Scott Brash grew up watching Nick Skelton and went on to win team gold alongside his hero at London 2012. In this article, first published in Horse & Hound‘s 135th anniversary issue, Scott grabs a moment with the reigning Olympic champion to chat through some of life’s biggest questions...
Scott: Your book Only Falls and Horses was a big inspiration to me growing up and made me realise that showjumping was what I wanted to do. Who inspired you growing up?
Nick: I think it’s so important in whatever you’re doing to have an idol. My dad used to take me to Horse of the Year Show and, aged six or seven, I remember watching David Broome warming up and I liked the way he rode. He didn’t win classes by three or four seconds, he won them by a tenth of a second and made it look easy. He was the rider I modelled myself on. Along with others — you have to take a bit from everybody — but you want to look at the person who you think is right for you and try to follow what they do.
Scott: I learnt the importance of teamwork from you at the 2012 Olympics — you were our driving force in London — has that always been one of your strengths as a rider?
Nick: I’m an impatient person and I like to get it over and done with, so I always liked to go first for the team. I’m pretty organised, so if something starts at 9am, I’ll be ready at 8am.
In London, I actually said to [performance manager] Rob Hoekstra that we should send our best two horses first, because Big Star was almost guaranteed to jump clear, as was Sanctos. Psychologically, that puts a lot of pressure on the other teams and I think that played a good part in us winning the gold.
We had a good team and I thought we would get a medal in London, but I didn’t think we’d get gold. So it just shows when you pull together, you can do it — especially on home turf.
Scott: It was a great day, wasn’t it? There was brilliant team spirit, despite the fact we actually only came together as a foursome for the first time at the Olympics. You had the best horse, you wanted to win an Olympic gold medal and you wanted a good team around you to help you. That driving force brought everyone together and we all wanted to help you as much as ourselves. Throughout that whole Olympic year in fact, that team spirit stemmed from you.
Nick: I guess I played a big part in your rise to fame at that time — I knew London would be one of my last big competitions so I’d been thinking how we could get a good team together. I had seen a horse with definite Olympic potential in Germany and thought we could use it for the British team. You didn’t have Phil Harris on board as an owner at that point, so I called David Broome and said, “I think you should try to get Phil to buy it for Scott Brash”, and David said “Who is Scott Brash?”. I explained, “He’s a good lad from Scotland and he can’t half ride”. That horse didn’t work out in the end, but the rest is history — Phil bought Sanctos for you instead.
Scott: I was always influenced by you because you were my idol and had looked after me from the early days with Intertoy Z and Bon Ami, and that was a big leap in my career.
Nick: You have the right temperament for the job, so you were always destined to succeed — you don’t get riled, or hot tempered, you take it all in your stride and you don’t panic. You need that in any sport and it seems to come naturally to you.
Scott: What I most admire in you is that, even with the evolution of the sport, you stayed current and at the top, on many different horses. Back in the day, riders had a lot more time and they used to add strides everywhere, but as the sport progressed, you adapted your riding and still won.
Nick: Everyone has had to up their game. When I won the Aachen grand prix in 1987 and 1988, the time allowed was 102sec. It’s still the same number of fences, but the time allowed now is 82sec. The fences come at you so quick.
One of the biggest courses I ever jumped was in 1980 at Horse of the Year Show’s (HOYS) leading showjumper — it was truly enormous, but you had time to jump it.
Scott: I find one of the most difficult challenges is the disappointment of a horse getting injured. I admired your management of Big Star towards the end of his career — it showed you as the complete horseman. What was your biggest disappointment, Nick?
Nick: It was probably in London — that fence that Big Star had down on the final day for the individual medals. It’s interesting I consider walking away from an Olympics with a team gold disappointing, but when you have a horse like Big Star you expect to do it. But you probably feel the same, because Sanctos was at the top of his game then, too. You have a lot more years to keep trying, though!
Big Star was delicate because he put so much effort in when he jumped and you can’t tell a horse not to jump five foot when they only have to clear four foot. He was an overachiever, so was prone to injury and we had to nurse him back so carefully for Rio.
You never stop learning — I was a better rider in Rio than in Athens and I should have won gold there, too. You can make excuses, such as Arko not being experienced enough, but I didn’t ride him properly, so I got the result I deserved — I didn’t win. So London was my biggest disappointment, but Rio four years later was my greatest achievement.
Scott: Talking of our top horses, were there any that you had to persevere with and is there one that got away?
Nick: I would put Top Gun next to Big Star — he had that sort of talent — but he was sold from under me and he went on to win Olympic gold with Jan Tops. If Ever was a little roan French horse with no mouth, really difficult to ride, yet I won the grand prix in Aachen on him. But he was a big perseverance.
And actually in 2012, when Tina Fletcher was riding Ursula [before Scott], she asked if I’d ride the mare while she was in quarantine in Florida — I gave her a few jumps and said to Laura [Kraut]: “If I could have a horse, I’d have that one, she gives you a proper good feeling.” So I didn’t quite nick her out from under you, but I did spot a really good horse.
Scott: When did you think “I’ve made it”?
Nick: Winning the high jump at Olympia in 1978 really kicked things off. It was a new thing and I was pictured on the front pages of all the newspapers — although not actually clearing it, smashing it to pieces the time before! Then, working for the Edgars helped propel me further; Ted was a really good teacher.
Scott: What did you gain most from your time with Ted Edgar?
Nick: I learnt to work hard, how to manage horses, how to work them, choosing which shows to go to, knowing that you can’t win every time you go in the ring — I was always taught that Sunday, grand prix day, was most important, the day you wanted to win on, and you work backwards from there.
Scott: I follow a similar philosophy — you always want to win the big one and more times than not, it doesn’t work out, but there’s no better feeling than when it does, having produced your horse especially for it.
One of my first big shows was HOYS where you were riding the then up-and-coming superstar Arko. I watched you jump in many of the smaller international classes but you just schooled the horse round and I remember thinking that horse was easily talented enough to win them all, but you had the bigger picture in your head. Seeing something like that certainly becomes ingrained in you.
Scott: There is so much I still want to achieve — and I don’t think about life beyond showjumping because I’m no good at anything else; if I can’t ride, I’m stuffed! But what I dream of for me, and my horses, is retiring at the top. You had the best career of all time and stopped at the right time, in my opinion. Bowing out at the top is hugely admirable. You’re only as good as your last round.
But now, seeing what your boys, Dan and Harry, are achieving in racing must also make you really proud?
Nick: It’s one thing when you do well, but seeing your kids do it is a much better feeling. My proudest moment was when they won a Grade One at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival.
Scott: Is there anything you’d regret not having done by the end of your days?
Nick: To win the Olympics is the pinnacle of any sportsman’s career. I probably would have liked to win a world championship. But nothing could top Rio. If you had one wish, Scott, what would it be?
Scott: To win an individual gold medal at the Olympics. I’d love to win more team golds, too, but seeing you win was hugely inspiring.
Nick: My wish would be that I could talk “horse”. I would have done a lot better if I’d known what they were thinking, where they were hurting or why they weren’t on form. I think horse whisperer Jean-François Pignon is unbelievable. I’ve watched him many times and would love to spend a week with him.
Actually, I know one other thing you haven’t done yet — when you won in London, Clare Balding asked what the gold medal would do for you, and you replied you hoped it would help you pull more women. Well it’s been seven years and you still haven’t got a girlfriend, so you need another medal! And my money’s definitely on you winning gold.
As told to Steven Wilde and Jennifer Donald
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