Sometimes you pick up a book about a sportsman’s life – whether autobiography or ghosted biography or a bit of both – and you wonder whether it might not be a tad too soon for this person to warrant a book. You could never think that about Marlborough-based Andrew Nicholson and his new book Focused.
He has, after all, been representing New Zealand in the Olympic Games for 30 years. He was the world’s top eventer in 2013 and in that year topped the British eventing standings for the fifteenth time.
The book is published during an eventing season in which he has scored two unrivalled hat-tricks – winning Barbury and Burghley three times in a row with the same horse, the amazing Avebury.
It was written with Catherine Austen who used to report for Horse and Hound: “We’ve looked at thousands of images and selected some really interesting ones – not just pretty shots of horses jumping fences, but ones that tell a story and show the progression he has made as a competitor and a horseman.”
Andrew Nicholson, now aged 53, told Marlborough News Online that he wanted the book to have a balance of the bad days and the good days: “It shows what you have to go through to get to the good days.”
His introduction reveals much of the horseman he has become. And he is frank about his ambition to be number one in the world, “but first and foremost I have to make a living”:
“It was this basic necessity that started my involvement with horses, breaking in young thoroughbreds for trainers in New Zealand and then working as a farrier at the age of 15. I then progressed to earning money from training and selling horses, and finally from the prize-money. The financial principle is the same today.”
The book makes it very clear that top eventing riders do not just ride their top horses in top events. In order to bring young horses on, they need to go to many of the lower ranked events and to competitions that cater especially for less experienced horses.
And that’s where travel comes in: “The travelling is what I find gets me down.” At the busiest part of the season, he may only be at home on Mondays: travel on Tuesday, vet inspection on Wednesday, competing Thursday to Sunday, usually getting home late on Sunday.
Among the intriguing photographs in the book is one of Nicholson with his four eventing four star winners. Nicholson writes: “You can see that they are all different shapes, but what’s more interesting is how much more different they are to each other when they are not eventing fit.”
“Quimbo looks the most thoroughbred of the quartet, even though he probably has the least thoroughbred in him; Mr Cruise Control looks like a gigantic hunter; Nereo stays reasonably elegant, while in the middle of winter Avebury looks like a hairy kid’s pony.”
One of the books main attractions is the way Nicholson writes so clearly about his horses and their idiosyncrasies.
When Marlborough News Online visited Andrew Nicholson’s Westwood Stud near Marlborough, Avebury was not looking very much like the smart horse that enters the dressage arena with such aplomb. Alongside Nereo, Avebury bred by Nicholson and born when he was based near Devizes in 2000, was out in the field enjoying some well-earned R and R.
As Nicholson said, he was ‘being a horse again’ – so much so that the two horses avoided eye contact with Nicholson just in case he had come to take them away from the freedom of the field and put them inside again.
I asked Andrew Nicholson whether he agreed that too much emphasis in eventing was now put on the dressage stage of competitions: “It’s starting to change back to cross country. This season at WEG [World Equestrian Games], Badminton and Burghley cross country played the major part. Ten years ago you could get away with a rubbish dressage. Now you have to be good at all three stages – because the standard has come up so much.”
Nicholson is not sure whether he will go to the Rolex Kentucky event which starts the new season in April 2015. He won it in 2013 with Quimbo. But last year Avebury was decidedly off-colour after his first trip by air: “Avebury felt flat – I don’t know whether he didn’t like the plane or didn’t like America!”
Two of the season’s final eventing competitions are in France. Le Lion d’Angers championships are for young horses. He will be taking Jet Set IV for the seven year-olds’ competition and Swallow Springs for the six-year olds’ competition.
Then he goes to the season’s finale, the four star competition at Pau. Nicholson won that in 2012 with Nereo. This year he is taking Qwanza the eleven-year-old mare he rode to seventh place at Kentucky in 2012. Last year they came to grief at Luhmühlen…
…and which is the family’s favourite photograph in the book? I assumed it would be the happy family groups of the children on their ponies. But as we left, a small voice said that his favourite photograph was the one of “Daddy in the water” – and there it is: Andrew Nicholson and Qwanza all but submerged after falling at the first water complex on the Luhmühlen cross country course last year.
It shows vividly that even the best of eventers have those bad days: “You see”, he said with a broad grin, “what I have to put up when I get home!”
You will have to buy the book to see that photo of Andrew Nicholson.
Focused – Andrew Nicholson My Life in Pictures – with a foreword by Captain Mark Phlillips (Racing Post Books) £20.
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