The partnership between Nick Skelton and his Olympic gold medal-winning stallion Big Star is legendary. But did you know Big Star was discovered by chance jumping at a small show in Holland? We chat to Nick to find out how it all began, and what the future might hold for the 13-year-old stallion. Don’t miss the full interview with Nick Skelton in this week’s issue of Horse & Hound magazine (20 October 2016)
Tell us how your partnership with Big Star began?
“I wouldn’t have found him if it hadn’t been for Laura [Kraut]. She was heading to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the US team went for training at a little country show in Holland. She arrived at 8am and saw this five-year-old jumping in the ring with an American rider called Alan Waldman. She thought ‘Christ, this is the most amazing horse I’ve ever seen’ and went running up to Alan to ask if his horse was for sale. He said yes, but that he wanted him to go to someone really good because he thought Big Star was the best horse he’d ever had. Laura rang me and said you’d better get over here quick to see this horse, and that was it.”
You’ve ridden some phenomenal horses over the years, what makes Big Star so good?
“I always thought he was something special. I’ve been to Olympics on horses, who, if they were cars, would have been in the red — you’re squeezing everything out of them — whereas Big Star is always in the green. He can withstand the pressure of competitions, too — and at big championships you’ve got to apply the pressure from day one, every fence is a winning post. You pass Big Star first when you walk on the yard — he’s in the stable where Arko used to be — but he’s usually got his head down eating.”
Big Star’s owners Gary and Beverley Widdowson have been huge supporters of showjumping — how did you team up with them?
“The first time I competed outside of England was at Dublin spring show in 1973 and Gary was on the junior team with me. We just hit it off, became friends and kept meeting each other at shows. He stopped riding and went in to his business but eventually he came to me wanting to buy a horse and we bought Major Wager, who went on to win so many grands prix. When Major Wager retired, Gary and I went our separate ways, but then came back together and bought a few more horses, then Carlo and Big Star. The whole Widdowson family have been amazing — they never put any pressure on me, or say I have to jump here or there, they leave it totally up to me, and for that I’m really grateful.”
Like this? You might also enjoy reading these:
All this has culminated in you being crowned Olympic champion — has it sunk in?
“It has been an accumulation of everything — me being out of the sport for a long time and having a lot of injuries. Then Big Star has had injuries and it’s been a real fight to get him back to that level. There have been an awful lot of people who have helped along the way. My groom Mark Beever has been with me for 31 years and he only looks after Big Star — he doesn’t do any other horses — but he’s here from 7am to 6pm just messing about with that horse, massaging him, icing him, grooming him, walking on the roads… he does so much. But in Rio, when I came out after the jump-off, I said to Laura I don’t think I’ve done enough to win. But the good thing about Big Star is his action — he’s always doing a lot so he looks like he’s travelling quicker than he actually is, and I didn’t go full bore on him. So I think the other riders just assumed I’d gone quicker than I had. I didn’t watch any of them — I just watched the scoreboard. I got a bit nervous when Eric Lamaze went in but then I heard the crowd go, and that was it, I’d won.”
You’ve mentioned plans to contest the Rolex Grand Slam and compete at Olympia this year and there are hopefully many years left in both of you, but have you thought about Big Star’s retirement?
“Big Star is used for breeding now and he’ll continue doing that. I would like to keep him here at home, because I think he should continue to be ridden — I don’t think you should just retire a horse and put him in the field. If he goes to stud he needs to be kept fit and in good condition anyway. So I hope that’s what would happen.”
You can read the full interview with Nick Skelton in this week’s Horse & Hound ( 20 October 2016)