Andrew Nicholson on Song: A Rare Behind-the-Scenes Look at His Program

Editor's Note: We were very lucky to have William Micklem attend the International Eventing Forum yesterday at Hartpury College to bring us reports on the sessions. Click here for William's report on Christoph Hess' session on working with the "not so good" dressage horse and here for his report on the open forum with Hugh Suffern, Charlie Longsdon and Andrew Nicholson on fittening the event horse. Click here to visit his website for much more from William.

Andrew Nicholson at the 2015 International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media. Andrew Nicholson at the 2015 International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media.

For two hours Andrew Nicholson rode and talked non-stop to the delight of his audience at the International Eventing Forum. Not that such labours are unusual or difficult to a man who often jumps 16 horses in a day at his home base in Wiltshire. As Andrew says, “being able to do this doesn’t come from muscles but from balance and an easy style.”

The aim is to be fast and safe across country

The key point of his presentation was about this easy style for both rider and horse, especially preparing his horses to go across country wasting the minimum amount of energy and always with the intent of coming home within the time, whatever the class. “There is no point jumping beautifully and going slowly,” says Andrew, “as that will win nothing.”

This is a philosophy that well suits one of the most talented cross country riders in the history of eventing. A rider who admits he likes to live a little on “the edge.” Yet finding that edge is not a regular occurrence for a rider who finds it all so ridiculously easy, like a horse that is galloping well within itself, and has a well practised method to prepare his horses.

A method for cross country

He emphasizes that this method is not designed to produce a show jumper but rather a cross country horse that needs to “be smooth” and “glide” down to the fences with the minimum of changes and then “jump economically, without any extravagant bascule and taking responsibility for looking after themselves.” So how is this achieved?

Using four horses, two 4-year-olds and two older horses, he showed a variety of exercises that in many ways come from a different song sheet from that of some modern trainers, but in other ways are traditional methods that have stood the test of time.

Riding the rhythm

He believes in sitting as still as possible down to a fence, as he “rides the rhythm.” His cross country riding is not about crescendos and the big base drum but about an understated and consistent flow of notes and subtle changes from first fence to last fence. In this way he saves energy, goes faster and is safer because he allows the horse to concentrate on the fences in front of them rather than be distracted by the rider.

To some this may give the impression of just galloping down to the jump with a death wish, but on the contrary, he says, “I like to be in control, and I like to find those perfect take off spots, but from the beginning I work at doing this with the minimum amount of effort and changes.”

Therefore, he does not want to create a big flashy jump with the horse hugely above the fences, as this also wastes time and will lose their confidence, particularly when jumping into water and going down drops. Therefore, he tends to jump regularly but with small fences and teaches them to get close to their fences and cope with jumping from all angles and on all distances. “The key is repetition,” he says.

Nicholson brilliance … unmentioned

As we watched Andrew ride, talk and jump, it was obvious to me that there are at least three areas of brilliance that at no time he acknowledges or mentions. Firstly, his balance over a fence when training is quite exquisite. Exquisite may seem a strange word to use, but it is accurate because his balance is extremely beautiful, and he is so sensitive to every little change.

Watching him down a grid is very similar to watching the elite show jumpers Nick Skelton or Eric Lamaze ride down a combination. All three tend to ride a little shorter, but all three are uniquely still and such easy loads for their horses. Because their balance is so good, they don’t even have to worry too much about a perfect lower leg position.

Secondly, he has a superb eye and feel for a stride. He is not always credited for this, but it makes a simply huge difference, and I have no doubt he could show jump successfully at a high level. The counter argument is that this cannot be true because his show jumping record is not the best.

This is true, but as he himself explains, “my method makes my horses very brave and confident across country but this sometimes makes the show jumping go pear-shaped.” I have a feeling that he is now getting the training balance right and producing horses that are jumping more clean rounds. Certainly this is what the score sheets suggest.

Thirdly, he has huge belief in his horses … to a fault he would say in the past. “I have had a bad habit of taking on a horse with a problem because I believe I can fix it. I have learnt, slowly, that it is better to start without major problems.” However, this sense of belief transmits to all his horses, and he always focuses on what he needs to do rather than focusing on what is wrong.

Throughout the afternoon, his whole thought process was a lesson in positive thinking. Combined with this, he believes in his method and he believes in himself. This sense of certainty is what may sometimes cause a clash with those of a different opinion but is undoubtedly the mental core of a competition rider.

These three areas of brilliance are also the core of his relationship and partnership with his horses and the core of his success. He loves them, and they love the fact that he is such an easy load and presents them so well to a fence. And they love the fact that he makes it so clear and simple about what they have to do, rather than what they shouldn’t do, and with this process gives them a “can do” and “will do” attitude.

This trust and belief is emphasized from an early stage because, although he doesn’t have any cross country fences at home and starts his young horses at the British Eventing Novice level (1 meter cross country and 1.10 meter show jumping), they have the confidence in him to do well from the beginning. He does do a small number of cross country schools in advance, but they trust him after such a short amount of time and are prepared to respond positively to new questions.

Annabel Scrimgeour and King Joules at the International Eventing Forum. Photo by William Micklem.

Annabel Scrimgeour and King Joules at the International Eventing Forum. Photo by William Micklem.

Team leadership and team building

The other thing that marks Andrew out as special is the team that he has built around him. No one can do this sport without help, and Andrew is quick to credit both the huge part his wife Wiggy plays in his competition life and the three other people who have all been very much a part of the success story in recent years: Annabel Scrimgeour, Julian Trevor-Roper and Luis Alvarez de Cervera.

Dressage trainer and international judge Annabel Scrimgeour has worked with him since Avebury reached two-star level and usually rides four horses every day and quietly nudges Andrew into the right direction with his dressage training. As Andrew says, ”I feel she has made a big difference and that the horses are going better all the time.” What makes all the difference is that Annabel was a competitive event rider herself and is able to fit the training of the three disciplines together.

Julian Trevor-Roper is also a highly skilled event rider who has competed for over 20 years and still rides at two-star level. He is related to a World War II flying hero and has the same brand of quiet unflappability and determination under pressure. He is both a beautiful rider on the flat and a superb jump rider and is the only other person who jumps the young horses apart from Andrew. “Julian’s experience and knowledge have been an enormous help,” says Andrew, “and it is a real pleasure to watch him jump the horses.”

Spain’s Luis Alvarez de Cervera is one of those very rare riders to have had success at the highest level in more than one discipline — in his case, show jumping and eventing. A six-time Olympian, he has helped Andrew for over 20 years, and, as well as being New Zealand’s show jumping coach at competitions, he comes to Andrew’s yard about six times a year. He also bred Jet Set, Andrew’s rising star.

“He has taught me to jump my young horses more often at home. We do a lot of exercises which are small in terms of height but using difficult stride patterns. He is a true horseman and a very good friend,” Andrew says.

The main topic of conversation

The International Eventing Forum attracted an even larger gathering than usual of the great and good in international eventing. We had Olympic judges, selectors, course builders and national team trainers; international coaches from Ireland, Kuwait, Japan, USA, Germany, Holland and of course the UK; and enough top riders to make three Olympic teams! They were there not just for the lunch but to witness one of the world’s great riders give a very rare public explanation of his training methods.

However, sadly, much of the break time conversation was about Andrew’s treatment by the ESNZ (Equestrian Sports New Zealand) and how they are singing from a different song sheet from those in the sport. The general feeling was that ESNZ have lost their intended focus and the confidence of the riders and they now have little credibility.

What has happened is not good for our sport as a whole, primarily because we need to reward those who treat their horses humanely, and secondly because we need to do everything we can to support and develop our few genuine superstar riders. It is these riders who bring our sport to a wider audience, to the benefit of us all.

ESNZ actions in this case also shows a huge lack of respect for one of the most successful sportsmen in the history of New Zealand sport. As one junior international rider said to me, “they should double his money, not take it away, and get him to do one of these demonstrations every week!”

Part 2 coming soon with details of his exercises and the horses he used, plus training strategies for difficult horses.