Andrew Nicholson the ultimate competitor

Few New Zealand sportspeople are as dedicated to their craft as Andrew Nicholson, which makes news of the neck injury he suffered yesterday all the more devastating.

Not enough is known about the fall from his mount Cillnabradden Evo at the Festival of British Eventing to draw conclusions, other than its seriousness, which saw him taken about an hour's drive to John Radcliffe Hospital for treatment.

The hospital is listed by Britain's National Health Service as "Oxfordshire's main accident and emergency site and provides acute medical and surgical services, trauma and intensive care".

Nicholson fell after the last fence on the cross-country course at Gatcombe Park, where he was in the lead.

The 54-years-old's pursuit of selection for an eighth Olympic Games will be in jeopardy but, at such potentially pivotal moments in one's life, such matters are trivial compared to maintaining wider health.

Nicholson's participation in the Burghley Horse Trials, due to start September 3, will also be under threat. He is a five-time winner, including the last three, and recently told the Herald on Sunday why the four-star event encapsulated his love of the sport.

"It's held at the end of summer, people are out having picnics on the course, and you think 'this is why we do it'."

A visit to the Nicholson family farm in May, confirmed his dedication. He is commonly summed up by a convenient soundbite like "veteran Olympian and connoisseur of four-star events", but what shone through more was his love of the business as much as the sport of horses. In essence, it's his livelihood.

He and second wife Wiggy set up their farm 13 years ago, turning a beef farm into one of the more enviable per capita operations in the equine fraternity. They commissioned the building of stables, a dressage ring, showjumping paddocks for all conditions and - with prize money from being the No.1 rider in the world - an indoor arena. The arena is without lights, so Nicholson wouldn't be tempted to ride more than his staple eight to nine hours a day. A grooming team of five help them look after 35 horses. The horses are bought aged two or three from breeders in Spain and the Nicholson team break them in before on-selling them to owners. It requires a ruthless commercial attitude.

"You've got to appreciate the horse is your main tool," Nicholson said after the London Games. "I learnt the trade with people's cast-offs; the ones successful riders of the time didn't want. I don't get offered those now.

"Owners are a bit more wary because I tell them straight whether their horse has what it takes... As you get older it is best not to talk things up as much because you can end up looking a right monkey.

"In some ways I don't recommend it as a career; there are a lot easier ways to make a living," he laughed. "There are more bad days than good days but it's a privilege to have a job most people spend a fortune to participate in."

Presently Nicholson has issues to negotiate with Equestrian Sports New Zealand which saw him opt out of the high performance squad. They concern an incident at September's World Games in which he admitted grabbing vet Ollie Pynn by the lapels and shifting him approximately four metres across a corridor because he was dissatisfied with the monitoring of his horse Nereo, who was on an intravenous drip before the showjumping.

Nicholson initially thought his Olympic career, dating back to the 1984 Los Angeles Games was over. It has since received oxygen with his nomination to ESNZ's 'long list' of potential athletes submitted to the New Zealand Olympic Committee by August 5.

However, competing for New Zealand is only one component to Nicholson's daily life.

Attention to routine and detail have brought him through the ranks to beat the paradox that you need loyal owners to succeed but need to succeed to find loyal owners. It might also help explain why he was out working on his tractor at 5am on the morning after this year's Badminton disappointment where, on his mount Nereo, he missed the opportunity to win his maiden title by dropping several showjumping rails.

A broken hand in 2011 brought arthritis in the recovery, but Nicholson intends to prolong his competitive career as long as he can. The exhilaration hunting glory justifies the hours in front of the mirror in the home dressage ring, the workouts in the 1000 acres of woodland adjacent to the family property and the jumping practice on the home-built course. It's a key driver when things get tedious travelling overnight to France or Germany with the speedo set at the heavy vehicle limit of 56 miles per hour, or getting delayed at Dover due to weather. For non-four-star events he now prefers to travel the following day. Equestrianism is not all about the glamour associated with the Badminton and Burghley tweed set.

Nicholson came to England with a horse in 1980 and worked as a groom at Badminton for Mark Todd on Southern Comfort. Todd won on his first attempt. Nicholson was hooked.

"I thought 'this is easy' and 35 years later I'm still trying to win it," he said in May.

Regardless, eight other four-star titles and three Olympic Games and three World Games' medals are indicative of a successful career.

Hopefully that will continue.


With thanks to Andrew Alderson of New Zealand Herald



Back to Articles