Young French eventing superstar Astier Nicolas found it hard to articulate in English exactly why he wanted to come back to the UK to train and ride, but where there's a will there's a way. "To start with, I couldn't really explain why, but I really wanted to find an excuse to ride in Britain again, and so I managed to get a scholarship to go to Hartpury and combined riding with finishing my studies there. Since 2009 when I first came to England, I've always wanted to come back because I love the sport here and really enjoy being here."
Astier has good reason to be inclined to return. He's racked up some pretty impressive results so far: a win at Bramham in the U25 CCI3* in 2012 on Piaf De B'Neville (Ben), a third place in the same division this year on Quickly Du Buguet (Quicky) and a fourth in the Chatsworth CIC3* World Cup class on Jhakti Du Janlie (Jack) in 2011. Campaigning from Hartpury, he completed Luhmulen CCI4* on Jhakti Du Janlie to be the best French rider there and finished his year by coming sixth at Pau CCI4* on him too, just to pick a few. As Nick Gauntlett — at whose yard Astier has been based since March — pointed out, "It's easy to forget how young he is. He's a very good rider, and there's still so much more to come."
Upon getting his degree at Hartpury, the French selectors had seen enough to ask Astier to base himself and his horses at home to prepare for the London 2012 Olympics, and so it wasn't until the spring of this year and by lucky accident that he found himself at Nick's, on Badminton's doorstep, when the yard he was supposed to move into in France in January was not ready. Although he originally arrived in Wiltshire with the intention of staying only to prep for his first Badminton attempt with Piaf De B'Neville (Ben) Astier succumbed to England's charms, "Once again I fell in love with the eventing here, and so now I've decided to stay"
Astier and Ben finished in ninth place at Badminton and by all accounts enjoyed every minute. "I went to see the ground a few weeks before the event because we are so close, and I'd only ever been once before on foot. It was even better than I expected. I thought it was perfect. I think up until now my favorite event has been Bramham. It's very friendly, it's well organized and it's a beautiful place. I don't think it's just because of the myth and the enormity, but I really think Badminton might be my favorite now. I felt amazing all week long. The organization was very good, and we were well taken care of. I felt home somehow. I had a wonderful week and forgot everything else. I just enjoyed doing my sport 150 percent."
Piaf De B'Neville is a 10-year-old 100% Selle Francais gelding, "He shouldn't be doing this, but he does!" Astier talent spotted him in his Pony Club and bought him off a little kid. He is positive that they have both improved on the flat since Badminton in May and would like to go back again next spring to better his ninth place. "Personally, I am not able to ride under 40 (in the dressage) easily, and that's what you need nowadays. I've done it once at Pau last year, but I had a brilliant dressage horse, and Ben is quite stiff and long, so it's not his best phase either. He's such a hard worker though, and so trainable that you can be optimistic that he'll soon be much better. You couldn't have a much easier horse than Ben. He's very good to work with, and he always tries hard for you , he's very laid back for the most part - — he's a completely different ride to my little mare! "
Whether they end up at Badminton or not next year depends on the whim of the selectors, as Ben would be Astier's top pick for the WEG in Normandy. "At the moment, I just keep him in very light work three or four times a week, and he spends every day in the field. It will depend on the French selectors because historically they are not fans of going to CCI4*s because they want to protect their horses. Now, though, of course we don't have the roads and tracks or steeplechase anymore, and Badminton has such good ground because they work on it so professionally. It's nearly always amazing, and I don't think it will hurt him. It's 10 minutes on good ground; it's not too hilly. Rather than doing a bunch of CIC3*s where you can sometimes get average ground and a lot of twists and turns, I don't think Badminton would be more than this."
Astier's grandparents live about 20 minutes from the WEG venue in Normandy, and far from having the Championships on home ground adding pressure, Astier thinks it will be to his advantage. "It will be a help, I prefer that, I think I ride better at competitions than at home. Too much pressure is always hard to handle, especially on the last day if you're in the first few, but a bit of competition pressure is good for me because it makes me better."
The French team, too, he thinks, is on the upswing. "The French team has always been up and down, but now I think we've touched the very bottom. The period we've been through recently is one of the worst we've had, and I don't think we can go much lower, so now we can work our way out of it because we have quite a bit of pride."
After his top-10 finish at Badminton, Astier took "the little mare", a 9-year-old Anglo Arabian called Quickly Du Buguet, to Bramham to contest the Under 25 CCI3*, where they placed third. They then went to Burghley more recently this fall, where Astier blames himself for taking the wrong line at the Rolex Combination at fence 18, although he relishes his ride until then, Quickly foot perfect and making nothing of the massive track.
Astier and Quickly looked none worse for the wear in a jump school the afternoon I visited. Aptly named, Quickly is "a hot little thing!" Nimble and fiery, she takes on each fence as if she's in a jump off, ears flattened against her head. "She never smiles, but she doesn't want to touch a rail". Dressage will probably always be the biggest hurdle with her as relaxation is such a challenge while the jumping comes so easily to her that Astier will pick and choose his competitions with her carefully to maximise her strengths, " There are special events that are exceptions, for example, look at Burghley this year. If I'd finished on my dressage score of 50, I would have come fourth against some of the best in the world. But if you go to Badminton or the Europeans where you have more of a championship field, then you're far, far away on a 50."
In the beginning when Quickly was a 5-year-old, the jumping wasn't straightforward either. "I didn't want her! I tried her at my farrier's, who is both her breeder and a friend, and on the approach to a jump - maybe on the turn, maybe 50 meters away - she would stop and spin around. She just has to want it; now that she wants it she enjoys it. She goes where she wants, so I have to make her want it. I can't tell her to do something she doesn't want to do."
The third horse in Astier's sting of seven at the moment — and perhaps the most exciting — is another Anglo Arab, a 7-year-old striking dark bay by Yarland's Summer Song. Spes Addit Or belongs to Marie-Christine Duroy, who famously competed his sire, and Astier first sat on him by chance in September 2011 when he spent a few weeks at Marie-Christine's yard. "I loved him from the very first time I rode him; I just hacked him, but even at a walk I knew I was sitting on a superstar. The following April, Marie-Christine sent him to Astier to ride. "I call him Ronaldo because when I sat on him I thought he'd be one for Rio, he's my Brazilian superstar, Ronaldo!"
Ronaldo just won an intermediate division at the South of England Horse Trials and next heads to Le Lion D'Angers. Not only will Marie-Christine and her husband enjoy seeing their horse compete on home soil, but from there Astier will go to Pau and then spend most of the winter at home with four horses, which will make his whole family very happy. Both his parents came to watch him at Badminton, and Astier, the youngest of five, admits they miss him but he will spend a large portion of the winter at home.
Astier's mother is responsible for encouraging all her children to ride as youngsters, but Astier is the only one of them who has kept at it. "My mother loves horses, and she's ridden as an amateur for a long time. She made all five of us ride as children, and with me it stuck. I liked it enough to keep going. Occasionally, when the others come home now they will come and hack out sometimes and try to stay on Jack, who now that he's retired is a bucking mule!"
There are stables converted from garden sheds at his parents' home near Pau, and not only will Astier enjoy the shorter winter there, but economically it makes sense not to pay for stalls at Nick's while his horses are not doing much. Like so many young riders, finances are a constant struggle. During this season, he lived in a room in Nick's parents' house. "So far, I'm above zero; I can eat, so I'd rather keep going like this and not be too greedy. I don't need to have masses of money. I'm young and don't have a family — no children or wife — so I can live with very little money for a while and wait for it to come. I probably need to sell a very good horse for a lot of money, but I'd prefer to have more horses and owners."
Astier is supplied with beautiful kit from his main sponsor Hermes. "They are really, really good to me," Astier said. "They work hard on tacking up my horses in the perfect way." He is also supported by GPA helmets, Top Spec feeds and Sergio Grasso boots. He would love to put a syndicate together and secure the ride on Ronaldo, and he hopes to go horse shopping in France over the winter for some sale prospects, but is looking forward already to returning to Nick's next spring.
"Here, it's a profession. Every weekend you can do something that corresponds to your horse — step up a level, move down a level. You can adjust your program to every single horse in a nearly perfect way, and that's what I love. The British Eventing organization is brilliant; it allows you to ride six a day for example, which I don't have yet but hopefully it will come and that's just not something you can do in France. That's why I've decided to stay here; you never know what's going to happen tomorrow, but my plan is to stay."
The set up with Nick and Tiana Coudray, who's also based there, works well. "We all work on our own but we speak, and I often ask Nick or Tiana to have a look if I feel like I need a pair of fresh eyes. Tiana is brilliant on the flat, so she's helped me with Ben but especially with Quickly because being a girl she understands her better! She rode her before Burghley while I was at the Europeans and got on with her very well, and Nick helped me with Ben before the Europeans which was a great help. I'd rather jump alone, but for the flat it's really good to have three pros in the same place. It helps if you're a bit lost or if you need an idea; you have someone to ask."
As for the nuts and bolts of training, Astier doesn't see a huge difference between the two countries. "I would miss the uphill gallops in France, but the training would be similar. You just need a school, a gallop, a walker and some fields; I would maybe have more help in France because I would have access to all the team training and staff." In the short term, he's looking forward to going out for a day's hunting with the VWH Foxhounds at the beginning of November and has already enjoyed racing at Ascot this summer. "I'm getting fully into the British life!" and he admits to already being a big fan of the English pubs. It seems he might be here to stay! Vive la France, and Go Eventing in England!