in the bag yet – Might Tango had anhidrosis, meaning he wasn’t able to sweat normally, and he nearly collapsed at the end of the cross-country. He needed urgent veterinary help to bring his temperature down, and thankfully he recovered fairly quickly and passed the trot-up the following morning.
More than 70,000 people came to watch the showjumping, for which the course was probably unnecessarily long and demanding. Might Tango hit two rails, but it was enough to hold on to gold, with John Watson – father of Equiratings’ own Sam – taking silver for Ireland.
Two World Championships, two horses, two gold medals.
The Kentucky Three-Day Event continued, and Bruce won it a further five times – in 1983 on JJ Babu, in 1984, 1988 and 1989 on Doctor Peaches, and in 1993 on Happy Talk.
Bruce says:“When I was just starting out in my early 20s, people didn’t think that the equestrian way of life was a way of life. When I rode more than one horse, people thought I was just being ridiculous.
But when the Kentucky Horse Park started, to have it be so wonderful and such a fixture in our calendar, it wasn’t just good for the sport here, it was good for the sport everywhere. The [now] five-star level began to spread out beyond Badminton and Burghley, and Kentucky was the first one to do that. That was wonderful; it was what I’d wanted to do, to help the sport grow and become more than it ever was.”
There were many other good horses, many other victories, many other medals – 10 major championship medals in total. In 1995, he won Badminton, the first US rider to do so, with Eagle Lion.
Bruce chuckles as he relates: “He never had a rail down; he was always in the time; he always finished on his dressage test. He did 14 five-stars in his life - he was an amazing horse. He was a real cheeky bugger and had lots of tricks, and there was nothing like him. He wrote the book on how to jump. You could jump anything – he had his own set of eyes, but he’d listen to you. He was a real joy. But I’m afraid I felt that about all of them!”
Apart from a heart-stopping moment when they tripped coming up out of The Lake, Bruce had a “foot-perfect” ride round Badminton. They had been fourth the year before – and fourth at Burghley – but this time they were the winners of the most prestigious three-day event in the world.
In his lengthy career, Bruce has taken time to enjoy and learn from other equestrian sports, as well. He loves racing and has done plenty of race-riding.
“I’ve ridden in the Maryland Hunt Cup and in lots of point-to-points, and rode in amateur races in England. I had horses with [triple Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning trainer] Henrietta Knight for a couple of years in England, and I won an amateur race at Cheltenham,” he says with pride.
“I wanted to ride in the Grand National and bought a horse for that reason, but he had a leg injury and never quite made it there. I was tempted to go into racing full-time and we discussed the option of staying and living in England. If I had done, I think I would have been involved in the racing a lot more. I loved it, and my experience was wonderful.
“In 1974 when we kept the horses in Bathampton, we lived and shared one of those cottages for two families. Chris Bartle was in the other half. He was having his gap year and his Dad had given him two point-to-pointers. Ian Dudgeon was the trainer and we lived in the other half of the cottage. We rode out with Ian every morning before we went to Bathampton to do the event horses.”
Asked whether he believes that real horsemen and women don’t confine themselves to one equestrian discipline, he replies:
“For me, I wanted to know horses. I didn’t want to know just one aspect of them – I want to know horses. If you’re very good at what you do with them, I want to learn more from you. I don’t care if you ride English, Western, whether you race or jump or do dressage or endurance – there’s something you learn from everybody.”
He feels strongly that experience from time spent in the racing world is invaluable to aspiring event riders.
“One of the issues as far as safety goes is knowing how to gallop a horse, and what type of bridle you need to wear to go cross-country and be safe. By safe, I mean the horse can’t be afraid to jump because the bridle is too much. I don’t think the younger generation spends as much time learning how to gallop a horse, and how to relax a horse at the gallop.
“I’d advise young people just go and ride out for somebody in the mornings. Do two or three sets of racehorses and get comfortable holding a horse, and holding it in line, and going at the speed you’re supposed to go at, and realise that the speed you’re going at isn’t really all that fast.
“Also, learning how to school [over fences] – part of the issue today is that the way that courses are laid out, you have so many areas where you have to circle and have to slow down so much that you have to go very, very fast at some of the straightforward fences in between. There’s not as much rhythm as there used to be. So I think now, horses are being rushed over fences and people and horses don’t have that kind of experience. It’s part of the safety factor that we need to consider. For me, if all the younger eventing riders would do a bit of work in a racing stable and learn how to shorten their stirrups… if you watch a lot of cross-country, you’ll see that so many young riders ride with very long stirrups. Most of them don’t have any galloping experience.
“Blyth Tait, Mark Todd, Andrew Nicholson – all of them have galloped and trained racehorses. Anyone from my generation did it to some degree. It’ll also just plain improve your condition, which is so important in this sport.”
Bruce continues to compete young horses to this day.
“I don’t necessarily compete at a high level any more – not because I don’t want to, but because the horses get sold before they go much more than intermediate,” he says. “But I’m lucky; I’m still very comfortable riding, and I break in the young horses myself. My son doesn’t like me doing that anymore, but I don’t mind it.”
His son is, of course, Bruce Davidson jnr – Buck – who has taken on his father’s competitive mantel. At that Lexington World Championships in 1978, after his victory gallop, Bruce snr dismounted, took off his gold medal, hung it round Buck’s neck and they walked out of the arena, hand in hand.
He jokes: “One of the sad points in my life is that Buck doesn’t like his father’s Thoroughbred horses, he likes to ride his own [type]. At my stage, the one thing I want is my own son helping me out and riding my horses...
“He says I’m the hardest person in the world to ride for. I think he means that as a compliment! It’s quite fun, because now my lot of young horses are getting older and they’re competing a lot more, and I’m just going to make them nice enough that he has to want them.”
There’s plenty of life in this legendary old horseman yet.
Listen to the podcast with Bruce in full here.
Topics: Hall of Fame