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January 30, 2012

The Reluctant Writer Eats Her Words

Burnout, illustrated. While international equestrian journalism might seem glamorous, it actually looks like this more often than not. Photo by Kat Netzler.

I had a love/hate relationship with the idea of Boyd Martin being our 2011 Overall Horseman of the Year. Not really so much with the idea of him actually being it—I was adamant that no one was more deserving of the title than he—but more with the idea of actually writing the story.

Our Overall Horse and Horseman of the Year pieces are always gargantuan undertakings, sucking a lot of time and energy at a point in the year when our mental gas tanks are already below E. Now don’t get me wrong—Boyd’s a great interviewee, and more importantly, a good person who I always enjoy talking with. I just really, really did not want to take on that 5,000-word tome—especially over Christmas break, and especially after writing about Boyd ad nauseam all year. And all last year. And the year before that.

“Ughhh, what if it’s totally boring?” I whined to my co-workers. “What more could I possibly say about him?” For that matter, what more could he possibly say for himself?

At the Chronicle, every writer talks to every rider at some point, but in general, on the stuff that really counts, we do tend to have “our people,” and for all intents and purposes, Boyd is one of mine. I don’t remember the first time I ever interviewed him, because there have been so many now that they all run together, just like the stories.

And yet, when I considered passing this assignment off to someone else in the futile hope that I might be able to catch up on just a few of the 147 other things on my to-do list, a little pang inside stopped me. I don’t know what it was—guilt, territorialism, the previous night’s burrito, perhaps. But whatever it was, I knew I just couldn’t turn down the opportunity to tell the story of what this incredible horseman endured and defied this year, even if I’d already told it what felt like 15 times.

And boy am I glad I didn’t. Just minutes into our interview, settled in some comfy leather chairs at the hotel bar during the USEA Annual Meeting and Convention in dreary December, I realized how wrong I’d been. Boyd had plenty to say for himself—and plenty I’d never heard him say before.

When I talked to Phillip Dutton about Boyd, he told me how much he missed having him around the barn, and how they laughed less without him there. “He’s optimistic all the time, and he’s always fun to be around,” Phillip said.

And that’s certainly true—I laughed a lot during our interview. Who wouldn’t, when someone’s animatedly recreating the tale of how he broke his leg in nine places at a dressage show in the Australian Outback and rode for hours in an ambulance only to be placed in a hospital room with a criminal handcuffed to his bed and monitored by two armed guards?

That entertainer side of Boyd’s personality is the dominant one, by his own admission. But as he sat there in front of me talking about things like losing his father and how much his relationship with Phillip has meant, pausing sporadically to fight back tears, I saw a very different side of him—one we rarely get a glimpse of from any rider.

“I might be a fun, happy guy out in public, but there are of course moments when you’re by yourself and thinking about everything, and you realize you’ve had a little part of your soul ripped out,” he told me.

When we parted, more than two hours and several beers (Diet Cokes for me) later, I practically ran to my room. I hadn’t had the “I must write” sensation in months, maybe years. But when I sat down at my computer, the story immediately started to write itself.

The final product is a piece of work I’m proud of, but one for which I feel a little uneasy taking praise. Yes, I molded the frame and polished up the finish, but the story itself could never be called mine. It’s all Boyd’s. 

In the weeks after I’d finished the piece but before it came out in print, I read with trepidation similar ones in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Equestrian. It’s scary—or at least nerve-wracking—to find yourself competing with other media outlets over the same story.

“Did this writer get something better than me?” I panicked every time. “Do their quotes sound too much like the ones I’ve used? Why is this structure so similar to mine?! What if people are tired of this story by the time mine comes out?!”

But in the end, it really shouldn't be about that. I'm happy with my work, and more importantly, I never want to be that scummy journalist who spends her time being paranoid and jealous that some other writer made better hay of a person's incredible loss and heartbreak. My job was simple: to convey the reasons we named Boyd Martin our Overall Horseman of the Year—not just rider, but horseman—and that’s a job I feel like I accomplished.

Yes, in my self-righteous, burnt-out, jaded state of mind, I had gone into the project convinced it would eat up every last bit of my scarce remaining energy, but I came away from it with more motivation than I’d had in a long time. 

So thanks, Boyd, for continuing to inspire us all and making me eat my words. I've never been so happy to be wrong!

Senior Editor Kat Netzler

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