When Andrew Nicholson opens his front door he is smiling – is it a good news smile? “I’ve been riding this morning.” That is very good news indeed.
New Zealand eventer Andrew Nicholson, who suffered a very serious neck injury in a fall during the Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe Park in August, is back in the saddle. For the past week he has been riding daily dressage exercises at his stables just west of Marlborough.
He had a scan at the beginning of last week, and on Wednesday (December 9) his surgeon at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, Jeremy Reynolds, was “very positive” and gave him the all clear to ride again. Nicholson told Marlborough News Online that all the bits of his neck are still in the right place: “What the surgeon did was unbelievable. Mr Reynolds is a very clever man.”
For now he is sticking to dressage and keeping it “calm and quiet for a bit longer”. But he says it feels “very comfortable” to be back riding and schooling on the dressage arena.
Nicholson knows that he has been very lucky. In 98 per cent of cases that severe an injury to his neck would have caused paralysis: “What I did was a very serious thing to do to your neck. Now the flexibility in my neck is improving all the time.”
He fell from nine-year-old Cillnabradden Evo at the final fence of the cross country course during the CIC 3* competition at Gatcombe Park on August 9. He had already ridden four horses round that cross country course – and after Cillnabradden Evo he would have taken Perfect Stranger and Nereo over the course.
Now he is taking it week by week and there are ‘ifs’ and ‘mights’ to overcome: “I never doubted I’d be back riding. I’d like to get back to competing – I don’t have to rush it. If I feel I’m not as good as I used to be I won’t do it. I might jump and think I’m getting nervous – who knows.”
Nicholson has eighteen horses at his stables. They range from the veteran competition winners like fifteen year-olds Avebury (with whom he has won the Barbury feature class four years running and a Burghley hat-trick) and Nereo (voted the world’s best eventing horse in 2013) and the twelve-year-old mare Quanza onto the three and four-year-olds just starting their journey to the higher level competitions.
While he has been recovering he has had two young riders – one English and one French – exercising his horses in return for tuition: “They’ve done a very good job. The horses I have here will be fit to start competing next year – whether it’s with me or other riders.”
The owners of his squad of horses and his family have been very supportive – especially his wife, Wiggy: “It’s very tough on Wiggy – I’m sure she’d prefer me not to sit on a horse again.”
“Riding horses is dangerous – you mustn’t shy away from that fact. When it’s all going smoothly it’s fine – but when it goes wrong…half a ton is quite a lot of horse to have landing on you.”
He’s studied how people fall off animals. While he was recuperating he watched a lot of horse racing: “Jump jockeys expect to take a fall in one out of ten rides.”
He also watches Pro Bull Riding from the USA on Sky’s Extreme Sport Channel: “That’s got to be among the most dangerous things there is. The bulls are massive – and after the eight seconds riders have to stay on – well, the bulls don’t stop for them – they just have to fall off.”
His family can be assured that he will not be tempted by horse racing or bull riding.
2016 looms and as the rider who has competed in six Olympics Games for New Zealand and helped them win three Olympic medals, the question will return of Nicholson’s position in New Zealand’s eventing team.
It’s a relationship that’s been none too happy: “I wouldn’t want to go to the Olympics if I wasn’t as good as before. If I’m back competing and they want me, I’d have to think about it.”