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an equestrian’s tale

I was born in Cardiff. Although my father was a greengrocer, he had always been associated with horses, and my granddad before him.

a first jump

During the 1940s war, my father must have made a couple of bob in the greengrocery business and he also worked in the Fire Brigade on Cardiff Docks. He bought a farm out in St Arvans, milking cows. That was his dream, and when we moved from there, and after a small stay in Caldicot, father bought this estate here, big house and everything. We’ve farmed here ever since.

Farming was a way of life, but it wasn’t where you made your money! He was always associated with horses, bought and sold horses. When I was very young, with a lot of Welsh ponies that weren’t broken in, I used to be the jockey who used to get on them and this, that and the other, and that went on for quite a long time.

I got bucked off so much, I think, by the time I was about six, I got fed up with that and I retired. I’d had enough but, about 18 months later, there was a little pony that came here and I quite liked the look of him, and so I decided to have another ride, and it sort of kicked in from there.

First time out was with my father, and we hadn’t moved off from the meet very long and he was going to jump into a cover, and he said to me, “Well, you better go up that field there, into the next one. You get to the gate and you get into the cover that way”. I said, “Where are you going?” He said, “I’m going to jump that post and rails”. I said, “Well, if you’re going to do it, I’m going to do it!”. And damn if we didn’t jump it and stayed on the pony when we landed and that was the first time I ever jumped a fence.

After that, because we were always buying and selling ponies, we always used to sort of try them all out, and we found ponies that were of exceptional talent, brought them on. First I had them and then my sister had them and my other sister had them, and we used to go all around the shows in Wales.

There used to be a lot of shows in Wales in those days, up the valleys and down Carmarthen, Cardigan and all that, and we learnt our trade doing that, really. I mean you ride three ponies in a day. A couple of shows I went to, there were only four in a class and I had three of them and I finished up jumping nine clear rounds and the only break I had, the little rest as it happened, was because we only had one saddle. So, every time I came out of the ring, father would have to chain the saddle onto another pony and that’s when I could have a breather. You learnt your trade then.


Father was unbelievable. He helped train the ponies because I was a bit lazy in those days, and he would know how to feed them. If the pony was getting a bit tired at a show, he’d give it another handful of oats that night, and he would do all those things. It would go on for another 30 years after that, I think, my father’s influence on me. If you think that, with my sister – she’s probably one of the top lady riders of all time – he didn’t do a bad job with the pair of us, really.

He just understood horses and he was just such an influence on us. I remember years later when I was 30, I went to the World Championships. I had a very difficult horse called Beethoven to ride, and the first day, we didn’t do very well. And the second day, he got up and he rode the horse in the morning before I rode it in the afternoon, and we won that leg and we won the next leg, so we finished up in the final. My father was just so unbelievable, the way he could work a horse. I was damn lucky, I tell you that.

role models

It was then, during those shows, we met Harry Llewellyn, later Sir Harry, and I saw Foxhunter. Father actually beat him one day in a little show down in Langston, with a cob he used to drive. Pat Smythe, the great Pat Smythe, used to live just up in Gloucestershire and she used to come down to shows like Abergavenny and Monmouth, and we’d see her ride. I think she was just an inspiration for everybody because, I mean, she could ride and she was beautiful to watch. She made it look so easy and so, you know, you learnt your trade. You saw Pat Smythe ride and you thought, “Damn, that’s as good a way of riding as I’ve ever seen”, and you watched her go and tried to interpret what she was doing.


Father bought a horse for me called Wildfire. It cost £60. It was a bit of a naughty character. He could jump and I hit it off with him and I could have been in the British team in Dublin in 1959 but my father wouldn’t let me go. I’d have been 19 and the horse that year actually finished up top horse in Britain. My father said, “It’s no good going abroad if you can’t win”. He decided that I wasn’t good enough at that point, so we weren’t allowed to go. The horse was just a jumping machine. Then, the following year, we were earmarked on the shortlist for the Olympics, and I can remember people saying, “What do you think of the Olympics?”. As a young lad, the only training I had was from my father, so you didn’t get involved in any training sequences or anything like that, and I remember saying, “My father thinks it’s a good idea to go to the Olympics”. Can you imagine anybody saying that these days?

So, we went on a shortlist, and there was another horse that turned up called Sunsalve. There were a couple of jockeys that had it before me, and I had it about six weeks before the Rome Olympics (1960). After one disastrous start at Church Village – there’s a place for you, in Wales, up by Pontypridd, little show there – took him there, on a Saturday, got eliminated and disaster! Anyway, I saw the organisers.
They left the jumps up and we went in at the end of the day and we managed to get him round, a sort of real clash of mentalities, really. He wanted to do what he wanted to do and we wanted him to do what we wanted him to do … and I think we won. We got him round, and the next day we went to the White City and three days later we won the King’s Cup. So, he overtook my other horse as preference to go to the Olympics, and he was probably one of the greatest Olympic-type of horses you’d ever come across, Sunsalve.

The Olympics are terribly, terribly special. They are the one-off, they are the one that the sports editors judge you by, they’re the yard-stick. I mean, we had a World Championship not so long since and the British team won nineteen gold medals. They never even made the national papers, and that’s a very sad reflection. With the Olympics, every sports editor’s there. You’ve got the world at the window, waiting to watch you, so it is very different and very special.

rome 1960

Father drove the horses out there and the rest of the team flew. Father had said, “No, we’re not flying them. They’ve never flown before”, so he set forward with a friend of mine, David White, and they set stall and they drove the horses. They would pull up at a farm somewhere, come about four o’clock in the day – nothing was organized – they would go and see a farmer and see if they’d got a couple of stables and this that and the other. I remember on the way home they managed to get some stables in an abattoir. They got them all bedded down beautifully and they got into bed in the lorry. And then they thought, “What happens if they come in a bit early? I could have two horses hung up by the time I get up”. So, they had an absolute panic and slept outside the stable door that night.

In Rome, well, first of all you have walk the course, about half-past-six in the morning, and that was a bit of a culture shock for me, you know. You get up about half-past-five, you have your breakfast, you go down, you walk the course.
You think, “Blimey, this is big!”. They had a combination there that was absolutely ludicrous. It was not particularly the height of it, it was the distance, the striding, and you jumped in, you took one stride, jumped the middle bit and then they actually had one and a half strides to the third bit which doesn’t happen now. This was an absolute naughty thing to do by the course builder. Anyway, I said, “This is impossible”. They said, “You’ve got to take two short strides in there. It’s the only way you can do it”. So, in I went, the first round, and I came down slowly, jumped the first bit, jumped the second bit, went to go for two strides, he went for one stride, took off, straight in the middle of it. I wasn’t the only one that day. There were seventy-two poles broke at that fence. Halfway through the competition, there they were underneath the stands, busy painting poles to get the right colour.

I had sixteen faults, in that first one, doom and gloom, end of story, and I was probably lying about 20th, then. You’re only there for the experience or whatever, so we’re doing the second round, same course, came round the second fence, right by the in-gate. I’ll never forget it. He popped out. I thought, “My father’s going to kill me!”. So, I got myself together and I got hold of him and off we went. We came round for this combination and I thought, “To hell with it. I’m going to do it my way”.

Now my dander was up, so I went in strong, done the one stride, jumped the middle bit, and I took one stride and this horse, he just jumped like that and cleared it on the one stride. There was only two horses in the whole competition who did it that way. So, we had seven faults in that round, twenty-three in total, so there we are, doom and gloom. It was very early to go. I sat under the stands, hot day in the Piazza de Siena, and, as everybody did their second round, you said, “This one had four faults. He’s got to have five down to beat twenty-four”, and, damn, he’d have five down, and this that and the other. And then, the ones that came that had had a clear round and he had two down, I think, so he only had eight faults on the two, and then the other came in and I think he finished up with 16 faults on the two rounds, so he was second still. So, I’m in third and you couldn’t believe how the excitement started to build up. Wait a minute, I could be in with a bit of a shout. In the end, I actually finished up third with twenty-three faults. That was a real shot in the sky.

Then, come the Sunday, in the morning, we moved from the Piazza de Siena – which are beautiful gardens in Rome – into the Olympic Stadium. The show-jumping used to be the final competition of the Olympic Games. It was a big course. I’ll never forget it. I went down and jumped about half past eight in the morning, 5,000 people there. Had a couple down, no problem. Come the afternoon, about quarter-past-two, went in for the second round, 120,000 people there, and you walk in from about half way up the stands and then a long ramp in. Well, neither my horse nor me had ever been before 120,000. I hadn’t been in front of 10,000 people let alone 120,000, and you walk into this bowl and I died a death. I mean, you talk about nerves setting in. I cantered round to the first fence and, in our jargon, I missed him, you know. You didn’t get your stride right and he popped another stride in, jumped it and I thought, “Broome, if you don’t alter your act, you’re going to get killed”, and I pulled my act together and we got going. I think we jumped the only clear round in the whole competition after that, but one of our other members had got eliminated, so we weren’t in the run-up for the team medal at all. That was a great disappointment, but that horse was unbelievable, and I think it was about the last time I ever decided I was going to be nervous in the ring. There’s no future in it. You’ve got to be in charge of your horse. You’ve got to give him confidence.

I always believed after that, when I went in the ring, the only thing I had to worry about was the way the horse was going, because, if he wasn’t going right, we had no chance anyway, so there’s no point in getting nervous or worried. You might get a twinge of nerves an hour beforehand, but come the competition, forget it. Just get in and ride your horse. That was enough.

When I went to Rome with Sunsalve, I suppose his style of jumping was a bit like the gay cavalry and, being a 20 year old, I went with it. If I’d had him when I was fifty, I would have tried to retrain him. It would have been a total disaster. He liked to think he was running away with you and I was quite happy to let him do that. He wasn’t actually but he thought he was, and I think we cut a bit of a dash to be honest with you, doing so well at the Olympics.

This was a horse. I mean I had never had any exposure before and we were fresh on the scene. People fell in love with the horse. I had a very good Horse of the Year Show after that, and I managed to win Sports Personality. But I didn’t attach too much attention to it.

a leg each side

The biggest thing in our sport is having a good horse, and they do vary an awful lot, but if you can get one of them rare ones that are top boys underneath you, I tell you, it makes a difference. You’re in the premier league before you start. I’ve been very, very lucky over the years, probably had six or eight absolute dinger lingers! At one time, out of the ten top horses in the world, I had two of them. I tell you what, that makes life easy.

What my father handed me down really, you know, was, “A leg each side, face the front, don’t get in front of the ears and kick on”. You’ve learnt your trade and you’ve learnt to be sympathetic, I think. I’ve got probably quite a nice way with horses. They understand me and it’s a bond between you. I always consider my job on a horse is to present him to the jump in the most economical way for him to jump it, but you’ve got to understand how every leg is clicking, how the shape of his body is, how he’s going out, how he’s cantering to put him to the very spot that he can jump it as easy as he can. Right now, you see some horses jumping with this much to spare over a fence, but when you get to the Olympic Games, I mean the jumps are enormous. Now, what you can’t do is give one of them enormous jumps that much room because they’re jumping seven foot over fifteen jumps. Well, they can’t do it.

I remember Mr Softee. He went to the Mexico Olympics (1968) and the distance, again a combination, was very long out, the third part was an oxer, so wide, and I didn’t think he could make it. It was the first time in his life that he’d been asked to do something that he couldn’t do, and he gave his best but he failed by about four or five feet. His front legs came down before the back pole, so, in fact, his neck caught the pole. And the second time – you wouldn’t want to do it too many times like that – he’d say, “Hang on. This is not much fun, you know”. He just didn’t have the physical ability to jump that fence.

Not all horses are lovely sweet animals, of course. You can get some who’ll give you a boot and never do whatever right. The good ones, they want to please you. It’s up to you to have them disciplined. The happiest horse in the world is the one that’s well disciplined. If he’s got negative thoughts in his brain, then he’s not going to give you his best, so you make everything nice for him. If he’s doing something a bit naughty, you work him to take that out of him, so that he’s only wanting to please you, and that makes him a happy horse, and that makes a successful horse.

mexico 1968

There, we had a different problem. I’d been to Tokyo four years before and my preparations with the horse Jackapo were totally wrong, because we went out there about two or three weeks early. Now, as horse people, we’re used to busy lives, to be fair. When you’re at the Olympic Games, the only thing you have to do is get up and ride your horse. Here, every morning you are down the stables half-past-seven or whatever it is, get him out, ride him round, give him a little pop, this, that and the other. I concluded in the end, after the Games, the horse didn’t realise that I didn’t need him until two weeks on Thursday, so to speak. So, I got him and jumped him and prepared him and everything. We had a practice run the week before the competition. A very normal horse this one was. He wasn’t a superstar. He jumped exceptionally well and it was only a warm-up class and the week after that he got worse and worse and worse, and I realized, then, afterwards, that I prepared him wrong, because he kept thinking the competition is tomorrow, the competition is tomorrow. It’s a lesson I never forgot.

In Mexico, we were up at 7,000 feet, getting acclimatised. I took the spare horse in case anything went wrong with the other, and I used the spare horse to get my energy gone, and I kept the good one. My girl rode it every day which would be normal for me at home. So, I prepared myself on Beethoven and in the warm-up class, but he wasn’t the one I was going to use the following week. It was Mr Softee, and we had prepared him like we would have done at home to go to a show away, and we got it right because he was on his top form in the two competitions there, and he came third the one day and then four days later he was the top horse in the team class. But, sadly, one of our team members again had got eliminated, only starting three. Team dead! And we were, like, 50 faults in the lead at the time, two thirds of the way through the second round! For Harvey and me, Mr Softee was the top horse at that Olympic Games, and he didn’t get the credit he deserved. I mean, we were this far from a gold medal.

We were heartbroken. It could have made a big difference winning that gold medal. Harvey was in good form, Mr Softee was in phenomenal form and we were walking it and, you know, to finish up with nothing when it was there, the gold medal, are you with me? You don’t get that chance very often.

I had a good life anyway but the gold medal would have been the cream on the cake, I think. Sir Harry Llewellyn, he was part of the winning team in the ‘50s on Foxhunter and it never left him, did it? He lived off it all his life, really. It would have been lovely to have had it and it would have been good for Harvey, too, you know, the two of us to have won, two old boys.

world championships

We went into the World Championships in Venice on the way back home from the Olympic Games in Rome, again with Sunsalve and I finished up third.

I was only 20 and that wasn’t so bad and when we came to the World Championships in La Baule in 1970, my good horses had gone and the next lot were in the middle, and I just had a horse called Beethoven, quite a difficult horse this one, but he managed to get me into the last four.

We’ve got a stupid format for our World Championships. We do something to be World champion that we never do any other time. I don’t know whether any other sport is as crackers as what we are. Over three or four days, you jump your hearts out, then the top four people go into a final where they ride each other’s horses on a rotation. It’s madness, and my horse being quite difficult actually helped me, because I could ride him and the others were terrified of him. Lady Luck went with me, and I finished up winning it.

We had a very good team in those days. We’d won the European the year before, and we won the World Championship the following year. We were unbeaten. I don’t think any team has ever done that since, but, you know, when you ride the crest of a wave what the hell!


Europeans as well, four golds, three silvers, I believe. I won my first European gold with Sunsalve in 1961 in Aachen in Germany, horse jumped phenomenal. Aachen for me, it’s the biggest show in the world. It’s where every championship in the world ought to be. They have 60,000 people there every day, facilities are superb, there’s nothing better anywhere in the world, and this horse just went phenomenal. To go there as a 21 year old and sort of pop the Germans, there’s a bit of kick to it, really.

Then, after that, my father got Mr Softee for me. He was just the most superb workhorse, in inverted commas, you’d ever get. He just rose to the occasion, and I won the Europeans on him in ’67 in Rotterdam. ’68 we went to Mexico with him. In ’69, we were back in Hickstead and I always said, the format, the way it worked then, you had to go against the clock a few times.

Mr Softee done one round of eighteen jumps, numbered, against the clock and then the second round, twelve against the clock, absolutely faultless. Put the Germans in their place, again. People who saw that, I believe, were privileged. To see a horse that could jump that number of fences against the clock, under pressure, and never put a foot wrong. It was magic.

But my favourite was a horse called Sportsmouth. We had him when he was four years old and he was just one of them. He was just like a pal, so intelligent. I think he was a lot of people’s favourite horse at the time. He was a gentleman, kind and gentle, a lot of ability, and always gave his best. Lovely little horse.


Unfortunately, there’s no Wales in the equestrian world. It’s Britain, or sadly they call it England, but I mean it’s the whole lot together. We always thought it was a bit sad. The Commonwealth Games in Cardiff? Where’s the show jumping, you know? But it’s not to be. It never has been.


I had a lot of good horses, but, towards the end, I kept putting my britches on and not feeling terribly comfortable about it. You’d go out there and you’d walk the course and there’d be 18 year old girls with you, and you’d think, “Well, hang on a minute, I should have moved on from here by now.” I just didn’t feel comfortable with it. I just thought, “I think it’s time I gave up.”.

I think I was very lucky, I made the decision and I won a World Cup class in my last year. I beat Michael Whittaker against the clock and I mean Michael is a brilliant rider and I clipped six hundredths of a second off him in the jump off. We were having the presentation and the proprietor came to me and said, “David, there’s a bit of a problem. We can’t find your National Anthem. Do you mind hanging on a minute?” and I said, “No, as far as I’m concerned, I can stay here all night”.

I knew I’d never win another big one. That was my last one. But, I think to win a World Cup in a last year, that’ll do.

harvey smith

Harvey came down from Yorkshire, I came up from Wales. He was a very quiet little lad, never said boo to a goose, but then, around about that time, Freddy Truman came on the scene, didn’t he? Fiery Freddy and Fred was true to his own, wasn’t he? Harvey kind of based his character on Fred and so he changed an awful lot and he became the aggressive Yorkshireman. And we were great mates.

I have to say about Harvey, he was probably the best loser I ever travelled with. He could get over his disappointments. I mean, when I had disappointments, they wouldn’t leave you, you know what I mean? They live with you and you have a rotten night, and this, that and the other. Harvey was brilliant. Five minutes after he’d had his disappointment, things had gone wrong, he was there, bubbling away.

But, I tell you one thing, he was the worst winner, because when he won a class he was damn cocky. He was nearly impossible. We got used to each other, and he’d probably tell you a lot of rotten things about me. I think we were good for each other.


I got a very nice wife out of it, didn’t I? Graham Fletcher’s sister, Liz. Very fortunate that. I met her the first time at Todmorden in Lancashire, in a little show there, and I got her to ride. We were a groom short. We had three in a class and a groom got her to ride one of the horses around. So, that was the start of it, and then I invited her down to the Horse of the Year Show, and that’s how it all happened, really. We got married the following spring.

I was very lucky because I was never a drinker. It didn’t bother me at all. I’d have a glass of wine but it would be one glass. It was very rare. I probably got tipsy about three or four times in my life. I don’t like getting a bad head and I never thought it would improve my riding anyway. It was always instilled in us, my father said, “If you want to go out partying, you go out partying in the damn winter when you haven’t got the horses with you. Don’t let them suffer because you’ve got a bad head.”.


You have to think back to those days. There was one channel on the telly, BBC, and we, as a sport, we were on 9.15 to 10.45pm, two or three weeks in a year. Our exposure was second to football. These days, they wouldn’t get that. There are so many other sports now getting so much television. Things have changed.

Way back in 1970, we were winning quite good prize money and it was an old thing – if you were an Olympian competitor you shouldn’t be making money out of it – and we were kind of borderline at the time. As we said, the horses won it and blah, blah, blah. Our president of the international team was Prince Philip and he thought that he would set an example to the rest of the world by saying how you lot are professional and the rest of the world can follow. So, in a way, he made us all professional after the ’72 Olympics. But, sadly, the rest of the world didn’t follow.

So, having become professional, we were left out on a limb for two or three Olympics, and it was only after that that they brought us back in again, as amateurs under the modern term.

We missed three Olympics and in those three, all right one was the Russian one, the Moscow one, which was a bit of a no-goer, but Montreal was a monster. The competition there, the course they built, the poles were this big and the fences were enormous. I think I was pleased to miss that.


Touch wood, I was always very lucky. My brain worked quite quickly, you know. You’re riding up there, you’d be on top of the horse, and my father always said, “You’ve never fallen off until you hit the floor”, but I think there comes a point when you’re on your way, you think, “This is it now, we’re on our way”, and my brain will work quick enough, the first thing, feet out of the stirrups, because the last thing you need is your feet in the stirrups, so you lift your feet up and you kind of duck your shoulders, depending on the fall, duck your shoulders and roll, get out of the way.

I broke my leg a couple of times, although I never did a collar bone, a shoulder or anything like that. Horses are different. I mean, they would break down, tendons and suspenseries, and all that sort of thing, and, you know, they hamper horses’ careers quite a lot. But I was very lucky.

One of the things that helped me make my decision to give up was I could always phase my fall. Every part of it I was in charge of, within reason. At the end, when I was fifty, I’d be lying on the floor and I’d think, “Well, first of all, how did I get here? What happened?”. There was a total blank from me going over the fence to me lying on the floor and I thought, “My brain has slowed down an awful lot. It’s time I got out of this”. It just didn’t tick over quick enough when crunch-time came.

For horses, too, when they haven’t been good enough, they stay at a level, and they finish up jumping in their happy zones. The very good ones, who’ve been good pals, they’re retired. We kept Philco, we retired him. We went to Gothenburg and we got halfway there and he wasn’t very well and the vet said, “He has a bad heart. You better have him checked out when you get back.”. We left him in Denmark, went to the show, picked him up on the way back, and came home. The vet came and had a look at him and confirmed that he had a dodgy heart. It was missing beats, so we retired him on the spot. He lived for another sixteen years. He died when he was thirty-two, on the farm. You get so affected by them. You’re pals.

It’s not a good day when they go, but very rarely does it happen overnight. They have a touch of colic and the vet comes out and he says, “Tendoning”, and you know it is never going to get better. The lovely thing was the old vet that we had in those days, he’d say, “You know he’s never going to get better. He can’t go out of his stable and you have to make a decision”, and I’d go away for four days and the vet couldn’t put him down. He was that involved with the horse. He’d say, “Do you mind if I get my colleague to do it?”. Even the vets get like that on the good ones.

They’re in different places. We know where they are. Manhattan, he died at a horseshow. He had a heart attack. He fell down on top of my leg, just went and flopped after he’d jumped.

I remember old Ryan’s Son at Hickstead, in the Derby. He died going over a fence, but usually they’re retired. Mr Softee, in his seventeenth year jumping, seventeen year old, I found that he wasn’t getting his scope back, and I went to St Mellon’s Show with him, down by Cardiff. He came second and I rung his owner that night and I said “Mr John, Softee’s had two clears today. He went very nice but he’s not getting it back”. And he said, “That’s okay, we’ll retire him”. And he lived with a donkey, then, up in their farm, up in Doncaster, for about another ten years or more.


The other day, I went to Llanybydder sales, down in Cardiganshire, near Lampeter. I used to go down there with my father when I was nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, and eight old boys came up to me and said, “I can remember you coming down here with your father”, and they said it very affectionately. “I remember you standing over on the end there”, and I was very touched by it. This is fifty years later, you know, sixty years later, and these old boys can remember it, and you’ve obviously left a little bit of an impression on them.

I think it’s lovely that we do have people who lead us forward, you know. You see these Welshmen, they’ve always come from a slightly, I don’t know why it is, a hard background and tough and everything, but they come through and, you know, bully for them.


It’s a lovely sport, any aspect with a horse, you know. You have to relate to the animal, it brings the best out in you. If you’ve got this lovely relationship with a horse, you forget your troubles. You’re having a bad day, go and have a ride on a horse and he’ll look after you, he’ll lift you. And I don’t think you have to be jumping seven foot jumps to be enjoying your horse. You can stay in your own comfort zone and it’s just as much fun. We have people come here for the Cricklands experience, jumping small fences and they’re loving it. I get a lot of pleasure seeing people enjoying the sport at a level they can do it. Not everybody can have a horse that jumps seven foot but they can enjoy what they do. I always tell them that. Come to a show. The most important thing is you’ve enjoyed it. Look after your horse and he’ll look after you.

Without a doubt once you’ve had horses in your blood, you’ve had it, really.

Three words to describe myself? A bit fat and lazy, I think! Three words? I’ve been very lucky!

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