Jun 15, 2021

Horse Heroes: Nereo

Andrew Nicholson en route to victory at Les Etoiles de Pau CCI 4* with Nereo, heads into the third leg of the HSBC FEI Classics™ 2012/2013 - the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event - series leader at the top of the HSBC Rankings. Photo: Kit Houghton/FEI

“He looks as grey as I am,” jokes Andrew Nicholson. Nereo’s long, chestnut face may show signs of age, with greying circles around his wise eyes, but he still slopes out to the field every day with that unmistakably rangey, athlete’s stride. It is four years almost exactly since he won Badminton, giving Nicholson virtually the only major prize in eventing that had hitherto eluded him. He was retired from the sport a year later, in 2018, at Badminton after yet another superlative cross-country round.

For the first two years of the now-21-year-old’s retirement, he was ridden at home by Nicholson and his wife Wiggy’s young daughter, Lily, and taught her some valuable skills.

“Nereo’s not an easy horse to jump, because he’s got such a long stride, and she had to sit and learn how to cope with that much bigger stride,” says Nicholson. “And she learned how it feels when a horse is properly on the bit, and how to do things like flying changes and lateral work in the right way.

“He’d look after her and listen to what she was asking him. And he doesn’t really like just anyone riding him; I had working pupils who I would sometimes put on him, in the same period of time that Lily was riding him, and he didn’t cooperate; he’d go round the arena not on the bit and looking pretty uninterested. Lily could hop on him, though, and he’d look like he was ready to go to a competition - although the only thing he was preparing for was to be fed a load of Polos when she got off him, which I never did!”

Andrew Nicholson (NZL) and Nereo at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, fourth leg of the FEI Classics™ 2014/2015. (Jon Stroud/FEI)

Of course Lily and Nereo have known each other for her entire life. He arrived at the Nicholsons’ Wiltshire yard as a four-year-old from Spain, where he was bred by Andrew’s great friend Ramon Beca - a year before Lily was born.

“You only have to see his face when he and Lily are together to know how well they know each other,” says Nicholson. “Nereo’s not a lovey-dovey, touchy-feely horse - not like Avebury [his triple Burghley CCI5* winner] who would be in everyone’s lap. He’s the same in the field - I can’t get up to him to touch him, even now. He’ll let me approach, then just wander off. But he goes up to Lily and lets her stroke him. It’s very nice to see them together.”

Nereo, who is owned by Nicholson’s great supporter Libby Sellar, was, without doubt, one of the best CCI5* horses the sport has ever seen. He competed at Badminton seven times, finishing third and fifth as well as that epic victory in 2017, and Burghley five times, finishing second there on three occasions. He won Pau on his only visit to the French CCI5*, in 2012, months after taking team bronze (and individual fourth place) for New Zealand at the London Olympics. His other wins included the CCI4*-L at Bramham in 2009, the extraordinarily competitive CCI4*-S at Aachen in Germany in 2010, and the CCI4*-S at Barbury Castle in 2016.

And in 2010, aged just 10, the Spanish-bred son of the thoroughbred Fines won the individual and team bronze medals at the Kentucky World Equestrian Games. It was Nereo’s only trip to the US - he tests positive for piroplasmosis, probably as a result of a tick bite as a youngster growing up in Spain, and a special exemption was made for such horses for that championship competition.

“He wasn’t stabled with the other New Zealand horses - we were in a separate quarantine barn with some Bulgarian endurance horses and a few showjumpers,” remembers Nicholson. “He was always a good traveler, and he was very happy and relaxed there. It was his first major competition and he took it all in his stride.”

The pair were last to go for the New Zealand team, right at the end of cross-country day.

“There were several holds on course - I got him ready to go twice or three times, and there’d be another hold. But he didn’t mind that, and he bombed around effortlessly inside the time.”

Nicholson and Nereo show jumped clear the following day to take the legendary rider’s first individual medal. Michael Jung won individual gold on La-Biosthetique-Sam FBW, and Nereo and Sam were to encounter each other many times in the years to come.

Andrew Nicholson (NZL) and Nereo retain their lead after a perfectly judged Cross Country round at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, fourth leg of the FEI Classics™ 2014/2015. (Jon Stroud/FEI)



“Nereo beat him in the end, at Badminton in 2017,” laughs Nicholson. “We were third after cross-country, Michael and Sam were second and Ingrid was in the lead [on SAP Hale Bob OLD]. I jumped clear, then Michael had the water tray fence down - as did Ingrid, and she had a couple more.”

It was a remarkable triumph, charged with emotion. Nicholson had defied medical science to come back from a very bad neck injury incurred at Gatcombe in 2015 that could have left him paralyzed, and Nereo was 17, with more miles on the clock than almost any horse in eventing history. Nicholson, then aged 55, had first competed at Badminton in 1984 and had racked up more completions there than any other rider - but it had seemed that the win might remain outside his grasp. No wonder that this kind old warrior, who had combined raw power with speed, agility, and great trainability, is still king of all he surveys and a very special part of the Nicholson family. Very few horses have come close to showing such durability and longevity at the top level, with all the physical and mental demands that requires, not only in competition but in the training to prepare for competition.

“He’s as happy as can be, and takes no notice of the young horses if they gallop about in the field,” says Nicholson. “But it’s quite odd that last weekend he did gallop round and round his paddock. When Lily came home from school she pointed out that it was four years to the day that he won Badminton…”



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