2014’s most fascinating Eventer – Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson.

Like all sport superstars, Andrew Nicholson understands too well the highs and the lows of Eventing and everything in between. He literally knows what it is like to hit the dirt, dust your self off and get back on that horse. His storied career is like a script from an HBO series with no scheduled series finale. The plot twists in his career in 2014 alone have kept the press and the Eventing masses entertained, shocked and speculating.

In this exclusive and candid interview, Eventing’s strong, silent type, talks family life, social media, his exclusion from the New Zealand high performance squad, retirement and 2015 plans.

If you follow Eventing, you cannot help but marvel at Andrew’s success. His results speak for themselves, but a study of his You Tube videos reveals a level of riding that only a handful of riders will ever reach. If you have the chance to enjoy a one on one conversation with this living legend, you begin to realize why. He loves what he does, is an absolute perfectionist, thrives on competition and giving up is not part of his repertoire.

Life on the farm
While the Eventing world was reeling from ESNZ’s decision to not include Andrew on their high performance squad, Andrew was busy at his home enjoying his family over Christmas. “We all had Christmas lunch. Wiggy’s parents came over, my older daughters from my first marriage came over in the morning, the younger ones did the normal bit, Santa came down the chimney and all the rest of it. Just a normal Christmas day, no riding, ate enough, drank too much,” he said.

When he is not competing, he prefers staying at home but does enjoy a vacation. “I do go on holiday. I am a bit more normal than people think. I like holidays by the seaside. My ideal holiday is at home but I understand my family and wife do not think that is a holiday. I am lucky that I love what I do and I love being at home. When I go off in the sun, I enjoy it. But I do love being at home and not having to ride. November is a very quiet time for me and I like that I can go do fencing, I can tidy up all sorts of things and do normal farming type jobs. I come from a farming background and I like doing those things.”

Andrew’s days are typically filled with riding horses. However, he likes to catch the races on television if he can. “I don’t watch a lot of television but I try to work my lunch around the National Hunt racing. I am a big fan. Whatever main races are on that day, I try and watch them live on the telly. I am actually riding in a charity race at the Cheltenham National Hunt festival in March in aid of the Injured Jockeys Fund, which I am looking forward to and is a different kind of challenge and a good cause – donations are welcome.”

Although he put in an indoor school last March, he quits riding at dark. Knowing himself a little too well, he purposely did not install lights in the school. “In the plans they had lighting in it and I said we did not want any lighting. They were concerned why I didn’t want any lighting and I said if I can’t do my job in daylight I don’t want to be out there in the dark because I might not stop. At this time of the year, it is a bit of rush to get things done when it’s dark at four o’clock, but you do it. When it is dark, I stop and come in and do normal things in the evening,” he said.

No social media
Twitter has a hash tag created specifically for Andrew, #Nicholsonontwitter. Despite the public’s appetite for him to start Tweeting, he has yet to oblige and never will. So why is one of the most famous Eventers in the world not on social media?

Andrew explained, “It is enough of an effort trying to get my jobs done in the evening without having to go on the computer. I cannot work out how people can spend so much time doing Facebook, websites, Twitter. For me, time in the office is very tiring and time consuming. Even sending a text on a mobile phone seems to be taking quite a bit of time that I could be doing something else. I am quite happy with just going along with the flow and not really needing to feel like I have to tell everyone else in the world what I am doing. I am not really interested in knowing what everyone else is doing. I am pretty much just a person that does my job, things I want, things the family wants, and that’s it.”

It is interesting that a sports figure with such a fan following does not have a social media presence or even a website as a marketing tool to work with sponsors. Andrew said, “I have been doing my job for a very long time. I tried to get sponsorship when I wasn’t good enough and when I wasn’t successful enough to warrant any sponsorship. When you are young and naive, you do what people tell you. I am quite pleased nothing came of it because I have pretty much always been my own boss. I know when I come in and shut the door in the evening, my house is my house and no one can take it away. My lorry is my lorry, it is not a sponsor’s lorry. I’m very much someone who has learnt to row their own boat, but I am very happy rowing my own boat. For sure sponsors can come along and give me money for doing my job, fair enough. But I am in a position now to still be in the driving seat. You look over the years and an awful lot of riders have lost everything over night because they did not really own anything but they had a big sponsor. The sponsor’s business changed for whatever reason and suddenly they are downgrading the lorry, the horses are for sale, and things suddenly turn around. Where as I’m very much doing my own thing. I am also lucky to have a very loyal band of owners most of whom have been with me for many years. My priority is to look after their interests as they have all been very supportive to me and my career for a long time”

Andew Nicholson and Nereo at the 2012 London Olympics. Photo: Getty Images - ADRIAN DENNIS

Andrew Nicholson and Nereo at the 2012 London Olympics. Photo: Getty Images – ADRIAN DENNIS

53 and still going strong
When many sports figures are well past their prime after 40, Andrew Nicholson is still winning four-stars. In the last four years he has won six four-stars on four different horses showing his unwavering skill and his program’s depth. His most recent win was 2014 Burghley, taking it for the third time on Avebury. No other rider and horse combination has ever won this prestigious event two years in a row, and Andrew and Avebury have won it three years in a row.

“When I was young, I had to make a living and everything was a quick turnover situation. I would buy horses and the quicker I could get form on them, the quicker I could sell them. The quicker I would be making profit, and I could reinvest and off we’d go. About 14 years ago, I seriously looked at the whole situation and I was quite tempted to give up, thinking it wasn’t working so well. I could make money out of it but I was not heading to big, big stuff. I thought I should either get out of it or up the caliber of horses I had.”

“I then thought the only way I could afford to do it with less financial risk was to buy 3-year-olds horses unbroken and that is what I did. That is what has turned it all around. Instead of buying other people’s problems or racehorses that I could turn around very quickly, I have been buying unbroken 3-year-old horses with very good pedigrees. Now I have a very consistent string of horses coming through.”

“I wouldn’t change anything I had done when I was younger, it is a learning curve. If I had known 30 years ago that I could buy 3-year-old horses at the price I’ve been buying them for, and then turn them into much, much more valuable things when they are 7-years-old, I would have done it. However, when you are young, you just want a quick fix and to think of spending money on a 3-year-old and then selling it when it is 7 or 8-years-old, is a long-term job.”

“I just bought six 3-year-olds that have just been broken in now. They arrived in December unbroken. For the last six years, I have just been buying two or three a year but with my present problem with the high performance funding, I have had to look at ways to up my income again. I have nearly gone full circle, back to the old ways of riding a lot more horses and working a lot harder. Luckily I enjoy it. I think that is why I have a good bunch of horses at the top. I am buying quality horses and I am buying them very young.”

Advising the 30 year-old Andrew
As he talked about all he has learned, I was curious what advice he would give the 30 year-old Andrew Nicholson. Laughing he said, “He is not very good at taking advice, and as a 30-year-old, I definitely would not have taken any advice. Andrew Nicholson is someone who very much has to learn something his own way. He has got to make his own mistakes for it to register, I am not very sharp you see.”

Favourite win
Competing at a four-star is a dream of many and some even dare to dream about winning. When you have as many wins as Andrew, you can’t help but wonder if there is one that stands out more than others. He said, “At the moment it is winning Burghley with Avebury for the third time. To win something like Burghley three times with a horse that you bred, then sold, then bought back again, is quite a buzz. There was quite a lot of hype about it beforehand and it is just amazing that it fell into place.”

“But then I also think about when I won Burghley the very first time. It was on Buckley Province and it was sort of a whirlwind. When you first win something like that, it does not really sink in. It made me feel like I had made it as an event rider. I think with any career it is important to feel like you have made it and you have a right to be there.”

Andrew with his children Lily and Zach after winning the 2014 Barbury International for the third time in a row on Avebury.

Andrew with his children Lily and Zach after winning the 2014 Barbury International for the third time in a row on Avebury.

After so many wins, would an Olympic gold medal finally be the send off to retirement? Andrew said, “Not at all. I have met people who have retired and some have came back. Some have not and without them even saying anything to me, I can read from their faces and what they say is that if you think you can keep doing it then keep doing it. I love doing my job. The older I’ve gotten, the more I appreciate how lucky I am to have a job that I can get a buzz out of at home. I never quite know what is going to pop up. You never know with horses, especially when they are of all ages. I have a lot of young ones and they are like children and one day they are going not so well and you want to give them away. Then the next day the penny drops and they improve. But I love doing it and I cannot see any reason why I should stop. I have spent years learning my trade and I might not be as supple or as sharp as I used to be, but I feel that my knowledge and experience makes up for it.”

Andrew will go down in history as one of the greatest eventers to ever sit in a saddle. He is also a producer of some of the best Eventing horses that have ever competed. His knowledge and experience is invaluable to up and coming riders. “I quite enjoy teaching if I have the time. I always have young riders based with me. Cedric Lyard and Arnaud Boiteau were with me for two years and they both were on the gold medal team for France at Athens. I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing them competing at big level events and doing well. I don’t stand there teaching them every day when they are here with me. They ride and have to think for themselves. I may say the odd word to them every now and then about their riding but it is very much that they have to get the feel and not have someone standing there all the time. I do like teaching riders when I have the time and I am not thinking about my own horses and my own competitions. Whenever you are teaching, it requires the proper concentration that the students need. I could see myself doing it at some stage. They might call me to be the New Zealand team coach one day,” he ends with a chuckle.

2014 in review
This past year has been a bit of a roller coaster for Andrew…getting married; cursing at reporters; falling off at Badminton; the only  rider on the ‘team’ to finish for New Zealand at the WEG; winning Burghley for the third year in a row; withdrawing from the New Zealand high performance squad; making himself available for the New Zealand high performance squad and then ultimately the ESNZ intentionally keeping him off the squad.

So is there anything he would have done differently?

  • Cursing into a microphone
    “In regards to my interview about Jock, I would have perhaps used more polite words. I did not expect it to be on national television!”
  • Falling off at Badminton
    “I should never have fallen off Nereo and people might say that Nereo should not have made the mistake. I thought that I was on a good distance, a good spot, and I just lost a split second of concentration. Whether it was the strong wind gust or whatever that made him do what he did, I should have never have fallen off of him. He should have been able to get around that quite easily with a good enough time to take the lead. These things happen and it makes you remember that you have to concentrate no matter how good the horses are. It is concentration all the way. The fact he had been doing it so easily probably did not help me as I was getting a bit casual. I have done some stupid things like that a few times, but hopefully it will change and I will win Badminton one day.”
  • WEG
    “I would have ridden better in my show jumping round at the World Games. I did not do a very good warm-up and I could have done a much better job than I did.”
  • ESNZ high performance squad
    “As far as my federation and my problems with them, I do not think that I could have done anything differently with that. I got myself in a bit of trouble, but I was concerned about my horse Nereo and his welfare is my priority and I would never compromise on that.”

Funding loss
As a result of not being on the New Zealand high performance squad, Andrew loses funding that he normally would have put towards training. He jokingly said, “I won’t be off on any holidays for a while, now that my funding is gone.” But in a more serious tone he continues, “For sure not being on the high performance and losing the funding for my training and horse care makes a big difference. I will miss it as I have tried to use the funding wisely and feel I have delivered the results. But I will pull through. I have been without it before and it will make me even hungrier and better.”

Despite the New Zealand squad having a group of world-class riders, Andrew would be a major asset to increase the nation’s chances of winning gold at the 2016 Olympics. Heading into the 2014 WEG, the Kiwis were considered podium favourites. However, the only ‘team’ rider to get around cross-country successfully was Andrew. People are wondering how long ESNZ will hold out and refuse to include him on the high performance squad. Andrew said, “I don’t quite know what they are thinking. All I can do is the best I can at every international I go to and make the results speak for themselves.”

Citizenship change?
When it was announced that ESNZ left Andrew off the squad, social media lit up around the world and people were begging him to come ride for their nations.

Phillip Dutton rode for Australia in three Olympic games before marrying his American wife, Evie. After settling in the United States, he switched nationalities and now rides for the USA. Andrew’s wife, Wiggy, is British and since he is based in the UK, we asked if he would consider doing what Phillip did. “I am touched by all these people wanting me to ride for their nations.” He then asked me, “Do you think the British would have me?” I said, “Yes.” Responding rather coy he said, “Well maybe I will start looking up that avenue. I did not think they would be all that keen on me.”

I pressed him for a serious answer and he responded, “On a serious note, last year marked 30 years since my first appearance on a team for New Zealand at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. It has been an honour and a privilege to represent my country on every occasion but if the situation warrants it, then it is something I suppose I would have to consider. I am not quite sure I could get a license to ride for other nations but I can quite easily get a British passport. I consider everything.”

The year ahead
In 2015, Andrew is not sure about competing at Lexington as it will depend on what horses are ready. He does plan to compete at Badminton, Luhmuhlen, Burghley and Pau.

Thank you Wiggy for organizing the interview, and thank you Andrew for giving us your time.  


To learn more about this fascinating athlete, his beginnings and his horses, Andrew’s book is now available:
Focused: My Life In Pictures [Racing Post] [Amazon] [Coles Books]

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