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From Wildfire to the world stage……. David Broome

Tuesday, 23 June 2020
FEI Interview

Photo © FEI archive. Great Britain's David Broome and Mister Softee on their way to individual bronze at the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968. Photo © FEI archive.

 

Text written by Louise Parkes for the FEI 

 


 

When I called David Broome last Tuesday he had been haymaking at Mount Ballan Manor near Chepstow in South Wales which, apart from being the family farm, is also home to the hugely popular Wales and West showgrounds. 

The legendary British showjumping rider is deeply rooted in his home place. His parents, Fred and Millie, moved to Mount Ballan in 1947, and all four of their children - David, Liz, Mary and Frederick - had a passion for horses from an early age. David’s grandfather worked for a veterinary surgeon in Pembroke (Wales) and his father, Fred, was an experienced horseman and a well-known pony dealer. David recalls his introduction to the saddle and his first, very early, retirement.

“Father had me riding when I was about two years old, using a harness out of a pram with a buckle in front, a buckle behind and buckles on both sides. As time went on the buckles were removed and I became number one jockey when he was breaking Welsh Mountain ponies, but I got bucked off so often that I retired from the sport when I was five!”

However two years later everything changed with the arrival of a pony called Beauty. “I took a fancy to her so I started again, and my career kind of went from there!”, he says.  

 

Ponies

Fred was always on the lookout for talented ponies for his children. “The ones we kept were good, like Ballan Lad who had a run of 28 clears. Every one of them cost 60 quid (GB Pounds) and I had a great career in 14.2s. There were about five shows in which I jumped three clear rounds on all three ponies in the same class. We only had one saddle, so I could have a little breather while the saddle was being changed over!”

David told his teachers at Monmouth Grammar School that he wanted to be a veterinary surgeon, but it wasn’t true. Working on the farm and riding horses was what really appealed to him but he knew they wouldn’t approve of that. “I left school when I was 17 and the horses were there and one thing seemed to follow another,” he says.

“My first year in seniors I had a couple of horses my father used to ride. And then we bought one called Wildfire from the Monmouthshire Hunt that was next door to us - also for £60. He was stopping (refusing at fences) but he had competed Eventing. We straightened him out and he was a hunter hireling in the winter and then we started jumping the following spring. I’ll always remember our first show at Glanusk, there was a triple bar away from the collecting ring and we got eliminated. If ever there was a fence to test a stopper that was it. So my father said, ‘that fellow has just one more chance’. We went to Stowell Park the following week and on the second day he won three classes out of three!”

I’m loving how this man still treasures these early achievements in a career that was nothing less than glorious.

 

Wildfire

I ask him to describe Wildfire. “A 16.1hh bay gelding with a swishy tail, ears pinned back and a sour look, but he and I had a great relationship and he busted a gut for me”, David says. A rule-change worked to the advantage of the partnership because when time was introduced into the sport then Wildfire really came into his own. 

“It used to be that three clear rounds decided the result, but when we started jumping against the clock I was made up. Wildfire was really sharp, a thoroughbred with plenty of speed and a beautiful bouncy canter you could adjust. Against the clock he was just heaven! He put me on the road, he was Leading Horse in Britain in 1959, and then he got me on the Olympic team until Sunsalve came along”, David explains.

His ability to get along with tricky horses is well-documented, and when I ask David about that he says he owed a lot to the experience he gained during his pony-riding years. “I had three ponies and they all went entirely differently. One galloped on and scotched up (shortened) when he got to a fence, he just couldn’t do a one-striding double in one stride so he always took two so I always had to milk my way through a combination. The second one was a very old-fashioned one, you set him up and you had three strides to get your bumph (distance) to it, and the third was a short-tailed cob called Chocolate who just went on an even keel the whole way around. I was so lucky because it trained me to ride three different ways”, he points out.

 

Big names

So who were the big names in showjumping when David was moving up the ladder in his career? “Pat Smythe, Harry Llewellyn and Alan Oliver, and then I eventually ran up against Harvey (Smith) when I was 19.”

The tough Yorkshireman Harvey would become one of the most popular and colourful characters in the sport in years to come and the perfect foil to the quiet but determined Welshman. So how was it when they first met at a show in Northampton? “I felt total respect really, he was self-made, hardworking and we became great friends outside the arena. But inside it was bloody hellfire!”

What was their rivalry like? “He made me better, and hopefully I made him better as well. With a lot of good sportsmen you need two of them in the game at the same time so they push each other. 

"He was one of best losers I ever came across because if he was having a bad time then five minutes after he left the ring he was absolutely normal again. But when he was a winner it was a very different story because he was the biggest pain you’ve ever come across - he’d say we were all useless and that none of the rest of us could ride!" David says with big laugh.

It was a twist of fate that saw Wildfire being replaced by Sunsalve for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. “We had one of our Olympic training sessions at Ninian Park Football Club in Cardiff and Pat Smythe had just been given the ride on Sunsalve. She won the class and I think I was second, and on the way home my father said ‘Pat won today, but that horse will never go for her again’. It was a strange thing to say after someone has won, but he was a real horseman and he’d seen something and he was right. From there we went on a European tour to Wiesbaden (GER) and Lucerne (SUI), and Sunsalve never did go again for Pat.  

 

Sent it back

“So the Olympic Committee said the horse was useless and sent it back to the owner, Mr Anderson in Norfolk. As it happened, in our pony trade we had a lady in Newmarket called Ann Hammond - we sold her 465 ponies over the years. And when we were at her place a couple of weeks later my father asked if she knew Mr Anderson and she said she did. She agreed to introduce us, we borrowed her car and set off for his little farm and father and he got on like a house on fire! Mr Anderson had bred the horse and his daughter had ridden it and won the Queen’s Cup with it. In ten minutes, over a cup of tea, he had given Sunsalve to us”, David explains.

It wouldn’t be all plain sailing to begin with. “Ten days later we went to a show and he went well, but at the next event I took both Sunsalve and a little horse called Discutido and they were both eliminated in a £20 class! So my father asked if the organisers would leave the jumps up after the Musical Chairs (a novelty class always staged at the end of horse shows in those days) and we schooled both of them afterwards.

“Four days later Sunsalve won the King's Cup (King George V Gold Cup) at the White City, the following week Discutido won the National Championship and the next week I won the Grand Prix in Dublin with Sunsalve”, David recalls.   

That was followed by the Olympics in Rome where the individual competition was staged at the beautiful Piazza di Siena where David and Sunsalve clinched individual bronze while host-country heroes Raimondo and Piero d’Inzeo took gold and silver.

 

Team final

The team final took place at the Olympic Stadium a few days later, and Great Britain was among eight countries to be eliminated while Germany, USA and Italy topped the podium.

David remembers that day well because he learned something he’d never forget. “When I jumped the first round in the morning there were about 8,000 spectators but when we came back for the second round in the afternoon there were about 120,000 and I couldn’t believe it! When the bell went I cantered down to the first fence and missed it (got the stride on approach wrong) because I was all nerves. But luckily the horse got me out of it and I pulled myself together and he went clear after that. I decided that day that nerves don’t do you any good, and apart from getting a few butterflies an hour before the King's Cup or something like that nerves never affected me again. I decided when you go in the ring the only thing you have to worry about is how your horse is going, nothing else will help you, the occasion has nothing to do with it. That stood with me for the rest of my career”, he says.

The King's Cup, the Grand Prix trophy in Dublin and the Olympic bronze medal in Rome were already in the bag when David and Sunsalve headed for the World Championships in Venice (Italy) where they also claimed individual bronze. 

“I was so lucky to have Sunsalve when I had him, I was just 20 at the time and when I rode him I let him gallop on and the horse thought he was doing it his way. If I’d had him later in my life I would have tried to change him and he probably wouldn’t have been a tenth of the horse that he turned out to be. I’ve ridden a lot of horses, but he was THE Olympic horse. He jumped like a deer, his jump was unbelievable”, says the Welshman.

 

Sports Personality

There’s a wonderful YouTube clip of David being presented with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award for his 1960 achievements in which, clearly to David’s astonishment, Sunsalve is brought into the studio and he is legged up onto the horse in front of the equally astonished audience. Showjumping was prime-time viewing in Britain at the time, and this award gave the sport an even bigger boost.

David’s CV is beyond staggering. He claimed individual bronze again at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico riding Mister Softee and World Championships individual gold with Beethoven in 1970 as well as team gold with Philco in 1978. His European Championship record includes a double of golds with Mister Softee in 1967 and 1969, team silver with Philco in 1977, team gold in 1979 riding Queensway Big Q and team silvers again in 1983 and 1991 riding Mr Ross and Lannegan. 

And then there is the coveted King George V Gold Cup which he scooped six times on six different horses. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s it was the ultimate class to win, and it’s such a beautiful trophy”, David says. The first time he won it with Sunsalve he kept it for six months on a shelf just inside the front door of his house. But as the years went by it became near-priceless so by the time he claimed it for the final time in 1991 he handed it over to his patron, Lord Harris, “because his security was a bit better than mine!”, David says.

 

Then and now

I ask David to compare the sport back then to the way it is now. “Jumps are nowhere near as big nowadays. We had one oxer in Mexico, the front pole was about 5ft 4ins (1.64m), it was a 6ft 6ins (2.1m) spread, and the back pole was 5ft 8ins (1.76). Only two horses jumped it in the whole of the Games, I’ve never seen a fence like it before or since! When Olaf Petersen came along he changed the sport so it became more technical, and that saved it in a lot of ways. The only thing is we’ve now gone away from testing horse’s bravery and I think something needs to be done about that. In showjumping the narrowest fence is 8 feet (2.43m) wide, but in eventing it’s four feet (1.2m) so why not have some narrow fences and test rider’s control of their horse”, he suggests. 

David was hugely influential in the establishment of the FEI Jumping World Cup™ series. “I won the Grand Prix in ’s-Hertogenbosch (NED) - there were only six or eight indoor shows in those days -  and I thought we need to have a final for all these indoor shows.

“We had formed the International Jumping Riders Club around that time and Prince Philip was President of the FEI and thought it was a great idea. He invited us to send two representatives every year to the Bureau Meeting at the General Assembly to air views and make suggestions which was a great breakthrough, so I went along with Eric Wauters. I spoke to Paul Schockemohle and he said I know a man that will sponsor the series, Mr Gyllenhammar from Volvo, and then Max Ammann jumped on the bandwagon and took it over and that’s how it all started”, he says. 

 

Favourites

Asked to name some of his favourite venues and events, David replies, “I always love the day of the Aga Khan Cup (Nations Cups) in Dublin, Rome just because of where it is, Olympia (London) because it’s probably the best indoor show but Aachen these days is the number one venue in the world. If they had the World Championships there every year I don’t think anyone would complain!” he answers.

Who were the opponents he most admired during his career? “Well Harvey because he was always the man to try to beat because he never gave up. Alwin Schockemohle because he was the ultimate professional. He would be second-last to go in the jump-off and go into the lead but when he came out of the ring he’d give his horse two or three minutes settle-down work while the last horse was jumping. Everyone else would be jumping off their horse to watch the last one go and hope they didn’t beat you. But not Alwin, he’d quietly school his horse ready for tomorrow. He was a real horseman. His technique for having horses leg-to-hand, having them supple, well mannered - he was superb. I always admired him and he is the loveliest man. 

“And Rodney Jenkins, I watched him warm up Idle Dice at Madison Square Gardens in New York and he trotted down to a 5ft 6ins rail and the horse just popped it. The Americans' position in the saddle was always fantastic. We started off in our careers doing acrobatics, but the Americans were always perfectly balanced. Bill Steinkraus - his legs never moved, and you only get that style if you have the horse going correctly”, he points out.  

 

Proudest moment

David’s proudest moment comes as a bit of a surprise, “when I won the Foxhunter (Novice Championship) with Top of the Morning jumping the only the clear round at Wembley”, he says. And what’s his advice to competitors in the sport today? “Remember that you don’t necessarily win more the more often you jump”. 

In recent years David’s attention has turned to the Wales and West showground at Mount Ballan Manor which hosts many events throughout the year including a hugely popular Home Pony International. “It has been the second part of my life”, he says. “My father wanted to build the Welsh version of Hickstead so he started about five years after Hickstead was created and I like to think we’ve been successful. We run a happy show, it’s now organised by my sons James and Matthew and they do a great job and I’m proud of them”. 

Reflecting on his sparkling career David concludes, “I was a farmer’s son and horses have taken me around the world. I’ve been lucky in so many different ways, I was very lucky to meet Lord Harris who supported me from when I was 30 onwards and I’ve had some wonderful horses and some great sporting days. For all that I can only be eternally grateful.”

 

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