It’s a jungle out there, says Andrew Nicholson. He’s talking about the international eventing scene, and those who doggedly attempt to be competitive from a base half a world away from where all the best events, and the best riders and horses, compete week after week after week.
“Just forget about it. It can’t be done,” he says. “It’s easy enough to win the big events in New Zealand, but the step up to be competitive against the rest of the world is bigger than you’d realise being based here.”
He’s aware of the grumblings of criticism about New Zealand’s high performance programme being run from the UK, and its effects on the sport back at home – with more of our top riders and horses heading abroad, the Advanced entries have dwindled to single figures at many events.
But, if we genuinely want to return to our world-leading position in the sport, he says, that’s how it’s got to be.
“Of course it’s not fair. Life’s not fair,” he says frankly. “Let’s just get on with it.”
Andrew is a blunt speaker, but one with an immense amount of natural charm. He doesn’t mince words or revert to clichés and New Age jargon. You can no more imagine him consulting a sports psychologist than taking up knitting.
Everything he’s achieved has been through good hard graft, a decent dose of talent, and probably more than anything, an extraordinary amount of tenacity. He’s dubbed ‘Mr Stickability’ by the equestrian media for his ability to stay on a horse, but the nickname could equally refer to his teeth-gritting determination to be the absolute best. Second place is for losers.
So, on to Puhinui’s three-star track. A group has gathered for Andrew’s course walk, and we set off through the wet grass from the start box.
The first three jumps are straightforward boxes, not especially huge (at least, for Advanced-level fences), but Andrew warns that particularly fences 1 and 3 are not as easy as they look. Really? “Yes, you have to watch low fences. You don’t want to make a mess of a simple fence and turn what should be an easy jump into hard work ’cause it will frighten your horse – especially if it’s a little fence, like fence 3 is here, after the a big rolltop at fence 2. A fence that gets the horse up into the air is much easier for them to jump.”
The first ‘question’ fence comes at 4ab, a huge ramp drop followed by a skinny on a 180deg rollback turn. The drop isn’t a difficult fence in itself, says Andrew, but it’s made difficult by the skinny afterwards.
“You’ve seen the old hunting photos? Well, don’t be as drastic as that, but you need to sit up tall over a drop fence like this, or you’ll end up in a heap at the bottom of the hill. Then put on the power through the bend, lots of power through the corner so you can just ride up the hill to the skinny.”
The brush palisade at fence 5 is a bit of a rider (and spectator) frightener due to the large ditch on the landing side, but Andrew says it’s a pretty easy fence, despite its downhill approach. “The downhill approach draws the horse to the fence so you’ll see the distance quite deep, but it’s a forgiving fence with the brush. You can think you’re in a nice spot but the downhill can draw you past it and you’ll find yourself quite close, but it’s not so big that the horses can’t skip over it. It’s a bit of an optical illusion.
“Use the bend beforehand to set the horse up, so then you can just keep riding forward and jump it. Look beyond the jump, don’t look down, and keep your horse’s head up.”
The next big ask is the footbridge combination at fence 6ab. The bridge is huge, and it’s followed one long stride away by a very wide skinny on a drop. This is a jump you need discipline for, says Andrew. “Walk it exactly where you’re going to jump it, and when you come up to it, don’t be asleep. Condense the horse’s stride a little, line up the second element and just ride a very straight and even rhythm. Forget that it’s got a big ditch on an angle, and remember to sit a little more secure in the saddle because of the drop.”
We come to the t-bar, which Andrew says is another rider frightener, with the big ditch underneath it. “Just give your horse a kick, ride forward to it and jump it,” is his succinct advice. “In fact, riding up to it is pretty much all you need to do at every fence.”
Making the cross-country time is not about sheer speed, he says, it’s about being able to alter your speed within a rhythm as smoothly as possible, so you can ride forward to every fence. You need to establish the speed you want to jump a fence out of well before you get there, he says, so you can then simply ride up to it instead of “riding backwards” to it.
Next we take a look at Puhinui’s signature sunken road palisade, which is enormous and frightens even seasoned Advanced riders. But not Andrew – though he says a young horse who “likes to look in ditches” is probably not going to be much fun at a fence like this. “Still, you have to ride them the same. Put energy into them around the bend, keep looking up and over the jump. You do really have to want to jump it. If the rider is half-hearted on the approach, it’s not going to work.”
Straight afterwards is the combination that Andrew rates as the most difficult on the track, a coffin at 13abc. The first element is big and upright, and has a steep decline after it to the big ditch, before up a sharp rise to another upright. “You want a slow jump so your horse has got time to land and balance without putting his hind legs on the fence. Again, you want to sit on their back like an old man hunting, and follow your instinct. If your instinct tells you to give a kick, or take a little hold, then do it. Make it happen.”
Andrew talks a lot about instinct. Although he will walk a three- or four-star track at least three or four times at an event, often he’ll only have time for once around a one- or two-star track. And although he will make a plan for every fence, he won’t hesitate to change it mid-course or even mid-combination if his instincts tell him differently.
The horse’s stride pattern, he explains, gets longer the further around the course you get, as they begin to tire and don’t spend so much time in the air with each stride. This is why distances walk shorter the closer you get to the end of a track – a combination that you might easily tackle in four strides at the beginning of the course might ride better in three near the end.
A few of his favourite things
Favourite event? Burghley – ’cause I’ve won that the most times
Favourite horse? Nereo
The horse who made him? Spinning Rhombus. He got me going and also bought me down to Earth in Barcelona [where, famously, he dropped nine rails in the show jumping, relegating the New Zealand team from certain gold into silver medal place]
His ideal holiday? Two weeks at home without having to go anywhere
If he wasn’t an event rider? I would have been in a lot of trouble. I’d probably be a farmer
Favourite sport outside eventing? National Hunt racing and rugby
Views on social media? I don’t do Twitter or Facebook. A waste of time. I seriously think a lot of riders, if they spent more time riding their horses and less time on Twitter and Facebook, they’d get better results.
- This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of NZ Horse & Pony