Bruce Davidson's feet are never on the ground for more than five minutes. He mounts one horse, warms up, performs in the ring, dismounts, mounts another horse, warms up, performs, dismounts, mounts another horse—it goes on all day long. His face is impassive, his voice is soft, and his concentration is trained solely on the animal he is riding. By the end of the day, however, he shows signs of being tired. "Mr. Davidson, your number this time?" the jumping judge inquires as Davidson rides into the arena yet again. "Madam, I don't know," he says, and the crowd cracks up.
Davidson is participating in the Middletown Pony Club Horse Trial, a small two-day show held in Middletown, Del., at the end of September. During the show riders test their horses' abilities in three phases: dressage, which measures suppleness and obedience; stadium jumping, which calls for strength; and cross-country jumping, which tests gymnastic ability and endurance. During this first day of the event Davidson, a tall, angular man with pale-blue eyes, a shock of white hair and a perfect farmer's tan, has ridden six horses in the dressage and stadium jumping events.
Horse trials are training grounds for the more rigorous three-day equestrian events, which include "roads and tracks" (several miles of trotting or cantering) and the endurance phases of a steeplechase. Davidson, who only a week earlier won first place at England's Blenheim International Three-Day Event, is in Middletown to help his younger horses practice. "We're not here to compete," he says. "We're here to learn."
Davidson, 44, has reigned over three-day eventing for 20 years. Raised in rural upstate New York, he was a Pony Club member as a child. He learned about eventing at the McDonogh School, a private high school outside of Baltimore, and began his competitive career in 1970 when he joined the U.S. equestrian team (USET). At the 1972 Olympics in Munich he contributed to a team silver medal. He went on to a series of major international victories, including individual and team gold medals at the 1974 world championships, the team gold at the '76 Olympics, individual gold and team bronze medals at the '78 world championships, the team gold medal at the '84 Olympics, an individual bronze medal at the '90 world championships and first prize at the '93 USET Three-Day Championships—not to mention hundreds of trial wins in this country and abroad.
Davidson spends much of his time on the road at competitions: This year he spent six months competing in Europe. His home base, however, is Chesterland, a 250-acre farm in Unionville, Pa. There he and his wife, Carol—a former top rider who now serves as a horse trainer and, she says, "cheerleader" for her family—live with their two children, Buck, 18, and Nancy, 16, as well as 70 horses and numerous chickens, ducks, geese, parrots, golden pheasants and lurchers. These last are dogs (half whippet or greyhound, half anything else) that spend their days racing around the farm.
The keys to Davidson's success are both obvious and intangible. There are, of course, his horses, which are bred from champion thoroughbreds to have the strength, endurance and grace required of mounts in international events. Davidson is "an extraordinary judge of a horse's capabilities," says James Wofford, a silver medalist who rode with the USET during the 1960s and '70s.
Then there is the land. Chesterland used to host three-star international events (four-star events are the most difficult), so Davidson has his own demanding cross-country course on which to condition his horses. And on the property surrounding Chesterland, Carol Davidson's mother, Nancy Hannum, runs one of the oldest and largest fox hunts in Pennsylvania, providing more excellent training ground for her son-in-law's horses.
Finally there is Bruce Davidson's ability to figure out what a horse is telling him. He calls it listening to the animal. "He's very intuitive," says Tom Lurito, a horse veterinarian and one of many students who have trained privately with Davidson over the years. "He gets rid of the frivolity between horse and rider and focuses on the horse. People bring him these orangutan horses and say, 'I can't make him round, I can't get him over this jump,' and he gets on and does it."
To humans Davidson is something of an enigma. With strangers he can be aloof. With family, friends and other riders he can be kind, inquisitive, even whimsical. At Chesterland he sees three lurchers racing by and asks, "Wouldn't it be cool to ride one?" He can be an exacting taskmaster. Former students speak of being told to do things over and over. And almost everyone has a story about Davidson's scathing sarcasm or about the tantrums he has thrown—before grooms, judges, other competitors, his wife, his students, even his horses. "He can be a holy terror," says one woman at the Middletown show.
Those who know Davidson well say they become used to his intensity. "People are surprised that I know how to work with horses as well as I do," says Carolyn Weinberg, once a student of Davidson's and now a veterinarian in Connecticut. "But I know how to wrap legs because Bruce made me do it six times in a row, until I got it exactly right. There's nothing wrong with the meticulousness he demands. You won't learn it elsewhere."